At the Steinway Store

I knew from an early age that I would never play an instrument because I can’t use my left hand properly. But that never stopped me from being curious about music and enjoying listening to it. One instrument I always liked was the piano.

My earliest memory of a piano was the toy piano I received for Christmas at the age of three. My mom taught me to play a tune like merry-go-round music. She had no formal training; she just picked it out on the keys. Another favorite memory was during kindergarten. On a rainy day, one of the teachers noticed me banging on the keys, listening to each one’s sound. She stood behind me, guiding my right hand as we played “Frere Jacques.” It seemed like magic. She also explained how the pedals at the bottom helped to change the sound of the notes. Here’s a better, more technical explanation:

I have always been short; I knew my feet would never reach them. But I could freely imagine performing with gusto at a concert hall–either solo or with an orchestra.

Here are the lyrics to “Frere Jacques” in French and English, from Wikipedia. I had almost forgotten them:

Frère Jacques, frère Jacques,
Dormez-vous? Dormez-vous?
Sonnez les matines! Sonnez les matines!
Din, dan, don. Din, dan, don.

The song is traditionally translated into English as:


Sheet music version

Are you sleeping? Are you sleeping?
Brother John, Brother John,
Morning bells are ringing! Morning bells are ringing!
Ding, dang, dong. Ding, dang, dong.

Later, when I was about eight or nine, my family and I visited other relatives out of state. At the time, my cousin had a piano in the living room. I looked at some of the music books, imagining what each of the markings meant. I asked her to play for me, and she did. If memory serves, it was a waltz. Everyone gathered to listen. Sadly, she gave it up a few years later.

Our former neighbors across the hall had a daughter who studied piano and was very talented. Sometimes we were lucky enough to hear her practice when she came home from school.

A favorite pastime at the mall when I was a kid was going into Kitts Music to admire and try out the organs–the kind that everyone could teach themselves to play. I would eventually get one for the Christmas, and I had great fun playing it and learning the popular songs, show tunes, Christmas carols, and hymns in the music books. My only trouble was that I was too slow and often couldn’t quite get the actual rhythm and tune. To their credit and endless patience, no one in my family ever complained or ran for earplugs.

That tendency to go into a music store and admire the instruments dies hard. It probably will never leave me. When my aunt and I were at the mall a couple of months ago doing errands and getting haircuts, I asked if I could go into the Steinway Store while she finished up. “Sure,” she said. “But just don’t buy one.” We both laughed; times have been difficult in this economy. I tried to interest her last year in a PBS documentary about making Steinways, but we chose another program. Off I went. The first thing I saw was a beautiful cherry wood grand piano with a carved filigreed music stand and intricate carvings on the sides. The keys were tied–only undone if you were an actual customer. I ran my fingers gently over the ivory keys, noticing how soft each was. I didn’t bother anyone there; I looked around at the photos of the many celebrities who use Steinways–including Lang Lang and Billy Joel. I also enjoyed listening to potential customers play for a bit, and then I slipped away and went to meet my aunt for lunch.

Today on “Classical Music Discoveries” podcast, I enjoyed the piano performances of Elizabeth Wolff, who is also a teacher.

I have actually trained all my life on other types of keyboards–typewriters and computers. I’m not sure if the words that come out are music to anyone reading them, but I try.

Loudoun Lyric Opera’s Halloween Offering

One of my former bosses loved opera a lot and was lucky enough to have season tickets to The Met. She traveled to New York by train often for weekend matinee performances. “La Boheme” had been a favorite. From her, I learned about the basic stories, the composers, the music, and famous tenors and divas. As great as “The Phantom of the Opera” musical is and how I still love it, it is not the same thing as grand opera. I liked “Carmen” from a middle-school music appreciation class, but that’s about as far as it went. By the time I got to college-level music appreciation, I couldn’t tell an aria from an ensemble performance, and they all sounded alike in listening tests.

I learned a lot from my former boss. In recent years I decided opera wasn’t my favorite, because everyone dies in the end. My interest was revived when I learned about the Loudoun Lyric Opera Company. From October 29 to the 31st, the group will present Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Ruddigore — or the Witch’s Curse.” Sounds like a swashbuckling adventure, to quote from the advertising material. Gilbert & Sullivan’s works are actually operettas. From what I remember, there are many plot twists throughout. Enjoy the Loudoun Lyric Opera FAQs by Dave Butler!

