FROM SCOTTSDALE, ARIZONA
SCOTTSDALE, Nov 23 - Today, the day before Thanksgiving, I bought a new piano. This is what I had to say about it in an e-mail to my family and close friends:
SCOTTSDALE, Nov 25 - Several of my family and friends have requested a photo of the instrument when I get it. And so, voila!
SCOTTSDALE, Nov 26 - Today I visited the Elysian Fields. Unwittingly. Unknowingly. Unexpectedly. Something, or somebody, an invisible hand, lifted my soul from my new piano's keyboard right up into heavenly realms where the immortal reside and where love reigns supreme. That's where I found Joy and rekindled an old love affair. It was an epiphany. And it brought tears to my eyes and Joy back into my life.
Joy, beautiful spark of Gods,
Daughter of Elysium,
We enter, fire-imbibed,
Heavenly, thy sanctuary.
Thy magic powers re-unite
What custom's sword has divided
Beggars become Princes' brothers
Where thy gentle wing abides.
Thus read the opening verses of Schiller's poem, which Beethoven immortalized in his masterpiece "Ode to Joy" (click here hear it), the fourth movement of the Ninth Symphony (which has become Europe's anthem - see NOTE).
* * *
It all started innocently enough. My new piano was delivered yesterday. I loved the way it looked in my living room. But I only touched it with my eyes. I also did some more research on its history and character. And I found out that it was actually built in 1931, not 1936, as the piano dealer had told me. That's good; smack in the middle of the Great Depression - great fodder for a possible story.
This morning, I approached my new acquisition with considerable trepidation. After all, I have not really played piano for a quarter century. And I have not practiced it for over 30 years. "Practice makes perfect," I recalled my piano teachers saying. Sure, I pecked and piddled here and there, usually at some dinner guests' request, but have not really played it. To say that I felt rusty, therefore, would have been an understatement. Back to trepidation...
I sat down and lifted the keyboard cover. For a few moments, I just stared at the keys. Their slightly yellowed sheen attested to 74 years of age, as well as to being genuine ivory (nowadays, piano keys are made of synthetic materials). I pressed the "C" key. And then another. And another. Then I started playing a Floyd Cramer tune ("Last Date" - which I've just discovered was the No. 2 hit in the country in 1960. No wonder when I played it in the 1960s, it would bring tears to the eyes of my elder (male) cousin).
The sound was powerful, especially after I opened it up fully, but the piano was out of tune. Which is normal for such fine instruments after after they are moved. Like topflight racehorses, or world class athletes or artists, pianos are very sensitive and take a lot of TLC (tender loving care) to stay in shape. I made a mental note to have it tuned next week. And again in a few months, after it has "settled" in its new home.
Then I started playing various tunes as they popped into my head. What came out was an eclectic selection... Beethoven's "Für Elise" ("For Elise"), Paul McCartney's "Let It Be," "Doe a Deer" (from the "Sound of Music"), a Steve Wonder melody whose name I don't know, a Scottish folk song whose name I don't know, either, a Christmas carol, a Mozart piece, Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata," and so on.
I was rusty, for sure, but the tunes were recognizable and music felt like a balm enveloping my soul.
Then I started playing Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," and something extraordinary happened. I felt tears welling up in my eyes. That's not unusual. I tear up easily at concerts as well as at sporting events Or when a particularly poignant scene is played in a movie. Or when writing a beautiful story. But this was different. I felt my chest heaving as if my soul was trying to lift me from the piano bench like a hot air balloon. I was stunned and had to stop. I removed my glasses and wiped off tears.
Then I just started doodling on the keyboard, creating my own tunes and harmonies. And the same thing happened. I was actually sobbing this time. And I felt a release, the way a muscle lets go when massaged skillfully.
"Wow," I thought. "What's going on?"
Then it dawned on me. Those were the tears of joy... the joy of rediscovering old love and rekindling a new flame. The Joy of Music has returned to my life! I felt indebted to Ludwig Van and to good old Herr Schiller. I was also surprised... no, make it stunned, that I could still make music after all these years.
I had to call my sister in Serbia. I had to share my newfound Joy with someone who knew what she was like as a young love. While waiting for my brother-in-law to fetch my sister, I began playing again the Floyd Cramer tune.
"Wonder what's taking her so long?" I thought. "Ljilja, are you there?" I spoke into the receiver that was resting on my left shoulder.
"Yes, and I have been listening with you to that lovely record," she replied.
"The music you're playing."
