Every Good Boy Does Fine

Piano lessons with Dave Ratcliffe – photo from

Required to take a music class in high school I signed up for chorus, but the teacher offered me $50 to drop the class – and other ruminations about learning to play the piano.

The older I get, the more I think I was born too early. Either that or I started actually living too late. Most of the things that I truly love -- foreign languages, philosophy, music, my wife -- I discovered long after my childhood (well, maybe discovering my wife during childhood would have led to legal issues). It is something of a platitude to assert that the only way one can truly learn music or a foreign language is to begin when one is quite young.

There is, of course, some truth to that assertion. When my wife was very young, her mother taught her the piano and trained her to discern the slightest variation in pitch. She now has perfect pitch, a degree from New England Conservatory, and plays beautifully. She has also abandoned a career as a performer in order to pursue one as a professional chef -- but that is another story.

I, on the other hand, could not carry a tune in a bucket as a child. I attribute this failing to the fact that both of my parents are what we might call 'melodically retarded'. My father sings along with songs on the radio in perfect parallel minor sevenths. I am not sure how he does it, but I insist that this practice has caused me far more mental damage than my parents' divorce. My mother, for the most part, knows better than to bother singing publicly. There was some unpleasantness once at an outdoor festival, and I am pretty sure the warrant is still pending on her arrest.

I had no interest in music while in elementary or middle school. My only recollection of elementary school music class is that my teacher had such exceptionally dry and chalky hands that when she would touch my arm (as she was in the alarmingly consistent habit of doing), it would make every fiber of my being vibrate with revulsion. (I still cannot eat Parmesan Chicken because of the texture). Combine that with a weekly performance of "Hot Cross Buns" on a borrowed (and most likely well-used) recorder, and you have a fairly clear idea of my youthful notion of a private hell. If my middle school had a music program, I must have missed it altogether, for it seems to have left no mark upon my memory.

I became interested in music at the age and in the manner one might expect. I somehow got the notion that I was really into heavy metal -- most likely because the boy down the street whom I greatly admired seemed to like it (at least judging from his collection of Iron Maiden T-shirts). In high school, I was required to take a music class. I signed up for chorus, but the teacher offered me $50 to drop the class. He said that the sum was a substantial portion of his yearly income but that it was worth it just so he could sleep at night. So I wandered into the next classroom, which happened to be class guitar. The guitar was not nearly as annoying as the recorder, and since you could play the latest tune by Dokken on it -- something that simply could not be accomplished on the recorder -- I soon discovered that I had found my calling.

I told my parents that after only one year of playing the thing I had decided to major in guitar performance in college. I am pretty sure that we are still waiting for the top of my father's head to return to the planet's surface. Somehow I managed, although I will admit that I was at a great disadvantage. Everyone else was so polished while I was still figuring out the basics.

As part of the program, we had to pass a piano proficiency exam. I thought myself lucky to be rather proficient at the guitar and found it utterly laughable that I should have to be proficient at anything else (aside from parking, which at my college truly required proficiency). I somehow, through a combination of determination and bribery, was able to get through it, but I always felt guilty that I had managed to graduate as a music major without really having any idea how to play the piano. Admittedly, I didn't lose much sleep about it, but there is always guilt lurking somewhere in the back of my mind.

Many years later, when I had decided to pursue musicology and found myself teaching in classrooms equipped with the ubiquitous piano, I began to lament my lack of keyboard skills. Of course, lamenting is one thing and doing something about it is another. It was not until several years later that I finally decided to learn how to play that central instrument of classical music, that paragon of culture, that strange piece of musical furniture that one seemingly must master if one is to truly come to know music: the piano.

And so I found myself in the same position occupied by many of my private guitar students. I was an adult who decided to learn an instrument long after I had passed the age when such training probably ought to have begun. I practice each day and I realize that the facility that my wife displays at the piano will never be mine. Her natural feel for the keys will always elude me.

But all the same, there is a certain advantage to beginning such a project relatively late in life. You become explicitly aware of the process of acculturation that you are undergoing. That is, after all, exactly what is happening. To learn any instrument, but especially the piano, is to enter a society from which you were previously barred. To play the piano is to abandon the quotidian world and to enter upon a new realm. Indeed, the piano is, in many ways, all encompassing. The music is right before you, your head remains lowered (glancing between your hands as they clumsily grope the keyboard and the score as you desperately try to find the next harmony before your fingers falter), and your mind divests itself of the ratiocinations of the everyday in order to devote itself to another temporality -- for that is what music is: the substitution of a phenomenological for an aesthetic unfolding of duration.

