Since I recounted last week how I got lost playing a little piece by Darius Milhaud for Coleman Blumfield, a pianist who had studied with Vladimir Horowitz, perhaps I should explain how I came to be playing the piano in the first place.
As did many children, I began studying piano when I was seven or so. At that time, we lived in Fort Edward, New York. I have very little memory of those lessons or that teacher--the lessons cannot have lasted more than a few months because we shortly moved to Broadalbin, New York.
I do remember that shortly after the lessons started, I saw an ad promising that one could learn to play the piano in five easy lessons. I thought that had to be true, until my father, who was a very good violinist, disabused me of the notion.
As a violinist, my father was good enough that his repertoire included Beethoven's "Spring" Sonata. I remember that after I had taken lessons for maybe four years or so, I could play the first little bit of the piano part of that work, but nothing beyond the opening measures--rather like the first two pages of the Rachmaninov Third Piano Concerto, which anyone can play, but which, unfortunately, lead to the subsequent pages, which are rather like stepping into the Niagara River and being swept toward the Falls.
When we moved to Broadalbin, I studied with the organist at the church where my father was pastor. Music made sense to me, in some odd way, which meant that I enjoyed it. When we moved to Flint, Michigan, in 1959, I began studying with a member of the piano faculty at what is now Mott Community College. That teacher, Reuben Johnson, remains, with Elizabeth Calkins, my high school English teacher, among the most influential teachers in my career.
From my piano teacher, I learned how to sight read, how to approach and learn a new piece, how to practice, and how to listen to myself and to others play. He also pointed out some practical things:
concert artists leave very little, if anything, to chance--they have thought of how they will get on and off the stage, for example, so that they do not wander aimlessly around the stage looking for the piano;
they are never rushed in getting ready to play, although they do not take too long to settle themselves in front of the piano; they signal an audience either that they are happy the audience is present--or, in some cases--that they do not particularly care that anyone has bothered to show up;
and since an amateur pianist usually gets invited to play for church or civic groups, always be prepared to play certain pieces from memory: "The Star Spangled Banner," "America," "America the Beautiful," "God Bless America," and the "Doxology," because although you may be planning to play the first movement of the "Moonlight," the group may want to sing one or another of those at the start of the meeting and no matter how well the "Moonlight" may go, all they will remember is that you botched the National Anthem or some similar piece.
Hitting junior and then senior high school in a new city, I discovered the piano was for me what art is for some people, theater for others, and athletics for others--a space in which one explores something beyond one's self while simultaneously discovering one's own potential and even becoming aware that with practice, one does get better and better, even if the Rachmaninov Third is never going to be in the realm of possibility.
But many pieces were possible and in addition to Blumfield, I had the opportunity to play for Ruth Slynczinska and for Abbey Simon, among other pianists who came to town. Moreover, one soon discovers that if people know one can play, invitations to play for certain groups--especially church groups--sometimes follow. And eventually, as I added the study of the organ to the piano, opportunities at a very early age (high school) to be a church organist and even a choir director followed.
Flint, like many cities, had--and has--a symphony and held an annual concerto contest in which students vie for the honor of being able to appear with the symphony. Usually, a person enters the competition playing the first movement of a given concerto. Because of the nature of a Bach concerto, the first year I entered that competition, I played the entire Bach Fifth Keyboard Concerto, which I had encountered through Glenn Gould's recording. I still play the second movement of this work in an arrangement I made for solo piano. I did not win the competition that year.
The next year I entered (and won) with the first movement of the Aram Khachaturian Piano Concerto, a work famously associated with William Kapell, who died at a very early age in a plane crash. While not--like the Rachmaninov--an impossibly difficult concerto, the Khachaturian is a showy little number, not easy, but not as difficult as it sounds; and I did get a nice review in the local paper.
Going back to Blumfield, however, I never played either the Bach or the Khachaturian for him. The most difficult works I did prepare for him were Schumann's Carnaval and Beethoven's fourth piano sonata--the Opus 7. I am delighted that when he lectured at Wigmore on this sonata, Andras Schiff described it as a very difficult work. For one thing, it is long--longer than any of the sonatas except for the Opus 106, known as the Hammerklavier, which I once saw a young artist attack as though it were a block of wood to be karate chopped into submission. And the Opus 7 provides many opportunities for things to go wrong. Fortunately, nothing ever went as profoundly wrong as discovering I was adrift in the house of Milhaud.
After getting lost the first time I played for him, I always approached Blumfield with some caution. But he was a most remarkable artist and increasingly generous with his comments and kindness as time went on. He spent a year in Flint as artist in residence to that city; he went on to represent the United States on behalf of the State Department. But truth be told, he did not become one of the "established" pianists of his generation, perhaps--as some suggest--because of Van Cliburn's unusual rise to stardom on the wings of winning the Tchaikovsky shortly after the Russians launched Sputnik, perhaps for other reasons. But whenever I see one of these remarkable young pianists who is launching her or his career, I do remember Coleman Blumfield.