Wednesday, October 7, 2009


When I began majoring in cello at college, I was still playing the piano a little bit. I would hear the pianists practicing Brahms and Chopin and wish I could do the same, but I didn't know how. The cello proved enough of a challenge. That first semester I was assigned to play in a piano quartet -- violin, viola, cello, and piano -- and we learned the Mozart G minor quartet. The pianist was a mild young lady; the violinist and violist, on the other hand, were my introduction to a certain type of one-upping personality that abounds in the music world. These are people who know a lot -- or think they know a lot. These two had already been around quite a bit, musically speaking: The violinist's father was a well-known music teacher, and the violist had been to the North Carolina School of the Arts for high school.

They spoke a language I didn't understand. I was way out of my depth. I could play perfectly acceptably; the Mozart cello part was easy. Also, I was the best cellist at the school that year (unbelievable, but true; the music department was not the cauldron of competition it is today). These two string players had ended up at the school by default (the violinist's husband was in graduate school in another department, and the violist had had some difficulties in her personal life and was living with her parents, who happened to have a house down the street from the school).  They made all kinds of pronouncements that I didn't think to question because I figured they knew better.

One I particularly remember was the violist saying that a string player couldn't play the piano because it "uses different muscles." I suppose if you aspired to be a violin-playin' maniac like Heifetz, this might prove a problem, but for a late-blooming cellist, like me, not likely. That wasn't entirely the reason I stopped playing the piano; part of it was that I was very busy with school. I also became absorbed with the challenge of learning how to play the cello. It's hard to describe my odd combination of enthusiasm and diffidence: I was interested in learning things, but I was not ambitious, and I had no idea how to present myself favorably. It just didn't even occur to me.

In any case, that was how I quit the piano.

I took it up again briefly some years later when I was working on my doctorate. I had to prove some piano proficiency; most of the nonpianists took class piano to do this, but I decided to take an exam instead. With the help of one of my pianist friends, I worked up a couple of pages of the Brahms Rhapsody I'd played to death when I was a teenager, and that was enough to fulfill the requirement. I also took piano lessons one semester, from an very nice elderly lady who wasn't considered much of a teacher, though I did learn a few things from her.

When I moved to Baltimore after I finished my coursework in Cincinnati, I adopted the old family baby grand. This was a 5-foot-long instrument with the name "Kimmel" on the fallboard, and it was a musical wreck, though it looked nice in the living room of my apartment. I bought a tuning hammer so I could adjust the tuning enough to be tolerable, which I had to do every time I played on it. It was like owning a harpsichord.

When I moved to a house the following year, I sold the baby grand to my landlord. In a rush of enthusiasm over buying my first place, I went to one of those university piano sales and bought a new Baldwin upright that I really couldn't afford. I had the piano delivered to the new house, and I was determined to make a fresh start.

To be continued . . .

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