October 1979. The opportunity to be in the audience to hear a fairly new star in the classical music universe could not be passed up. The pianist had won numerous awards and was touted as “one of the premiere concert pianists in the world.” We arrived early and found good seats near the front and in the center of the fine arts auditorium. Both the Lovely Lady and I are pianists (she has earned the title; I have purloined it) and were excited to have the chance to hear this fine artist.
The orchestra, mediocre but ambitious, began the evening with a piece or two before the soloist made his entrance. We were impatient to hear the headliner, but tolerated the wait. And, before we could become too impatient, the man himself was on stage. The long tails and black tie which seem to be required dress for such occasions were present, the flipping back of said tails observed ceremonially as he sat, and we prepared to be dazzled.
|photo by oldpianomusic|
I must admit at this point that I have no remembrance of any of the pieces which were played. I suppose they were well executed. As we left the auditorium later, the words being tossed around were “stellar” and “remarkable”. I couldn’t tell you. I really don’t know how well the man played in that concert. You see, shortly after the music began, I started hearing buzzing and humming noises, similar to what a child might make or what you might hear from a kazoo if the person were careful to be very quiet. I looked around. No one in the audience nearby seemed to be making the noise. I wondered if one of the instruments in the orchestra could be malfunctioning, so I scanned the stage, just in case. There was no tell-tale activity to indicate such a problem. Perhaps the piano itself had something loose. As I looked at the instrument more closely, I suddenly discovered the source of the irritating noise.
The pianist himself was making the noises with his mouth as he played! The rhythmic sounds started and stopped as he pursed his lips and buzzed or opened them and hummed. It was not loud, but noticeable; to me at least. For the remainder of the program, I was alternately amused and annoyed with the sound effects. Whichever, it was all I remember from the entire concert. The great man made noises with his mouth! What an oddball!
I was talking with my horn teacher a few days later and he, knowing that I had attended the concert, asked about it. I immediately launched into a tirade about the strange man and his vocal accompaniment to his own piano playing. After a moment or two, he stopped me and asked a pointed question. “How was the music?” I replied that I guessed it was okay, but that I hadn’t really paid much attention. My friend was confused. “What did you go to the concert for?” I replied, defensively, “To hear him play the piano.” His next three words turned on a light for me. “Did he play?”
Why hadn’t I listened to the piano? It was much louder than the peripheral noises. I’m told that it was amazing. I wouldn’t know. I went to hear Emanuel Ax in concert and I didn’t listen to his music!
Why do we center our attention on the negative? How could I have missed the music and only heard the static? I am struck that this is fairly often the human condition. A lifetime of good is accomplished and we find a single bothersome issue to remember. Tremendous success is achieved and we complain that it could have been better. All around are examples of people doing what they should and we want to discuss the one idiot who chooses to be stupid. You would think that with such tunnel vision, eventually we would center in on the good, but our lens doesn’t seem to focus well unless we are gazing at the bad.
For some reason, my mind is drawn to another piano concert I attended just a few years ago. The pianist came to our church and performed on the poor quality piano we had on our stage at that time. During the performance, one of the keys actually broke in two. He kept playing, avoiding the damaged key. I never once heard the unresponsive “thump” that his finger hitting that key again would have made. The music was undiminished because of the missing note. And later during his performance, at one point all the dampers in the bass section of the piano stuck, causing all those notes to ring incessantly. Nonplussed, he skillfully finished the piece and, standing to acknowledge the applause, surreptitiously reached down near the tuning pins and, with a tiny motion, eased the dampers back down into place on the strings.
Afterward, I apologized to him for the poor quality of the piano. He didn’t want to hear any apology, but graciously related the story of an occasion when, in a very poor village in a developing country, they had an ancient piano for him to play, but no bench for him to sit upon. He was honored to perform the concert there while seated on a tree stump. This man undoubtedly understands why he was put here. He has the rare gift to be able to make beautiful music and the privilege of performing that music for people from all walks of life. He isn’t going to let an insignificant problem like a broken piano key or a missing bench stop the music from being heard.
When we focus on the important things, we reap amazing benefits. Let our eye be drawn away to the nonessentials and we lose sight, almost completely, of why we came.
Alas, I missed the opportunity of a lifetime, because a man I thought would be bigger than life and twice as debonair, was actually kind of normal, like me. I won’t make the same mistake again.
“…whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.”
“The only normal people are the ones you don’t know very well.”
(Alfred Adler~Austrian psychiatrist~1870-1937)
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012 All Rights Reserved.