Playing Piano by Ear

My piano tuning career continued after the publication of Piano Dance, so I continued to meet interesting and extraordinary people. This story is about a client for whom I had tuned for several  years. He was a genius at playing piano by ear. After I would tune his piano, he would play tunes that I knew and we would sing the songs together. Gradually over several years, he related details about his life. Here is some of his story:

 

Richard was a retired nurse, who had had a long career with a large hospital in the Los Angeles area. While he worked as a nurse, he had a side job on a television set helping actors pronounce medical terms. One day during the filming of Guiding Light, an actor was not able to reliably pronounce “glomerular nephritis,” an inflammation of the kidney. The director got so exasperated with the actor that he fired him on the spot. The director then turned to Richard and asked him if he wanted the part. Richard said, “sure,” so he became Dr. Michael Ferguson on daytime TV. Richard was not inexperienced. When he was a young man living on Cape Cod near Hyannisport, he acted in a small theater near the residence of Judy Garland. As a result he rubbed shoulders with both Ms. Garland and her daughter, Liza Minelli. He looked very much the part of a dashing doctor. I saw a picture of him when he was a young man, and he was tall and very handsome with wavy dark hair.

 

Richard had begun playing piano as a small child. He would listen to his older brother struggling through his piano lesson, then he would sit down and play the whole lesson by ear perfectly. He said it drove his brother crazy. He played throughout his life, but never professionally. He gradually added songs until he could play about 1500 songs by ear or by memory. By contrast, well-known professionals might have 300 songs memorized. It was so easy for him to play by ear that he never learned to read music.

 

As an adult, he decided to buckle down and learn to read music, so he took lessons with a well-known teacher. It was a struggle for him, but he applied himself and worked diligently at it. At one lesson, after he completed playing a piece for his teacher, the teacher commented on his playing, saying, “That was excellent, except you forgot to turn the page two minutes ago.” Richard had been playing from memory and by ear so automatically that he didn’t even realize it. The teacher continued, “I think it’s time we just acknowledge that your talent is so great that there is no point in you torturing yourself any further trying to learn to read music.”

 

After Richard retired, he went to various hospital and nursing homes around LA on several days per week and played old songs for a few hours as a contribution. He told me of one day when he was playing in a hospital and noticed a woman who had come in and out of the room a few times during the day, and who finally just sat and listened for a couple hours. At the end of the day, she came up to Richard and told him how much she appreciated his playing. She said her husband had died there that day, and Richard had played all the old songs they had loved when they were young. She said it was like he was saying ,”good-bye” to her through Richard’s music.

 

Richard said that he was more moved by that than by anything that had happened during his decades as a nurse. And it happened because of his music.