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VERY FIRST PERSON

Piano Lessons

In Finding the Right Music Teacher, Michael Tolkin Discovered the Real Los Angeles and, Just Maybe, a Glint of Hope for the World

May 02, 1999|MICHAEL TOLKIN | Michael Tolkin is the author of "The Player" and "Among the Dead."

Hope comes to me this season by way of my piano teacher, whose life is not easy and whose future is not assured. Five years ago, when my daughter was 7, a baby-sitter overheard a lesson with a mediocre teacher. She knew a young music student, Martin Stegmaier, and said Susanna should take a lesson with him. Martin, then about 23, came to the house. Immediately the sound of her playing changed and she began to improvise. I was jealous and wanted a lesson, too. I had not sat beside a piano teacher in 20 years, and my playing was stuck at the level in which I could play a few measures well but not a full piece.

At the time I was trying to play Beethoven's variations on "God Save the King." By emphasizing one note in each chord in a series of chords, as Martin suggested, it became easier to sight read a line of music. But what was radical was the idea that I could choose those notes arbitrarily. By doing this, I freed myself from a single interpretation of the piece and immediately improved. None of my childhood teachers had ever said anything so simple and instantly useful.

A month later, Martin's student visa expired, and he returned home to Germany, where he was unhappy. Over the next few years I would get letters from him as he tried to find a place for himself. He moved to London, enrolled in the University of London Law School, and then he disappeared. Meanwhile, my daughter continued lessons, but I stopped. I was too lazy to find someone new. A year ago the fax arrived. Martin was back, living in Los Angeles, married to an American. He was looking for students.

The only way to link the parallel universes that make L.A. so alienating is to follow your obsessions. The more obsessions you pursue, the more Los Angeles becomes coherent. While Martin was gone, we had returned our rented upright and spent months searching through the Los Angeles piano refinishing underworld. The hunt had brought me to visions of a city extruding dreams of music everywhere. I saw a warehouse with a squadron of Latino piano refinishers under Hungarian tutelage; this made me happy. In the horse country west of Riverside, at the end of the road, a man with 20 pianos in his house kept lowering his price for a 100-year-old Steinway with a dry sound board. All of this energy devoted to selling engines for the expression of feeling and beauty made me swoon with love for the place. I liked the scene, but I said no.

Finally I found the Steinway of my dreams, a 1927 model L baby grand--high notes like glass, low notes like Melville, rolling with implication. We bought it from a Sephardic Swiss Elvis impersonator in his Granada Hills Graceland.

By now my daughter and I were studying with Martin, but she was already fighting the lessons and fighting the practice. I was mindful of Tolstoy's polemic against virtuosity in "What Is Art?" I couldn't find a way to command practice without making it punishment. For all her gifts, especially for improvisation and composition, she had been wrecked, either by weak teachers, my impatience or by turning 11--most of the girls her age who were taking lessons all stopped at the same time, a tragedy for their parents but the miracle cure for a plague of stomachaches and fainting spells. We were on the Love Canal of music. I was bereft, and the house was lonelier without her playing, but now I had Martin for a full hour, and my lessons continued.

I was not studying toward public recitals; this was becoming a meditation practice by other means, an exercise in spontaneous creativity, like my classes years ago with performance artist Rachel Rosenthal. We divided our time between short pieces in the classical repertory--Bach, Debussy, Chopin and Shubert. We used Jobim's "Triste" as our basic piece for exploring improvisation.

I might have continued working on these miniatures except that one day the piano tuner said that on his next visit he would need extra time to voice the piano, since the low keys weren't being worked as much as the high keys. I realized I'd reached the point where virtue and self-respect demanded Beethoven, and not just "Fur Elise," but a full sonata, a real one. Now, instead of working on two or three pieces at once, I'm working solely on Sonata No. 15, and it will probably take me eight months to learn, and that's all I need from the piano. A year with Martin and I'm where I never thought I'd have a right to be.

I said at the beginning that studying piano with Martin had led to hope. If this were just hope for myself, it would be an obscene narcissism. But as music led me to the need for a better instrument, which led me to a deeper sense of the beauty of Los Angeles, it also led me to Martin's baby son, Nelson.

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