Today is my son’s 28th birthday. I spoke to him this morning. He is in Berlin and is making good use of his quarantine time. He is working on finishing touches for an LP and is writing material for a new EP. A few days ago I came across this piece, written when he was 14, when he was at a crossroads with his music. I guess I didn’t need to worry. Names are changed but if you know me, you know him.
Adam’s piano recital is tomorrow and I’m looking forward to it. Not for the normal reasons, like when he was seven or eight and I savored the anticipation of how well he would do and how shiny with satisfaction he would be when he was done. Now I want tomorrow night to come so that I will never have to listen to that Rachmaninoff prelude again.
It’s a big, showy piece of music, requiring the musician to bounce powerfully but playfully all over the keyboard and then switch on a dime to the middle section that sounds like swells in the ocean. It being assigned to him is a sign of his being almost full-grown and thus able to meet the physical demand of putting upper body weight into the piece and, I think, an attempt by his teacher to smoke out just what he wants to do with his music. In these mid-teen years, as so many of the boys peel off from classical lessons to pursue guitar and other interests (or as one friend has put it – “wheels and heels”), the piano teachers of the world must love blowing the dust off the big showstopper numbers for the boys with big hands and long arms.
For the first month or two the piece grew on me. Then I didn’t really hear him playing it much. Theoretically he was practicing in the late afternoon when I was still at work. Then he started playing it again with a mix of fury and enthusiasm, day and night, once the date of the recital was announced.
As the parent who primarily supports musical endeavors at our house, I’ve been soaked in Adam’s anxiety over this piece. On the half hour Friday afternoon drive to his lessons he brings along his laptop and plays each of the recordings of the piece he has found, over and over. There is Lang Lang, a hip but serious looking young Chinese man who takes the presto parts a little too brightly for my taste and misses the opportunity to tease out the hints of humor hidden in the staccato passages. We have Rachmaninoff himself, whom we hear attack the piece too quickly, through some magic of resuscitating old recordings, and my favorite, Vladimir Ashkenazy, who looks so friendly and approachable in the album art. There are a few others and I can tell them apart within a few measures of a recording starting. For some reason Adam listens to the Lang Lang recording the most.
As we drive, everyone else on PCH is admiring the silvery glint of the late winter ocean and the few surfers tiptoeing across parking lots to the sand. I’m trying to adjust the visor so that Adam can better see the clips of Vladimir Horowitz he found on YouTube to see how Horowitz used his slight frame to reap the fullest sound from the piano. I guess there is nothing like having your teacher compare you to one of the most renowned pianists of the last hundred years to get you to scurry to the keyboard and not focus on Horowitz’s prune-like face.
The ironic thing is that Adam typically is a very reluctant practicer. Yes, he does miraculously discover a burning desire to practice a few times a week just as we all get up from dinner to wash the dishes, but I don’t think that counts. I’m trying to figure out why this piece has gotten under his skin and stayed there even after several months. Part of it is that it’s difficult. It’s also robust and intriguing. I don’t know that I’ve heard him play it perfectly even once so far. I’m sure he doesn’t like that. It’s a new and unwelcome circumstance to him. And I don’t think it’s anxiety alone that has him glued to that piano bench. Maybe deep inside him he knows that this is the sort of piece that separates boys from men and he is eager to find out what side of the line he is on.
At the beginning of the school year Adam was ready to give up the piano. When we were trying to figure out our family schedule in September and try to fit everything in he slyly smiled and volunteered that he had an idea of an activity he’d be happy to ditch. I knew exactly what he meant.
“No,” I barked.
“Why not? I don’t really like piano. It’s not fun anymore.” He slumped down in his chair at the table. This was when he was past his honeymoon stage with the Rachmaninoff and he seemed unable to wheedle Susan, his teacher, into letting him switch to something else. She’d fallen for that with him too many times and I think she had drawn her line in the sand.
I put down my coffee cup and squared my shoulders to face Adam head on. “Do you really like math? Is it fun?”
“Not really.” He answered cautiously, not sure where this was going.
“Do you want to try to give that up too? Should I call school and just tell them you don’t like it that much anymore?”
“No, that’s ridiculous. They’d never let that happen.”
“Exactly.” I nodded with satisfaction. “Well, I’m in charge of extracurricular activities and music is the most important of those. If you feel too busy to give your full attention to everything you’re doing we’ll cut out voice.”
Once I came up with that, I knew I’d won. Adam had started taking voice lessons the previous spring when he had a big role in his school play. What had started as an excuse to learn yet more Broadway show tunes had turned into a serious pursuit with Adam chasing and stretching notes with his brand new bass voice and our house now rang with Italian art songs in addition to the piano music. When new neighbors moved in next door I felt compelled to explain all of this to them so they would feel free to complain if he was keeping their children awake in the late evening.
