December 12, 2017
Chopin, the Piano and Me
by Al Sicherman
I’m taking piano lessons—as a grownup (if, at 63, that’s what I am). And, surprisingly, it’s working!
The last time I “took” piano was in a public-school group class in first or second grade, and to say I was terrible greatly understates the situation: I was stubborn, too. Notably, I refused to accept the teacher’s stultifying notion that particular notes should be played with particular fingers.
To prove her wrong, I went home and sort-ofmemorized some piece of music, and although I played it absolutely wretchedly, I did so with an entirely free-style approach to fingering. The result was an abrupt (but satisfying) conclusion to my piano education. For the next 50-some years.
Now and then in my adult life, I’ve thought of resuming my piano career (I have schlepped my grandmother’s piano from house to house through my last seven moves), but I never did so. I think I assumed it would be like my grade-school experience, but without the sailor suit. In any case, it never happened until a friend who’s an accomplished pianist raved about her teacher and prodded me to call her.
There are many ways that taking piano lessons as an adult differs from doing it as a kid. Two big ones are that I’m paying, so I’m practicing, and that when I ask questions—at least with my teacher, Stephanie Wendt, who is wonderful—I get very good, thoughtful answers. (Sometimes, if I’m really not ready for the lesson, I’ll ask a question that deserves a long answer.)
Anyway, after a couple of years I was playing simple pieces—works that don’t require using very many fingers at once, and that contain the agony to one page. That might not sound like much, but I’d started from zero, and I was pretty pleased.
One day I was at a friend’s house and a Chopin CD was playing. I don’t know many pieces of classical music beyond the William Tell Overture and what Tommy Smothers called “Clyde DeBussy’s immoral Clune de Bune,” but when the Nocturne No. 2 in E-flat started, I realized not only that I knew it (I think it must have been on one of the RCA Victor Red Seal 78s kept in the wind-up phonograph on my parents’ back porch in Milwaukee), but also that I have always loved it. And at my next lesson, what the heck, I asked Stephanie if there was any way I could learn to play it. I expected a pleasant but firm outline of the many hurdles between me and Chopin, and a suggestion that, having somehow made it from A to B, we should continue our steady, measured progress toward C, and that we’d get to Chopin somewhere around Q, if I was still alive.
This is the very best thing about adult piano— and about having a wonderful teacher: what she actually said was that, well, it would take quite a while, and it would be the first time she’d used a Chopin nocturne to teach using the pedal, but if I really wanted to play it, that’s what we’d do.
Stephanie was right. It took about a year, and it’s still far from polished, but it’s recognizably (and not very wretchedly) a Chopin nocturne. And I can play it for myself whenever I want. Which is five or six times a week.
I can’t play it for anyone else without freezing up, but public performance was nothing I’d wanted— and I’ve discovered that I can play it in public if people eat and talk while I play, so they can’t hear me.
Stephanie and I agreed recently that although I haven’t exactly defeated the E-flat Nocturne I have at least fought it to a draw, and I need to move on to another piece.
I picked another Chopin nocturne. I think I have time.
The late, much-loved Al Sicherman, who died in August 2017, wasn’t known for writing about music: for decades he charmed Star Tribune readers with his columns on food and on, as he put it, “the endless variety of human failings.” We’re grateful that Al made time not only to learn Chopin nocturnes, but to share his experience in this Showcase essay, first published in 2005.