“Josef Raieff, my teacher at Juilliard, was a stocky, handsome, cigar-smoking romantic. He had the rare ability to sit down and play anything any of his students was working on: perfectly, fluidly, and with amazing beauty and ease–all without a glance at the music. Aside from the occasional wide-smiled compliment on my interpretive skills, he seldom discussed musical concepts with me. Instead, he helped develop a repertoire that challenged my interpretive mind, plus, he provided a plethora of invaluable fingerings that had been passed down through generations of teachers. At first glance, some of the bold fingerings seemed unnatural and fussy, but after fully committing to new advanced techniques, I experienced a freedom of facility that unexpectedly tamed the most daunting technical sections in my pieces. His masterful fingerings facilitated beauty of tone in Chopin, clarity in Mozart, bubbly articulation in Bach, and sheer speed whenever needed.”
“I cautiously pulled back the purple curtain. Immediately, a small huddle of men blocked my way. They were three versions of intimidation: slicked-back hair, black suits, skinny ties over dark colored shirts. I actually had to stifle the words, ‘Are you guys goons?’ They reeked of cigarette smoke and strong cologne. When one of them asked me what I wanted, ‘You need some-m lady?’ I told him I was just looking around. He grunted and signaled to his friends to relax. Then I heard his velvety voice.”
Excerpt from Life in Miniatures: a view from the piano bench.This took place after I played a recital in Carnegie Recital Hall, the intimate hall attached to Carnegie. The velvety voice belonged to Frank Sinatra. Those were the days, my friends.
“Tears spilled from my eyes and I felt my hands unclench. For the first time in my adult life, I consciously felt the tug on the gossamer-like thread that tethers nature to music–and to my soul. I learned that listening reaches deeper than merely hearing.” Carol Rich, excerpt from Life in Miniatures: a view from the piano bench.
I’d love to hear your experiences of “waking up” to truly listening. Of course, when we play the piano or any musical instrument, we hear sound. We know we’re creating that sound. But what about the deep realization, a conscious listening, that brings us to a committed ownership of what we’re producing in real time? Simultaneous awareness of what you just played connects through a fleeting present to what you’re about to play. How does that awareness allow you to hear the reality of your legato, dynamics, phrasing, articulations, tone, and musical character? Does it affect how you hear water gurgling over the rocks and wind cascading through the forest?
“My father’s hands hover over the keyboard next to mine. We’re playing four-hand music.
His were perfectly sculpted pianist’s hands, shaped for agility and coverage. They were also ‘soft’ hands, a term pianists use to mean having sensitivity to nuance, color, and tone. From my vantage point, the landscape of his hands–the knuckles, joints, and veins–resembled mountain ranges, The memory is a snapshot, a still life depicting twelve years of making music together.
Because I started playing when I was only three, sight-reading was instinctive–like breathing. Music was my native language. English ranked second, something in need of constant vigilance and correction. Music is direct.”
“I imagined Anne running her hands along the notes in the score–painstakingly, lovingly, longingly hearing melody and nuance better than if they’d resonated in actual air. It confirmed what she’d taught me forty years ago when I was an undergraduate at Hartt. She’d tapped her temple and said, ‘Carol dear, ninety-eight percent of playing a musical instrument takes place in the mind.’ Now, even though she no longer had the strength or coordination to sit at the piano, Chopin still inhabited her mind and her heart. I imagined her flipping the page to the next waltz. Feebly, she pushed her hands over the score in the trajectory of the phrases’ shapes. Her fingers twitched in phantom motions over the notes. Her body swayed like a willow in a breeze, but her movements weren’t necessarily in time with the music; rather, she evoked the piece by stirring it, rousing it into existence.”
Anne Koscielny was my beloved teacher when I was an undergraduate at The Hartt School of Music. She died of a glioblastoma, but her wisdom and profound love of music live on in the hearts of those who knew her.
“It’s so great to see your pedal foot!” My student and I burst out laughing at the ridiculousness of my comment. Well, having lessons virtually meant relinquishing the finer aspects of giving piano lessons–gently lifting a student’s arm off the keys at the end of a phrase, leaning over and inserting helpful fingerings into the score, hearing true legato, tone, and dynamics, and instilling a nuanced pedal foot. “Lift your foot slower and try not to go all the way to the top. It’s too clean!” It was an unusual request from me, someone who loves clean playing. But it was a nightmarish piece, it needed atmosphere.
But now we were sitting about twenty feet apart in my student’s home. I sat in the open doorway watching his hands via Zoom, but listening in the air–talking in real time. Although his keyboard faced away from me, his pedal foot was clearly in view. As was his beautiful face. What bliss!
“I never told my father what he meant to me–how I’m not as lonely or sad as I would’ve been without the image of his hands, the silent stability of his love, or the sustaining underpinning of our shared musical life.
As a child, it was my nature to be closed off, shy, and happily hidden inside my observer’s persona. It was my father’s nature too. We contented ourselves with rich, separate-but-linked, inward-directed existences that were moored to music and to one another.”
“If I had influence with the good fairy, I would ask that her gift to each child be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life.”
This is the quote I included in the front of my book, Life in Miniatures: a view from the piano bench. A sense of wonder takes me back to my own childhood and now through the end of middle-age. Apparently, I still believe in the good fairy!