The Contrabassoon and Contraforte

My entire knowledge of the contraforte and contrabassoon comes from an October 14th Washington Post  article by critic Anne Midgette. She interviewed Lewis Lipnick, who has played the contrabassoon for the National Symphony Orchestra for a long time. At the time the story was published, he had just bought a contraforte, which sounds a lot smoother. The low tones of both instruments invite humor (both off-color and gently sarcastic), which players take in stride as best they can. I enjoyed learning about the history of both instruments, and the clip where Lipnick is playing them.

Beethoven used the contrabassoon in one of the movements of The Ninth Symphony. That’s not shabby at all!

Classical WETA 90.9 has been celebrating “Christoph Eschenbach Month.” He’s the new music director of the NSO, and I really liked the cover profile Midgette wrote about him for the Washington Post magazine in early October. Both may be found in the archives.

A long time ago, our neighbor gave me a pocket guide to musical terms and instruments. I read and kept it for many years. Now that I enjoy listening to classical music more, I wish I still had it to refer to. Nowadays, there are tons of resources on the Internet. I picked this one from the Dallas Symphony Orchestra–for the audio and explanations that get kids (and anyone else) interested.

Indulge Your Inner Artist, Musician, and Listener!

I first heard about Round Hill Arts Center as I researched and wrote a survey magazine article on area classes and workshops. It’s an arduous journey for me, because public transportation doesn’t go out that far in Virginia. I’d have to get a ride.

For those who can get there, Round Hill Arts Center offers an array of classes in watercolor and oil painting, drawing, jewelry making, pottery, printmaking and fiber arts, music, singing, song writing, and much more. Many courses explore the business side of creative careers. Some music classes are online.

You don’t need to be a professional to enjoy the classes. Families, teens, and children also have many opportunities to explore the arts and get better at what they love doing, including writing, drama, and art.

And for avid concert-goers, Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys will be appearing for the second time at Franklin Park Art Center Saturday, October 23, 2010, at 8:00 p.m. I wish I had known about this much earlier, so that I could have made arrangements. We saw him at The Birchmere a number of years ago and have always been familiar with his music. My aunt and I are also great fans of his memoir, Man of Constant Sorrow. Many other folk singers have performed in connection with RHAC, and classes are available in performing folk music. I know this isn’t strictly a classical post, but it’s another great local venue to enjoy. If you go, have a great time!

New Interest: The Flute

This summer I discovered Sir James Galway’s 2009 memoir, The Man with the Golden Flute: Sir James, a Celtic Minstrel, and loved it! I heard of James Galway from “The Thistle and Shamrock” radio program, but did not know that much about him. I enjoyed his anecdotes of growing up in Belfast and playing for various flute bands. At the age of 11, he won two music contests, inspiring his father to give him the nickname “Mozart.” And he talked about his music teachers and all the people who influenced him, and his personal life. He has taught as various points in his career. He and his wife, Jeanne, conduct a master class.

He always had odd jobs in addition to music. In high school he enjoyed bookbinding, and was actually disappointed that he wasn’t hired on as an apprentice–his backup job while playing music. And he had some mind-numbingly boring jobs, such as sorting screws in a factory. Luckily, he got out of that one quickly. He also had a six-year stint with the Berlin Philharmonic, and after that wanted to branch out as a solo artist. His complete discography to this point was included in the back of the book. He records popular tunes as well as classical pieces, and has included music from Japan in his repertoire. Of course I’m going to watch the video of Vivaldi music he recorded.

I thought it would help to listen to some of his work while reading, so I went to the library and chose the CDs “Celtic Minstrel,” “Seasons” and “Concertos by Johann Joachim Quantz (1697-1773).” All were beautiful–by turns cheerful, reflective, and everything in between. My aunt jokes that flute music is not conducive to exercise sessions, but I listen anyway. Each time play the CDs, I hear something different. I received the double-CD set called “Meditations” for my birthday. These are all classical pieces, and something new jumps out at me every time I let the music wash over me.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston offers a free-twice monthly podcast of its concerts in the Tapestry Room. We were lucky enough to hear the musicians rehearse during our visit in 2007. The most recent selection is called “Voice of the Flute,” works for flute, harp, voice and other musicians. I’ll listen tomorrow.