By D.H. Lawrence
Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;
Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.
In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong
To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside
And hymns in the cosy parlour, the tinkling piano our guide.
So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamour
With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour
Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.
I’m sure this wonderful poem by Mr. Lawrence resonates deeply for any of us who grew up with a piano in the home. We had a huge old upright Mason and Rich in our dining room. My mom (born the same year that Lawrence wrote his poem) was a church organist and she loved to play. My brother Tom always played as well. Growing up, my life was filled with music.
I took lessons when I was young with the ubiquitous lady down the street, Mrs. Hanson. (With her twelve in ruler at the ready in case you got lazy with the position of your hands – and she wasn’t afraid to use it!) But I quit, who knows why, probably because it conflicted with baseball. How I got back to it is a cool little story and so here it is . . .
One night, it must have been in the early months of 1971, I was at a coffee shop in downtown Regina – the old Copper Kettle, for those who might know it. I’m sure I had a notebook with me, so you can see that my habit of writing in coffee shops goes back over four decades now.
A fellow I knew from school came in and joined me. I didn’t know him very well. He was a little older, and quite cosmopolitan, in my eyes. After all, he came from Edmonton which seemed exotic to me at the time.
As we left the Copper Kettle and walked towards Victoria Avenue, the Hotel Saskatchewan loomed into view. Graham grabbed my arm and before I knew it he was dragging me into the lobby of that beautiful old hotel.
“We can’t come in here!” I hissed. I probably did hiss it – after all, a couple of straggly rugrats can’t just waltz into the Hotel Saskatchewan.
“Relax,” he said. “I do it all the time.”
So we walked through the lobby, Graham in the lead as if he owned the place, with me following behind as if I was about to be arrested. We went into a sort of grand parlour, just before the dining room. It was a beautiful room with couches and overstuffed chairs and art on the walls and a huge chandelier suspended from the ornate ceiling throwing a golden light on everything. And in one corner, a grand piano.
Graham got a chair and opened the cover and began to play. I was astounded. I thought it was not only the most beautiful music I had ever heard, but really, it was so amazing that he could play like that. What a gift! And clearly, such a skill could get you anywhere in life – look where we were!
When he finished, he asked me if I wanted to play. I so desperately wanted to but I had to say I wasn’t able to. But I resolved then and there that I would go back to it, that I would take lessons again and learn to play. And I did. And I’ve been hacking and thrashing away ever since.
There have been times that I lived without a piano, but no more. That would no longer be possible. The piano I have in my apartment now, the one in the picture above, is a Roland F90 digital. It has a full keyboard with weighted keys and so feels and sounds like a “real” piano. The advantage is you can put in headphones and play all night without bothering anyone if you want to. The disadvantage is that if the power goes off, you can’t play the Moonlight Sonata by candlelight. Oh well, you can’t have everything.
I wonder for those of us who play a musical instrument if it isn’t some kind of life raft we crawl onto at some point in our lives when the waters are churning around us and everything seems particularly hazardous.
Some of us never crawl back off, I guess. And why would we want to, anyway?
I’m closing with this wonderful short film of the master, Vladimir Horowitz, reducing an audience in Moscow to tears. What a beautiful moment in time it captures!
Thanks for reading . . .