The Keys To Paradise Learning to play: The piano is not an instrument that must be taken up in childhood, as two grown men discover to their great delight.

April 08, 1996|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

Noah Adams, host of National Public Radio's news program "All Things Considered," coaxes a tender melody from a black Kawai baby grand. It is "Traumerei," Robert Schumann's heartfelt reminiscence of childhood.

Mr. Adams can make himself cry playing "Traumerei." He thinks about mad Schumann, alone and dying in a 19th-century asylum. The piece rescued Mr. Adams' first year of piano. He was 52 then, frustrated by computer teaching programs and learn-by-ear methods.

"Up until I found 'Traumerei,' I really didn't want to practice," he says. "After I found 'Traumerei,' I always wanted to practice. Always. I wanted to spend as much time as I can."

It is his signature song, the big piece he plays while touting "Piano Lessons -- Music, Love & True Adventures," the story of his first year at the piano. A huge chord comes near the end of "Traumerei." It is a big stretch, spanning 10 keys, an interval known as a 10th.

On the afternoon of his Baltimore appearance, Mr. Adams and I compared hand sizes. We wanted to know how far could we stretch on the keyboard: a 10th, an 11th, a 12th?

We carried on like pros, though we are adults in only our second year of piano studies. I started just about the time Mr. Adams put aside his studies to write his book. Mr. Adams, 53, downplays the age factor: "I don't think it's any big deal to start when you're 50. [Arthur] Rubinstein said he got to be a really good player when he was 80."

True, but I'd be living in southern France if I had $100 for every adult who, upon learning that I have started piano, stated a desire to do the same.

Convention says you can't teach an old dog new tricks, especially when it involves an instrument that holds the world of music, Mozart to Monk, Jerry Lee Lewis to Mary Lou Williams, gospel hymns beat out on Sunday morning, blues in the night. But who needs convention when you need a challenge, balance, a creative release?

"I have to deal with news all day long, and technology is moving so fast that I need something at the other end of the spectrum, something organic," says Mr. Adams. "I didn't see time slipping away so much as that I just needed that balance in my life."

The desire to play can lie inside you for years, dormant as a butterfly in chrysalis.

I grew up with a piano in the house, but chose to chase the ghosts of Jimi Hendrix and long-dead Delta bluesmen by learning the guitar. Mr. Adams actually had a few lessons in childhood. Both of us moved on.

In the fall of 1993, Mr. Adams read an obituary for Dr. Lewis Thomas, former dean of the Yale School of Medicine and winner of the National Book Award. Dr. Thomas regretted never having learned the piano. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Adams spent $11,375 on a Steinway upright.

"For me it was a big commitment," he says. "I can't walk past that piano every night."

Actually, you can ignore a piano. But the guilt will wear you down. You'll hear the piano whispering: "What am I doing here? Am I furniture, or an instrument?" The monthly bill arrives on the loan you took out. The rental payment comes due.

So you find a sheet of music, sit down before the keyboard and, in the words of pianist and teacher Denise Kahn, "Suddenly, there is beauty."

Or, as is the beginner's lot, there is noise. Clumsy fingers stumble along the unfamiliar landscape of black and white keys. Electrical impulses die out before reaching your fingers. You cannot will the correct movements into being.

I've often imagined a cartoon taking place deep inside my brain. A construction crew is working furiously to lay down the wiring I need to play Beethoven's Sonatina in G.

"How long is this going to take?" I ask, frustrated with the slow progress.

"Month or two, maybe three," replies the crew chief, frowning as he sees my spirit sag. "Say, whadda-ya expect? You've only been playing 10 months. Jeez, guy sits down and thinks he's gonna be Horowitz!"

No one starts out hoping to be a hack. You have secret fantasies. Maybe you have the gift. Maybe you can hear a piece once and play it. Maybe you are a prodigy.

"The word 'prodigy' does not have to have 'child' in front of it. You could be an adult prodigy," says Mr. Adams, recalling a conversation with Leon Fleisher, the renowned pianist and Peabody Conservatory instructor. "For a minute, I thought that maybe he's right. Maybe I could sit down and be a musical genius."

Talk about a long shot. Common sense would suggest that such prodigious talent would appear long before your fourth or fifth decade of life. Then again, common sense would have kept you from even starting. After all, you're an old dog. Right?

The first class

I quickly learned I was no prodigy. As I awaited my first class at the Peabody Conservatory, I heard the swift notes of Chopin's Waltz No. 6, the "Minute Waltz," from behind a closed door. I imagined myself playing the piece with a stunning grace and ease. People would whisper in awe, "He didn't start playing until he was 38."

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