Let me tell you why I do what I do.
In the beginning, there was no conscious connection; it was just me and my bodily interaction with sound. There was an old upright piano in our apartment, and I found it and began playing things I was hearing on the TV and record player (yes, you read that correctly) by ear at age two, with both hands (if parental accounts are to be believed). I only vaguely remember this, mainly because of how the space looked: I have a clear picture of the wall the piano was up against, even though we had moved out of that place by the time I was four or five, around when my brother was born.
So: in the beginning: sound. Pure sound. I would go to the piano whenever the spirit moved me, or whatever you want to call the force that guides you to things before you even have much of a mind developed that could be called “subconscious.”
A few years later, my parents tried signing me up for lessons, around age 4, but the lessons didn’t take. I was too interested in riding my Big Wheel around my neighborhood, apparently; obviously I can’t speak to my motivations at such an early age, but I do indeed remember zooming around on my Big Wheel––perhaps to the neglect of the piano.
Then, when we moved, I found another piano, a grand this time, at the Quaker Friends school I attended for second and third grades. This is how I trace the map of my history, whenever I can’t remember something: where was I living at the time? We moved around a lot, for various reasons. The first reason was to find a bigger place, because my brother had been born; the second reason was because of divorce, and therefore to find a different place. But this second piano I found in the second place, at the Quaker school. We weren’t Quakers, and I don’t even now know the reason I wound up at that school, but I can honestly say that it was the highlight of my education pre-college, for whatever it’s worth. The Quakers had worked out some stuff.
Anyway, this second piano was in the music room of that school. I found it––I don’t remember how––and, without asking anyone’s permission, began to play on it regularly, mainly during lunch.
One day, the school’s music teacher found me playing on it and took me under her wing; she became my first piano teacher. I remember going to her huge house up a winding driveway through a forest in Media, Pennsylvania for my lessons, and playing whatever graded lessons she was giving me. When we reconnected years later, around when I matriculated from undergrad, she told me I was only with her for a short time, because apparently I had progressed so quickly that she felt she had to hand me off to a colleague she felt was more qualified. But I have many fond memories of going to that big house and begging her to let me learn even just a little of the Brahms D minor concerto, Op. 15; it had made an indelible impression on me recently. She made me a deal: for every Thompson (or whatever the piano “method” book was––I feel like it wasn’t that, but I don’t honestly remember) piece I learned, she would “let” me learn a page of the slow movement of the Brahms concerto. I was over the moon.
Needless to say, that carrot kept me one-pointed. I can picture, even now, sitting at her 9-foot Bechstein (my first Bechstein, and I’ve loved that brand of piano ever since) and devouring Brahms along with whatever else. That cavernous living room with a fireplace at the end. Tapestries and trinkets on doilied tables. It felt like a castle. She even had a harpsichord, which of course I’d never seen, and occasionally I’d play on it, even though I preferred (even at that age) the resonance of the piano. Still, it opened up my sound world.
One thing that happened which is relevant to this story: at one point I was aware of being frustrated at how slowly my sight-reading was progressing. I would try and try, and it was as if there were a wall between me and the notes. Or at least, a window which would only let in a few notes at a time, at most. I longed for the full light of day.
Then, one afternoon, it suddenly clicked. I don’t know why or how. Persistence plus frustration equals “click,” I guess; the best math equation I’ve ever happened across. But that day, whatever the switch flipped, I could suddenly read fluently, and it’s something I’ve been known for ever since, although obviously also concurrent with technical ability. If technique is the body’s ability to produce the sounds you hear, my early “breakthrough,” while major in feeling, was probably relatively minor to the outside observer. Still, it kept goading me, and I kept following it.
Skip to my freshman year at Peabody (now part of Johns Hopkins University, but at one point just a conservatory––albeit the oldest in the U.S.). This scene is, I think, at the core of why I do what I do, or at least why I do it in the way that I do it.
I was studying with Ann Schein and loving every minute of it––this was pre-Leon (Fleisher)––and working on Bach’s Toccata in D Major, BWV 912. I think I just discovered it in the Peabody music library one day; I had been voraciously/nerdily sight-reading everything I could get my hands on for years ever since the ability presented itself, and when I got to Peabody, the sheer amount of music on their library’s shelves yielded hours and hours of gluttony. I’m sure I picked the Bach up there, since I’d never even heard of the piece before, let alone heard it.
One night––this was night, I remember, because at age 18, what is time, and what need has one for sleep?––I was sitting at the piano in my teacher’s studio and going over the score. Not playing it––just reading the page. It was one of the things I had learned how to do along the way, somehow: look at a piece of music and read it like a book, only a book of pitches and rhythms rather than nouns and verbs. Only later would I realize the direct connection between inner ear and intention, the definition of “technique” I mentioned above, which I consciously received from Leon. But even before that, the process was similar, if inchoate.
Anyway, on this particular occasion, I was reading the score and listening to it internally. I got to the “adagio” after the first several pages. And I don’t know what it was in the music––a harmonic shift, a gesture, something––but before I knew it, I was in tears. It was just so damn beautiful. Prior to any physical sound being made, I was being moved by the music.
It didn’t last for a long time, and I probably started practicing the piece shortly thereafter, but that moment stays with me. We are ombudsmen (another word I learned from Leon) of the beautiful. That night, the beauty spoke to me before words. It operated on my nervous system even prior to the nervous system, in the innermost ear of mind. Power was communicated to me in that moment, and I realized what we as musicians can do, whatever the character of the music. It all just is whatever it is, but in that moment, it was Bach, and it spoke so simply and directly to my entire being.
Years later, in a lesson with Leon, he would mention his own teacher’s idea of “music that is better than it can be performed.” Immediately those words of Schnabel took me back to that experience my freshman year, and it clicked.
That is why I do what I do. I live to speak this to you. To all. As Leon said once (and I’m paraphrasing), “the day the general audience can open up a score and read it like they would a book is the day we performers become more or less obsolete.” There was something in the way he said that that wasn’t negative, as it could be interpreted; he sounded hopeful. For me, when I heard him say that, all I could think was, of course; why would I not wish for my every fellow being to experience music the way I experienced that Bach toccata that night? So much of the world could be healed. So much could give way to love, to light, to all the things which ultimately sustain us.
Meanwhile, I can play, which is a journey of getting ever closer to the magic these tones can confer. And I can teach, and try to uncover the blockages in each and every one of us (myself included) which inhibit that ecstasy, that direct contact and communion. For that is what it feels like, in the best moments.
I would love all of us to be able to be moved in this way. I know many of us already are, but...this is my story with the wonder that enfolds us, in at least one of its languages. It has taken me over, and I love it. Furthermore, I also love exploring its other languages: anything that can be considered an art! Composing, conducting, acting, writing, comedy...anything that has inspiration as a possibility. Every time I connect with that moment, it is the moment, singular yet boundless and before time. Bach felt it and lived in it. It is every moment of creativity, of love, of understanding, of pressing forward even when you have no idea what’s going on. It is grabbing the tail of that incredible horse and being taken to who-knows-where, and drinking in every second.
This is our birthright, each and every one of us. For as long as this light exists, I will face my prism to it.
I am grateful for all of you who have been coming along with me, with your own prisms and open windows.
Let’s magnify the light.