There is a freedom in learning the piano as an adult; no one tells the adult piano neophyte to practice. It is a decision based solely upon free choice. I never really bothered to get a teacher and my wife informs me that I am quite unsuited to instruction. She says the same thing about psychotherapy. I think it is her way of saying that I am too thickheaded to accept anyone else's advice on matters personal or musical. Therefore, in the beginning at least, I merely played anything that suited my fancy. I did not play well but I played widely: a smattering of Mozart, a few character pieces by Mendelssohn and Chopin, the ubiquitous "Für Elise" by Beethoven, some short works by Bartok and Schoenberg, and the requisite Clementi sonata in C major.

But the piano has a way of teaching you without the presence of a human instructor. The piano itself, with its cold hard keys and the exacting manner of the hammer mechanism, is such a technological feat, such a marvel of rigorous construction, that it gradually modifies the behavior of the person seeking to employ it. Roles are slowly reversed. until the person who thought he was mastering the machine soon becomes its slave. Moreover this enslavement derives from the very act of attaining mastery. The piano imposes discipline upon the performer in a stark manner uncharacteristic of other instruments. Indeed, the imposition of discipline strikes one as almost ethical in nature and suddenly the mnemonic device that many schoolchildren use to remember the identity of the lines on the treble clef strikes one truly as a moral injunction: "Every good boy does fine".

There is a strange symmetry underlying this ethical dictum. On the one hand, a "good" person does well because that is what good people do. On the other hand, it is only by doing well that one can be considered good. In the final analysis, the injunction, like so many other tedious bits of morality, is merely a tautology. The saying operates through a form of mutually reinforcing, circular logic that hints at disciplined forms of social conformity. When applied to the piano, the discipline of studying music quickly becomes a form of disciplinary control in which my initially flailing attempts at creating music are slowly transmogrified into the piano's more assured attempts at manifesting its music through the acquiescence of my appendages -- appendages that are now less and less mine but rather increasingly part of the pianistic mechanism.

And so I find myself drawn to the very forms of practicing that I initially resisted, such as scales, the mechanical Hanon exercises, and pieces that clearly reveal the motoric aspects of technique. I become increasingly obsessed with the manner in which the merest deviation in rhythmic precision or directness of attack creates a slight but maddening tonal variation between the touch of my ring finger and my pinky. I revel in the music of Bach, in which the rhythmic trajectory is set in motion at the beginning and continues forth like a perpetuum mobile until the piece's conclusion. Any variation in the constant barrage of notes rends the fabric of the music and becomes virtually unbearable.

The more I devote myself to the piano, the more I value the mechanical nature of musical reproduction, and the less I overtly concern myself with musical expression. Indeed it seems to me that expression emerges precisely at the point when I myself have become obviated.

It is this seeming paradox that concerns me at the moment. When we think of athletes, we expect them to emphasize the mechanical aspects of their bodies insofar as this allows them to achieve the feats of endurance, agility, and strength that serve as tests of the body's mechanical fortitude. Music, of course, has an athletic element. We admire the virtuoso musician largely for her athleticism, her ability to play scales and arpeggios at break-neck speeds. But music is also purported to have a spiritual aspect of expression or communication that is lacking in pure athletic display.

Expression here is popularly thought to be the irremediably individual and personal aspect of a musical performance. Yet the more I play the piano and the closer I come to achieving some modicum of proficiency, the more I am convinced that expression emerges only when the stain of my corporeal deficiencies and idiosyncrasies have been mitigated to the greatest possible degree. It is only when I have removed those imbalances that would identify a sequence of notes as having emerged from my hands (as opposed to the hands of another or the pure exactitude of the piano itself) that I feel I am being expressive.

Now, of course, I realize that I am not nor shall I ever be a virtuoso pianist. Furthermore, I am in no way attempting to argue that professional pianists are mere automatons that mindlessly reproduce pieces of music with mechanistic precision divested of some personal human warmth. What I believe I am discovering, and what I believe the piano itself has taught me, is that before a personal style emerges, before one earns one's individual voice, the piano strips the performer of her corporeal identity by demanding that physical traits that result in musical blemishes, so to speak, are eliminated. The piano seems to insist upon a mechanistic anonymity as the condition of possibility upon which a personal style may be borne. The question then becomes, if there is a form of expression that precedes personal expression (if there is a pianistic manner of expression that antedates the musicianly manner of expression), then what is it that is being expressed and who is it that is doing the expressing?





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