"That was no record. That was me, playing it live on my new piano while I was waiting for you to come to the phone."
"It sounded beautiful. The piano has a gorgeous sound."
Then I told her the story of how I got to buy my new piano.
"Our late mother would have been pleased that another baby grand has returned to our family," I summed it up.
"Yes, she would certainly love it."
Then I told my sister about how excited I was to have music back in my life. Never one to care much for material or inanimate objects, I gently stroked the the piano's wing while talking about it. It is at that moment that I realized "it" has become a "she." And that her name was Joy...
Joy, joy moves the wheels
In the universal time machine.
Flowers it calls forth from their buds,
Suns from the Firmament,
Spheres it moves far out in Space,
Where our telescopes cannot reach.
"Maybe Joy was the grandmother's name?," I wondered (the young lady who got the piano in 1931). It is in my books, anyway. Welcome to my Grayhawk home, Joy! Glad you could visit me from the Elysian Fields. Hope you can stay a while...
P.S. I "wrote" this short story while pedaling on my new bicycle to the Club this afternoon. After having worked out for a couple of hours, I rode the bike back into a gorgeous sunset, as they only are in Arizona. Then I sat down and actually typed my "Ode to Joy" out, to the magnificent background sound of Beethoven's Ninth, of course.
SCOTTSDALE, Nov 27 - Here's a reaction to the above piece I received late last night from Tony Nievera, a business friend from New York (and now Las Vegas, too):
To which I replied:
Tony replied that he did not (mind). Which is why you're now reading it.
A Dying Art
SCOTTSDALE, Nov 27 - As additional responses pour in, a clear pattern is emerging: "My Mom tried to make me learn to play piano, but I had other interests." Or, just as with the lady who sold me her family heirloom, "the piano looks good in our living room, but nobody can play it." Which evoked my following reply to a friend in Texas:
Looks like piano playing as a form of home entertainment peaked in the first half of the first decade of the 20th century. The 1930s (when my instrument was made) and the 1960s represented minor comebacks. The two world wars accounted for understandable dips. Overall, however, the piano playing has been evidently a dying art. And in the last two decades of the 20th century, it has been flat-lining.
In the first decade of the 21st century, video games and other forms of interactive online and home entertainment have completely taken over. The fact that they require little or no practice or sacrifice (or talent) made them appealing to the masses.
Alas, what's "lost in translation" here is a simple lesson mankind can learn from history. It was perhaps best expressed by Samuel Johnson, an 18th century British writer (1709-1784): "Those who attain any excellence, commonly spend (their entire) life in one pursuit. (For) excellence is not often gained upon easier terms."
"Hard work and practice are two preconditions of success, with luck and talent being some of the others," this writer noted in a 1999 piece, "Death of the Corporation?" And playing or making music is an ennobling process that certainly requires both.
What kind of "excellence" will the children achieve whose life is spent in pursuit of the xBox 360- or other newfangled electronic gadget-stimulated thrills? Maybe that's the question today's parents ought to be contemplating. If they can take time out from playing their own adult video and virtual life games, of course.
As for the creators of such forms of cheap entertainment, time will tell if feeding this form of enchantment to the minds and souls of young people is any less socially destructive than coke or speed (drugs). What if we may be helping foster a new generation of "game addicts?" (Have you seen on TV the scenes of unruly mobs at local stores trying to be the first to buy the xBoxes etc.?).
Maybe I'd better go back to my piano. Don't like the direction my thoughts are taking...
NOTE: The Ode to Joy was adopted as Europe's anthem by the Council of Europe in 1972, with an official arrangement for orchestra written by Herbert von Karajan. "To Joy" ("An die Freude" in German), is an ode written in 1785 by the German poet and historian Friedrich Schiller. In 2003, the European Union reconfirmed Beethoven's music as its EU anthem, but without the Schiller lyrics. [BACK TO TOP]
NOTE 2: In Greek mythology, Elysium was a section of the Underworld (the spelling Elysium is a Latinization of the Greek word Elysion). "Elysium is an obscure and mysterious name that evolved from a designation of a place or person struck by lightning, enelysion, enelysios. The Elysian fields were the final resting place of the souls of the heroic and the virtuous. [BACK TO TOP]
Is this a cute piano lamp or what? :-) Karen took me to a store this afternoon in north Phoenix where this lamp stand in the shape of a keyboard and a music note lamp just screamed to be reunited in my living room (they were displayed separately in the store). On the right is another musical stand that I got a few weeks ago with my daughter, when I first got the idea about the piano.
And that's my life, so far...