I grew up with a baby grand piano. When I was little, my mother took lessons and practiced sometimes, but I have no memory at all of ever hearing her just play the piano. When I was about five, the piano teacher was giving her a home lesson, and I chirped in when I heard a wrong note. The teacher perked up, played some notes and asked me what they were. Turns out I had absolute pitch and musical ability. That was the beginning.
All through high school I chose showy, flashy pieces to play at the state contests and always came home a nervous wreck with a little gold medal. Then, my second summer at Interlochen National Music Camp, something changed. I played my flashy Ravel and Debussy pieces for the man who would be my teacher for eight weeks, and he said, “Very good. You have learned Jello very well, Now it’s time for meat and potatoes.” He assigned me a bunch of Bach and wouldn’t take no for an answer. I dutifully started practicing the Bach and thought it was awful. It was full of empty space and open architecture, and it was anything but flashy. I hated it.
Unlike practicing at home, I was alone, nobody heard me. We all had little chilly stone cabins in the woods and signed up for our hours. After a while, I started listening to what I was doing, really hearing the music, and something happened. It wasn’t about flashy or not flashy, it was about the sound, that starkly beautiful architecture. The E-minor three-part Sinfonia was the one that not only turned my head around, it took me to a space of grace and peace that was astonishing. I’d sit down to play it and I couldn’t stop. It took me into altered space and left me shiny.
When I married, the baby grand came with me, and when we moved to California in 1963, it came along. In 1966 when we were moving to South Carolina, I sold it and wept. I bought an upright when we got there, then brought a better one when we moved to Milwaukee. After seven years, when we had left UWM and Theatre X, I bought a Fender-Rhodes electronic piano for our new duo touring, and when we moved to a Chicago basement apartment the upright piano became history. No space, no money, no real piano, and that was the way of it for three years.
When we moved to Pennsylvania we’d been doing OK supporting ourselves with tour gigs, and our first little house had a living-room big enough for an upright. I could play with my whole body again. It wasn’t until 1999 when we moved to California that I became totally piano-less, for twenty-one years. I continued composing, but now it was on synths and computer multi-tracking. No body involved.
Now, magic has happened. A Steinway baby grand was a gift to my cross-street neighbor, and he gave his Apollo to me. It’s in our studio, which we thoughtfully sound-proofed shortly after we moved to our Sebastopol house. Some years ago I gave away most of my piano music, but I kept a few things. Yes, Bach. And now I can turn the lights out except for the one over the piano, open the book to the E-minor Sinfonia, and come back to the space that’s been waiting for me.