Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Fraternal Love Expressed Through Music

My brother Nulli Secundus asked me if I would like a digital piano as a birthday present. I decided that I was not averse to a digital piano as a birthday present. Never look a gift piano in the strings or--if presented with a digital piano--the wires.

Moreover, Nulli must be the only person in my entire acquaintance who ever thought I deserved my own piano. I am moved.

It has been many years since I attempted to play for an audience, or to accompany a sing-song, let alone cried through acidic lessons and eternal half-hour practices. The crying stopped when I graduated from elementary school and was released from bondage to my quite probably abusive piano teacher. After a year or more of freedom, I asked my mother if I could take piano lessons in the local convent. She agreed--probably with surprise--and paid out her $15/lesson (or whatever it was by then) to a kind teacher who--it must be said--had never heard my brother play or even knew I had a brother until I apologized up front for not being as good as he.

I wish to underscore that I never blamed Nulli for being a child prodigy. For one thing, I have loved my brother in an uninterrupted fashion since the day he was born. For another, I always loved the music he made. One of the great joys of my childhood was waking up on a Sunday morning to the sounds of Nulli Secundus playing away. The old woman next door, a wealthy retired radio star, liked my brother's playing so much, she got her housekeeper to open the window facing our window, the better to hear it. She also sent a great sheaf of old music and a number of old song books for him to play from. This was a matter of pride for our whole family, and it only occurs to me now to wonder what she thought of my much more ordinary attempts.

Ordinary, not horrible. You will have noticed that I have broken my rule against the Nominative First Person Pronoun, but really there is no way to tell this story without it. In short, for I thought that because my brother played so well, I must be playing horribly. (Certainly I never heard anyone play worse.) No matter what my poor mother said to encourage me, my playing became nothing more than an occasion for blistering self-hatred. A very feminine little girl, I turned my anger on myself. Grown women often do this, and when our anger slops over onto our husbands and children, we hate ourselves even more.

That is why I am surprised, thinking about it, that I gave piano lessons another try in high school, and somehow limped along to complete the work for the Royal Conservatory of Music's Grade 8. My irrational self-dismissal was no longer corrosive but pleasantly ironic. I could play to amuse myself--never doubting for a moment that what I was turning out was utter rubbish--but never to an audience. My otherwise sympathetic teacher convinced me one day to sign up for a small recital, and on the day I froze solid at the keyboard.

It's not that I was a coward--I became a teenage pro-life activist after all--it's that I thought I couldn't do it, so of course I couldn't. The last time I had forced myself to do something everyone but I thought I could do, I began to drown--literally drown, I mean, in the municipal swimming pool. (I was rescued by a nice older boy who, wide-eyed and white-faced, suggested I stay out of the deep end from then on.)

The sad irony in all this is that I very much love piano music. This is probably why I love my brother's playing, if you see what I mean. On the other hand, maybe I love piano music because I love my brother's playing. Perhaps it all reminds me of waking up late on a Sunday morning in a sunbeam while Nulli plays piano and the smells of pancakes and coffee mingle in the air.  I hope Chopin--he probably made it into Purgatory on the prayers of Poles--doesn't mind that he reminds me of pancakes and sunshine and the coffee grinder whizzing.

Nulli did not become a professional pianist--which is just as well as it's a chancy profession--but he continued to play in adult life and even came up with a bump against the nastiness of geniuses who give lessons to very gifted who are never gifted enough. I think it was a shock to him, and when I heard about it, I was aggrieved on his behalf. Of course, now that I think about it, it may have given him an insight into what I suffered for however many years. This may have been valuable; I notice that his wife and children's teacher seems to be a pleasant, competent woman.

During our visit to the House of Music, my mother offered to treat me to a piano lesson with this excellent teacher after she had finished the other family lessons, but I demurred. Nevertheless, I had been pleased to discover that I could still read music and that I could play simple arrangements of classics with relative ease. I could also play a few old assignments, if awkwardly, and mirabile dictu,  a Chopin Prelude. The Prelude hurt my fingers and, to my mingled amusement and pride, I found myself holding my hands under a tap of cold running, as my brother often has to do--albeit after five or six of them. My fingers never hurt when I played as a child--no doubt because of all those scales, chords, and other secretly finger-strengthening exercises. And I realized that my mother's money and my time and tears had not been wasted. My brother can play Chopin because he's wonderfully talented and has always loved the piano. I can play Chopin (just) because from the ages of 7 to 14, I was not allowed to quit. 

