Hi, welcome to the first of many blog posts for Piano Dance. The purpose of these articles is to enhance your interest in the stories featured in my book, by providing more of the interesting “behind the scenes” information. If you have not yet read Piano Dance, I recommend reading the book before reading these posts. They will make a lot more sense if you have the background of the original stories. You do not need to finish the entire book before reading these articles. You could read each article here after reading the designated chapter, as each article will relate to the theme of that chapter in the book. For example, this article will tell a little more about my music teacher’s positive influence, related to Chapter One. After all the chapters of the book are embellished, I will post new stories that were not completed in time for publication of the book.
Our first story, of course, will be about Mr. Grubb, the subject of chapter one. Mr. Grubb was the product of an era long before our present day; a time that was much more formal. He always wore a black suit with a white shirt and tie for the lessons that he taught, and he always taught in an imposing manner with his deep bass voice. It surprised me, then, when he invited me to a Sunday afternoon party at his house in southern Delaware. A number of musicians and poets were there, having fun playing four hand piano, improvising uptempo jazz and ragtime music. One time, Mr. Grubb played the treble hands while Ronny Davis, the poet laureate of Delaware played the bass. People were laughing and applauding as they finished. As Mr. Grubb got up from the piano, he noticed my astounded expression at seeing a playful side of him that I had never seen. In answer to my expression, he came over to me, leaned over, and said very slowly and distinctly in his deep, resonant voice, “The sign of a misspent youth.”
For years, Mr. Grubb had been working on an opera. Ronny Davis had written a libretto and Mr. Grubb was working on the music. They completed one beautiful aria for the soprano lead, and Mr. Grubb had my mother sing it at a recital at the Wilmington Music School. Mr. Grubb was concerned that the melody might be stolen if there were a recording, so he had me turn off the tape recorder just before Mom sang the aria, and turn it back on for the rest of the recital. As a result, we have a recording of all the rest of the recital, but not the most beautiful part.
Years later, when I visited Mr. Grubb at his retirement home in Camden, Maine, he was still working on the opera, although Ronny Davis had already passed on. Mr. Grubb was not making much headway, as writing did not come easily for him. He died a few years later, and I did not hear what became of the opera score. I suspected that it was just lost in a pile of other paperwork. For years I thought that was a sad ending, but not when I got older. As I aged, I discovered that life is not like a short story that gets tidied up with a bow at the end. At this later stage of life, the process is more important than the result. It is very useful for a senior citizen to always have a project to work on. That way, one is always involved more with living than with dying. Mr. Grubb had a happy and productive life, and he always had the satisfaction of being engaged in a creative endeavor.
Many years later, I received all my mother’s music after she passed away. As I went through the many pieces, I found a handwritten copy of Mr. Grubb’s aria, “If Love be Sin”. I was delighted, because I thought it had been lost. Mr. Grubb had inscribed it to my mother, saying,”Odessa (Delaware) – March 23, 1966. Dear Winnie: It is my hope you enjoy this as much as the writer – LWG.”
I played through it on the piano, and it is as beautiful as I remembered. I don’t know what to do with it, so for now it is in a small pile of music on my piano, and I play it for myself from time to time, remembering two wonderful musicians who made an outstanding contribution to the amount of joy in my life.
I do not have a recording of the aria, but you can get a sense of the beauty and extraordinary range of my mother’s voice on this recording of O Holy Night from a New York radio broadcast from the 1940’s. There is some wavering of the tone due to the warping of the 78 rpm record. After playing the recording, just push the back button to return to this page. To listen, just click on this LINK.
Chapter 5 told some of the story of Barry, an exceptional tuner I worked with at the piano store in downtown Boston. I told of one incident when I followed up on a tuning by Barry at a radio studio. Another time that I got to follow up on one of Barry’s tunings was at New England Life Hall. Barry had tuned a grand piano for a recital of the students of a prominent teacher. When he finished tuning, he started to leave. The teacher admonished him, saying, “Don’t leave yet, I haven’t checked the tuning.”
Barry replied, “You can check the tuning all you want. I’m leaving.”
The teacher was so irate on the phone to the owner of the store that the owner sent two of us out to placate her. I was along for show and for training. Bart, the head technician, was instructing me in how to deal with difficult and demanding people. He instructed me to watch how calm he remained and how he did whatever they requested. They were just asserting their authority and he beat them at their own game by never letting them get to him. In his mind, by acting submissive, he ended up winning. This teacher was complaining about a bass octave that Barry had tuned optimally.
Bart said to her, “I’ll just gradually change it, and you tell me when you like it.” Barry had tuned that piano incredibly well. I know it’s hard to understand, but usually it’s ludicrous for a musician to try to second-guess a great tuner. If a piano is tuned badly, a musician can tell, but at the level Barry tuned, only a tuner would have the training to be able to check it accurately, and then not completely. There are things that you could not tell without tuning it yourself to see if that was the best possible or whether it could be improved. Because of the slight variation in manufacture and therefore in overtone pattern of strings, there are many times where you tune the best possible, and perfect is not possible. You couldn’t tell that without tuning it yourself. That is not something a musician is capable of. Additionally, a musician does not have the technical training to separate the tuning from the tone, touch, inharmonicity, and overall sound of the instrument. The musician either likes or dislikes the sound, they can’t differentiate whether it is the tuning or some other aspect of the piano that led them to dislike it.
There were numerous prominent musicians who did appreciate Barry’s work, though. One was Neil Young. When he was in Boston for a concert, he rented a Steinway vertical piano for his hotel room, for practicing and for composing. Barry was sent to tune that. They got along so well that Neil invited Barry to go on tour with him, so he would always have a well-tuned piano. Barry considered it, but concluded that it wouldn’t work for him. His wife, his friends, and his singing group were all in Boston. Plus, he knew how to get around Boston. For him to be in new places all the time would be worse than sitting in the recording studio all day. He would be bored to death sitting around most of the time, being unable to get around easily in a new place. Still, Barry did appreciate that a musician as great as Neil Young thought that highly of him and of his work.
Chapter 32 told of a retired gentleman who pursued a life-long dream of learning to play the piano, and of his experience playing in a student recital where he was the only adult.
I included this story in Piano Dance, because I have met numerous adults who wished to learn to play the piano. I wanted people to know the patience and effort it might take, if they did not study piano as a child. The other side of that is that I wanted parents to know how important it is for their children to have the opportunity to study piano as a child. If they do not have those early connections in their brain, it is very difficult to establish them as an adult.
It is well established that studying piano helps children in numerous other pursuits. Playing piano requires complicated connections in the brain that no other activity has been found to create. Children who study piano have been found have improved accomplishment in math and language skills, and greater accomplishments in their adult lives. Also, there are now studies on senior citizens showing that piano study delays the onset of mental decline. Here is a link to one study: LINK
Ultimately, though, I wanted to tell the touching story of Bill, who accomplished a life-long dream to be able to play beautiful music on the piano. I hope you enjoyed it. It was a privilege for me to be part of such an endeavor. Also, I wanted to point out the importance of a skilled and enthusiastic teacher. Bill’s teacher, Kelly, has had students rank in international competitions, but his students love him for allowing them to study in the way they wish, not pushing them to take part in competitions. He encourages them to play at the level they wish, without judgement, so they can bring their personal joy to their playing. The importance is not to play better than someone else, but simply to play for personal enjoyment and self-expression.