Saturday, October 13, 2012

Amateur Music Making with Aunt Alma

I've spent the last two months in Massillon, Ohio staying with my wife Diane and her family before moving to the UK where Diane has gotten a job as a social worker in Birmingham (although we were expecting to have left several weeks ago, after more than four months we are still waiting to receive her job contract and certificate of sponsorship from her employer which we need before we can even apply for our visas.)  We have been here since Diane completed her last position in Manchester, NH in August and she wanted to spend time with her family before heading overseas for a couple years.

Diane enjoying the Ohio autumn
This was all fine with me, but as I have the premiere of my Piano Concerto in mid-November for which I will be making my debut as a soloist with orchestra, I've needed to keep practicing regularly as well as work on a new work for cello and piano commissioned by Christine Thomas Tsen (I much prefer to do most of my composing at the piano.)  As Diane's family does not own a piano and I don't own an electric keyboard (although, as we don't plan on settling down in one place any time soon and don't want to deal with moving an acoustic piano all the time, I'm thinking that in the near future I should go ahead and invest in a decent full-sized and realistic sounding electronic keyboard to be able to compose with,) I started looking for a piano I could use regularly in the community to practice on.

My mother-in-law came to the rescue and found that her Aunt Alma, an 82-year-old widow who lives just a mile or two away, has a small rarely-used piano in her house and would love to let me come practice on it whenever I like.  We visited and I found a little Knabe spinet piano that had just been tuned, and that Alma was essentially the nicest great-aunt-in-law you could imagine, so I started spending about two afternoons a week practicing and composing at her home.

Besides a little bit of friendly chit-chat every once in a while or the occasional compliment as to how the music sounded, Alma would let me focus on my work and stay out of the room with the piano.  Last week as I was about to leave, she mentioned how glad she was that the piano was finally getting some use.  "Do you play at all?" I asked her.

"Just a little bit." She replied.  "I used to play the clarinet.  I used to play duets with my father all the time, and several years ago my daughter and some of my granddaughters had a clarinet choir.  I bought an old Buffet clarinet a few years ago but have barely broken it out."

"Well, if you can find any music for clarinet and piano, I'd love to play some of it with you."

"Oh my golly, that would be lots of fun.  I will try to find my old music this week."

So earlier this week, I came to make some music with her.  She had her clarinet, a lopsided metal music stand, and a big stack of old tattered sheet music.  We spent about an hour and a half playing through lots of early 20th century parlor music with lots of "om-pah" piano accompaniment, nearly all of it I hadn't heard of before ("You don't know 'Clarinet Polka'???), but I was really surprised at how good Alma was.  I could tell that her clarinet needed some work and didn't sound very good in the middle range, but she had a really fine tone in the lowest register, solid technical facility, and was very easy to follow and play with.

But even more than that, she made me think about what it means to be an amateur musician and what making music just for the enjoyment of it is, now that I am a professional.  I've heard it said that there are no people who love music more than those in a community choir, band, or orchestra, and I believe it is amateurs that remind us why music is such a necessity in life.  (Of course, one of my favorite composers, Charles Ives, was an amateur musician [excepting a music degree from Yale and several years as a church organist when he was a teenager and young adult] and loved hearing the spirit of music through the mistakes and wrong notes of amateur singers and players.)  I always need someone like Aunt Alma to occasionally remind me that I'm not just making music in order to collect a paycheck, but because I love it, because I need it, because, as my late theory teacher James Feldman said, it satisfies our deepest inner needs.  This is why I find folk music, which is not composed by one person but is part of a people's identity and daily life, so powerful and essential.

May you always remember that we all begin making music as amateurs.

Thanks, Aunt Alma.

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