On the Other Hand….

Although I leave many of my lessons happy and inspired, as I described in my last post, there are also those times when I leave thinking, “What am I thinking? I can’t do this! There are so many people who can play these pieces better than I. What is the point? “

But before I whine too long in my corner, the piano beckons and I am off again. There are no such thoughts when I am actually practicing.


Two amazing people have come to my attention this week, and I would like to offer a window into their worlds.  Seymour Bernstein, 87-year-old pianist, composer, teacher, and philosopher, is featured in a film that opened on March13th (though not, to my knowledge, yet in Milwaukee)—a documentary by Ethan Hawke called “Seymour: An Introduction.”  The link is to a trailer for the movie; if you are intrigued, I urge you to look at the longer interview with both Hawke and Bernstein about the making of the film.

Manohla Dargis, in his review of the film, “In Music, as in Life, the Lesson Is Perseverance,” says,  “Among the lessons, musical and otherwise, that Mr. Bernstein offers is that surrender isn’t an option. ‘The struggle is what makes the art form,’ he says. ‘I had to go to war for my art form.’ . . . What Mr. Bernstein reveals through both the example of his life and the many recollections and conversations threaded throughout this documentary, is that struggle—long, brutal, enervating, interminable-must have its due. That this is as much a movie about life as about art is clear from the first few minutes, as is the sense that the terms are inseparable for him.”


The other amazing person of whom I was made aware through the gift of her book The Secret Piano: From Mao’s Labor Camps to Bach’s Goldberg Variations is Zhu Xiao-Mei. She says in an interview accompanying the liner notes for her 2014 cd The Art of the Fugue,  “’The Art of Fugue’ is a work that’s sometimes discouraging to practice. It’s very difficult in terms of notes. The sustained notes are tricky for pianists like me who don’t have big hands….I’ve never suffered so much when practicing a work. And when I say suffered, I’m also talking about physical suffering: I was sore all over, sore hands, sore shoulders.” So what makes you do it? asks the interviewer: “There’s a paradox with this work. To practice it causes you cruel sufferings, but to perform it give you the impression of entering a state of perfect balance. And as you know, for the Chinese, the search for balance—of thought, of the body, of life—is the ultimate goal.”

But then there’s that self-doubt. Both Bernstein and Zhu faced in childhood immense struggles for their music. Bernstein’s musical interests were apparently not supported by his entire family. In fact, Dargis says, “his father said he had two daughters and a pianist…. Bernstein played at the front in the Korean War and in concert halls afterward, winning praise and admirers, only to give up his public career [for teaching] when he was 50.”

Even more dramatically, Zhu spent five years in a work camp in Mongolia as the Cultural Revolution closed all art schools and sent artists away for “re-education.” As a teenager, Zhu struggled with the brainwashing strategies of the Communist party, which turned family member against family member and friend against friend. Since then, she has struggled greatly to reclaim enough self-confidence to play. As she says in her book, “Success in itself is nothing. Once you have achieved it, the most difficult task still lies ahead—mastering yourself.”

Both Bernstein and Zhu insist on the close connection between music and life. Zhu says in her book, “After everything I have experienced, I cannot take an intellectual approach to music. When I play, I try to speak to people, to tell them something, to show them the beauty of a work, to move them. Having an audience is crucial for me. Some of my fellow artists assert that they play for themselves rather than for an audience. I take the exact opposite approach: my goal is to share with others.

“Humanity is the truth of music. What is important to me is that, this evening, I may be able to reach one person, someone who is not a musician. That I might be able to reveal a part of his or her humanity, of our shared humanity, of which he or she may be unaware. And one day, who knows, perhaps this may help that person to speak out when what is essential is threatened.”

I have no such great ambition as Zhu or Bernstein.  Anxiety has always threatened my playing, as well as other important elements of my life.  And yet I hope, at my recital on June 6, to give back, in some small way, the gift of music that has been given to me. Zhu closes her book with this: “At night I question myself, I am afraid of others, of myself. I have an acute awareness of my impotence, my inability to achieve perfection. But in the morning, I know that it is still there, in the next room, waiting for me. It always keeps its promise of fulfillment. My piano.”

So, on this, my 70th birthday, I raise my glass to all piansts who struggle—indeed, to all who struggle with anything– as well as to the rather fierce-looking seven-year-old child I was when I began lessons. Here’s to you, kid! You have an amazing ride ahead of you! And I’ll be with you every step of the way!


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