One of the revelations of adult life--too bad I didn't realize this years ago--is that although there's no substitute for the spark of genius, hard work  can give innate talent a run for its money. When I began to read Bernard Lonergan's swinishly difficult--and yet intellectually honest--Insight, I had no great love for philosophical texts. When I finished my Insight course, I was no longer afraid of philosophical texts. When I began to study Polish, I had listening comprehension skills so terrible, I could barely make out the lyrics of recorded English-language pop songs.  Almost five years later, I could make out the Canadian French broadcast over my sister's car radio. When I was twelve, my self-hatred was so fierce, I sat on the piano bench weeping. Over thirty years later, I am convinced all I need to do to improve my playing is work at it until I do.

One last thought. Although I was not prepared to let even a nice, professional, kindly woman sit beside me and judge my playing (let's not go crazy here), I was happy to receive the first lesson of our lives from my brother. It was very simple--just an explanation of how one can master Chopin's chords without straining one's hands--but it was incredibly useful and beautifully explained. Thirty-five years ago, I would have cast myself into a bit of humiliation afterwards, but now I am eager to try out Nulli's advice on the piano he has given me. So thank you very much, dear Nulli! Apparently it should arrive by Friday noon (see picture).

Update: Julia notes (below) that Chopin made his deathbed confession. I have gone about the internet, and the Abbé Lizst himself is the source of this story, that is, he passed it on from Chopin's confessor Abbé Jelowicki. I wonder why I have not read this story before; perhaps, as with Adam Mickiewicz, all kinds of interested parties having been writing duelling biographies of their hero, and until now I hadn't come across "Catholic Chopin".


  1. What an amazing post! I love it!

    I think we can be confident that Chopin did make it into purgatory. He had a final confession. He even offered to pay the priest. The priest said no. Chopin insisted, saying, "Without you, I would have died like a pig." I don't know if the priest did take the money.

    Do you mind mentioning why you hated piano lessons and piano practise so much? How the piano teacher abusive?

  2. I hated it all because I thought I was an incurable musical moron, my first teacher was neglectful and my second teacher was a deeply unpleasant woman who said mean things (including the fatal "Why can't you be like your brother?"). She must have needed the money because teaching me could not have been fun; I sniffed back tears a lot, couldn't pay attention, etc.

    The primary problem, of course, was crippling self-hatred. That's all a bit more complex. Every practice involved a Half-Hour Hate of myself. As long as I was away from the piano, I didn't hate myself quite so much. Needless to say, I avoided practice. And needless to say, I was completely incapable of saying, "I say, mother dear, I completely hate myself when I am forced to sit at the piano whereas I don't hate myself quite so much when I'm not. Why do you think that is? I am old enough for Xanax? Has it been invented yet?"

    My neglectful piano teacher was a harmless eccentric who was just so much more interested in my brother, as I imagine any musician would be.(Artists are not the most tactful people, either.) My perhaps abusive piano teacher was, I think, an impatient and sharp-tongued elderly woman who made unpleasant remarks.(She never beat me or anything like that.) All that said, I notice that I can play the piano, so obviously both these women taught me something.

    I am delighted to hear that story about Chopin. I read elsewhere that he refused to have a priest at his deathbed and indeed did die in his sins like a pig, only with his friends sitting around in artistic poses of deep mourning. He was reported to have complained that Georges Sand had promised that he could die in her arms, and she was nowhere to be seen. In the Chopin Museum in Warsaw, here's a splendidly over-the-top portrait of Chopin and friends as he plays his last chord and dies. His nose in this portrait looks exactly like that of PPS. At any rate, I do hope Chopin did make his confession, and if he didn't, that the Poles snuck him through the back doors of Purgatory somehow. I wonder if this can be down retroactively. As Purgatory is outside of time, I don't see why we couldn't all pray for the souls of Chopin and anyone else we admire who died before we were born. When I remember, I pray for Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene.