Piano Lessons: How my journey to learn Clair de Lune transcended time
Like many kids, classical piano lessons were part of my childhood. I studied for 12 years. I wasn’t anywhere near as good as Nick, a fellow piano student. At age 14, he’d play Mozart with a smile, then turn and wink at the audience while his fingers danced across the keys. The rest of us, dry-mouthed and rigid, clunked through a Bach Invention or Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. We all played the first movement of Moonlight. It was a right of passage into the realm of you being the conduit. You giving voice to the otherworldly gods of melodic euphoria, even if for only a few minutes.
My middling venture into classical music as a child grew into something else, however. It grew into a deep affection. My family was not particularly musical. My dad didn’t play, but he was an enthusiast. He especially enjoyed Vladimir Horowitz’s renditions of the classics. My mom decided to take her first lesson the same time I started. I was age 5, she 35. Although my grandmother could play several measures of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C# Minor, her musical history remains a mystery. She was well into her dementia when she would sit down and hammer out those enduring, haunting chords. The gods still found their way through her hands, though her mind had already moved on.
My older sister also took lessons. She of course reminded me every day that she was better than me, until she quit. I persisted for several more years, and got better. Not simply to prove I could play more difficult pieces, but to understand them, to unfold their secrets, to cup my ear to the past.
My affection arose not only from the beauty of the scores, but of aspiration, and feeling. This music made me feel. At the ripe old age of 15, I’d tear up while listening to Beethoven, Grieg, Chopin, and of course Debussy’s Clair de Lune, which when I’d heard it for the first time I sat silently in awe of its intricate grace. Clair de Lune was the piece of music I had to learn, but I feared that my skill level wasn’t enough.
I couldn’t play the difficult concertos or impromptus, though I learned some of the easier, shorter pieces. For example, I knew I’d never play Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, but I could learn his Preludes. His Prelude #1 was the most difficult piece I’d ever attempted. My big hands were my secret weapon. My fingers stretched across the impossible chords like the best of them. It was the last piece I’d perform in recital. I was 17. I played it well, stood up, bowed and that was it. The end. Or was it?
Clair de Lune remained, waiting. I’d only begun learning it before I went off to college. My teacher, Mrs. Irvine, an elderly southerner with chipped red nails and a thick drawl, helped me with the beginning, then I quit and moved. I no longer had access to a piano and I was too busy with college, friends, living with various roommates in dingy apartments. Eventually, I graduated, worked, fell in love, got married, and moved into a house where there was room for an upright, but I didn’t have the money yet, nor the priority. Piano was a mere hobby from my past life. Clair de Lune would remain cut off, unfinished, waiting.
That was until law school. Once I stepped inside that tight box of controlled logic and reasoning, my existential despair grew. I panicked that I’d never do anything creative in my life again. I’d been pursuing writing, but set it aside for law school. When I’d received a small inheritance from my aunt who’d passed away, something inside me shifted. I wanted to play again, I needed to. I thought, maybe I could teach myself the rest of Clair de Lune, if I had the chance. It might solve this mystery for me, satisfy that need. If I could simply believe that I could do it.
I discovered a blind piano tuner in the town where I lived and asked if he had any used uprights. He had a few Yamaha’s, which are known to be solid pianos that last forever and are not too expensive. I bought a used one from 1983, shoved it into the corner of the living room, and pulled out my old music books. In the thick of school, internships, and an intense legal job, I went back to the piano.
The moment my fingers touched the opening notes of Clair de Lune, it breathed life into my heart. It found the me from before. I listened to recordings of it again and again, and pursued the precious chords like an eager, clumsy beast, until I began to calm and understand and feel again. I learned the entire piece within just a few weeks, more than a decade after the start. My love for it and other pieces like it had never faded, rather it morphed and expanded. It transcended the me from before to the older me. In the following couple of years, I finished law school and my marriage soured. When I left the husband and the life and the house, the only furniture I took was my piano. It’s still with me today, in a happier marriage and home. So is Clair de Lune, as well as the other pieces of music that I still puzzle through on occasion. But that isn’t the point. The point is that this music continues to transcend time. It transcended my own few short lives from before and it’s beginning anew with my daughter. At age 5, she started lessons. Clair de Lune waits again.