My title is a line from Daniel Deronda, from a conversation between Daniel and Gwendolen in which he urges her to look past the egotistic gratifications of performance (inaccessible to her, as she has discovered, because of her “middlingness”) to the other values of music as “private study.” As a long-time amateur pianist, I appreciate his suggestion that our private efforts are a way of paying tribute to musical excellence, a way, also, as he says, of preparing “to understand and enjoy what the few can do for us.” His sentiments give some dignity to my laborious attempts at the Rondo alla turca this evening! And I think he is right that playing privately, however badly, is a gesture towards something we believe in as good and beautiful, even aside from the intrinsic value of applying ourselves to something challenging and learning, if we are industrious, the rewards of getting a little bit better at it and maybe even, if we are lucky, approximating something good and beautiful ourselves.
I stopped taking piano lessons when I realized I had to decide between really taking music seriously and accepting myself as a dabbler, but I’ve never been sorry I learned to play–and not just because my former teacher was and is a kindred spirit and one of my favourite people in the world. Music has always been an emotional outlet for me, and over the years, as it turns out, the piano has been an essential accompaniment to all the major (and minor) changes in my life. As a moody adolescent, I channelled all kinds of angst through my family’s old Heinzman upright. After several years away from the keyboard, as a homesick, insecure graduate student at Cornell, I took regular refuge in a practice room in the basement of the music building and rediscovered not just the challenge and pleasure of playing but also some important part of myself that helped me stand up to the intellectually intimidating environment I found myself in. I also, not incidentally, could eventually give quite a creditable rendition of at least one fabulous Schubert Impromptu.
Then I became the accompanist in my family life: my husband and I share a fondness for the great songs of Cole Porter, the Gershwins, and Richard Rodgers, and later expanded our “songfest” repertoire to include old movie classics like “Laura” as well as sappy 70s hits like “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” We used to soothe our infant son after bathtime (which he hated) with rousing renditions of “Di quella pira” (which may explain both his perfect pitch and his aversion to opera), and now our daughter loves to gather with us for carols at Christmas. On those rare occasions these days when I’m home quite alone, I sometimes treat myself to a browse through some old favourites, especially my beloved Treasury of Grand Opera, and almost every summer I vow (as I have again this year) to use some of my ‘down’ time to achieve at least some approximation of mastery over a real piece or two. Our library of music books is relatively small, but I consider them every bit as essential to what Nathan Schneider has just memorably discussed at Open Letters as my “memory theater” as the novels, memoirs, histories, and other genres in the collection. A lot of them turn out to be too old to find images of online–and that, in itself, is one reason I’ll continue to cherish them.