This winter Adam and a friend from school decided they wanted to apply to vocal programs for the summer. I said that would be fine but that he needed to do all the work. I was not going to spend my few precious hours on the weekends researching summer camps for teens. When I said that I knew there was a significant chance that nothing would happen. But Adam is also very single-minded so I was not completely surprised when he told me there were three programs he wanted to apply to and asked me to go to the music store to find music for his audition CDs, which would be due in a few weeks.
But now, tonight, he must focus on piano. It’s Friday night and we sit down to eat dinner, which is one of Adam’s favorites – ravioli in meat sauce that I bought on our way home from Huntington Beach. We are about five minutes into the meal when he gives a big sigh and puts down his fork.
“What’s up?” my husband asks.
“Nothing.” Adam’s tone is downcast and engineered to invite the follow up question.
“No really, what?” Matt complies.
“I just want it to be 24 hours from now.” Adam’s eyebrows raise and meet together above his glasses in a pleading look.
Matt, who has obviously forgotten all about piano recitals, looks confused so I jump in.
“Look, at this point you just have to go and do your best and try to enjoy yourself. You can’t do anything else to prepare at this point so you just have to perform.”
Adam wags his head from side to side as if he is considering what I’m saying. I realize he relishes the attention he gets from being someone with an upcoming performance. He doesn’t really want it to be tomorrow night. He’s savoring the expectation of the performance even as he protests. If he was really dreading it, like his history exams, he wouldn’t talk about it.
“You’re good at that sort of thing,” I continue. “I don’t see why this is different from any other recital.”
“You don’t understand,” he bursts out. “Those girls are awful.”
Ah, the girls who go to the Orange County High School for the Arts, a dedicated arts high school. I’ve only seen them at recitals and they seem okay to me. A little high strung and hunched over in their silky party dresses as they sit down to play and adjust the bench, but certainly not Medusa-like. He’s been talking about them a lot in the last few weeks and I know a little bit about them from his descriptions. There’s Amy, the girl who has pretty much stopped going to school in order to practice for some big competition, and Laura, the girl who Adam thinks is about on a par with him talent wise but who spends about two hours a day playing in addition to the time she spends in lessons at school. Laura has the lesson slot after Adam on Friday afternoons and their teacher has had them play for each other as Laura arrives and Adam prepares to leave. Adam, usually so confident in how he chooses to live his life and in his ability to get the benefit of any doubt by force of personality and humor, has met his match with these girls. He says they are mean and he does not appreciate their unvarnished helpful comments to him that he would be so much better if he just practiced more. I’ve tried to get him to tell me why he thinks they are mean. It doesn’t quite seem the right word to me. I think they are probably dismissive and he’s not used to anyone being like that to him or his music.
“So what,” I say, switching into my best Ethel Merman imitation. “Those girls don’t do half the things you do with your time. Sure, they spend a lot more time practicing but you know your piece so there’s no reason to think you won’t be great.”
“You don’t know them. They’re really mean. And tomorrow night the only thing that matters is how much you practice.” I hope he’s wrong about that and that musicianship and artistry that is not simply a function of hours at the keyboard will emerge, but he slinks out of his chair and into the living room where, of course, we hear the opening bars of the Rachmaninoff.
“I hate that piece,” Matt says in a low voice. We sit and listen and take the final sips of our wine. We’re going to wait him out and not even start to clean up the kitchen until he’s ready to help.
“But admit it,” Matt continues. “Part of you is relishing watching him suffer a little because he doesn’t practice as much as he should.”
He’s right. For all of my pep talk, I think it’s very useful for Adam to experience this. A little regret for every time he chose to watch MTV instead of playing the piano. And something I can’t fix for him. All I can do is watch him go through it.
At the same time I know I’m not watching this just from my role as a parent. I’m an audience member. Adam doesn’t seem to get it, but I have absolutely no basis to coach him through the nervousness of a big performance. I’m a plodder, a plonker, a Sunday afternoon Bach invention tinkerer. While we started playing the piano at the same time, nine years ago, Adam left me in the dirt quite a long time ago. And either he hasn’t noticed, although that seems impossible, or he is giving me the benefit of a huge doubt and continues to allow me to be his artistic buddy when all I am really capable of is turning the pages of the music for him.
I slide quietly into the living room to watch him play. I stand a few feet behind his right shoulder and watch his hands. He’s opened the lid of the piano and the sound fills the entire house. I almost can’t watch as I see how natural he is as he bends into what he’s doing. It’s painful to think how little this means to him. I want to know what it feels like to be him, to be able to coax such emotion and power from ink dots on a page. Is it my fault that he’s so indifferent? Part of me is hoping that his recent enthusiasm for this piece means that it was just a passing phase and that we’re going to experience one more complex piece after another.
He gets to the end of the piece. As he’s winding up to start it once more, I go the living room and tap him on the shoulder.
“Let’s leave it for tonight. Come help with the dishes.”
He nods, closes the piano and follows me into the kitchen. Tonight I get to do the dishes with one of my favorite artists.