from The Bear and the Piano
written and illustrated by David Litchfield
Clarion Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016
I’m not sure I’d call the family I grew up in a musical family. Mom played clarinet in high school, then went back to it when I was a grown up. Dad played banjo. He did not wear arm bands or a visor, but he loved a good barbershop quartet. And he could sing, too. His clear tenor voice was not flamboyant, but he carried a heck of a tune. My brother sings like him. I’m lucky to have received Dad’s musicality instead of Mom’s. Her singing voice came from her dad, too, and she could not carry a tune in a bucket, as they say. Grandpa, well let’s just say he was great at being the audience!
My grandma played piano. She could sing, but she didn’t sing for me. That was the domain of Gram, my great-grandma. She wasn’t always in tune, but she made up for it with her enthusiasm.
My sister showed talent on her violin. I’m a little sad that she gave it up before she got to high school. My brother is also talented. He played viola with the Cleveland Philharmonic Orchestra. Not quite the world-famous Cleveland Symphony, but still. I just found out he didn’t enjoy playing, and he doesn’t play now, either. I’m a little sad about that, too.
I don’t know why I didn’t try the violin, but when I said I wanted to learn to play the piano, it only took a nano-second for Grandma and Grandpa to have a new spinet set up in our living room. And I found out that Grandma could play, really well. She could sing, too.
All this singing and playing got me thinking about how we learn to sing. Why some of us sing in tune, and some of don’t. I remember Mom telling one of our music teachers that she wished she could sing in tune. She said she heard the tones in her mind’s ear, but when she sang, it didn’t sound the same in her real ear. The teacher told her to listen, really listen, and practice. That didn’t seem like it would work, and in fact, Mom didn’t try it.
But she taught me to sing, in tune. Mom was my Girl Scout leader. She knew lots and lots of songs and sang them for us. We somehow knew how the melodies were supposed to sound, and even got the harmonies right when we sang in rounds. I’ve done a little research on how children learn to sing. I found lots of material, but the experts are silent about out of tune teachers teaching kids to sing in tune. It happens, though. It happened to me.
And so, back to my piano. I liked to play. I don’t have talent, but I had the will to practice. Or maybe I was stubborn. I played adaptations of show tunes for some of my lesson pieces. Sometimes Dad would pull out his banjo and we’d all sing. A violin or two might join in. “On the Street Where You Live” was a favorite. I don’t know what show it’s from or who sang it, but we had fun with it. Dad could even do harmony.
When I knew for sure I would never be a pianist like Vladimir Horowitz, or Van Cliburn, or Liberace, I put my playing aside. The piano sat waiting and when I moved out, my piano came with me.
I haven’t taken lessons again, but every once in a while I get out my finger exercises and an old book or two and plunk around for a little while.
My older daughter played flute and piccolo in high school. My younger daughter played oboe, but I think she liked the band kids better than the band instruments. All my grandkids play music. The viola and flute are getting more musical. Drums, saxophone, and piano amaze me.
My grandsons are musicians. All three of them. I love to hear them play my old piano, but even they couldn’t make it sound like it should. This year, my husband had my piano tuned for my birthday. When the tuner came, I asked if I could watch.
What a fascinating hour and a half! First, he opened up the top, then he removed the wooden piece that holds the music stand. I have seen the inside of my piano before, so I wasn’t surprised. But all those little pieces! All those precise connections! I have a new appreciation.
Besides skill, expertise, and a good ear, piano tuners have loads of patience. Pianos have 88 keys. The keys you play with your right hand have three strings each. Each time you strike a key, a little mallet hits all three strings at once. Each one is tuned precisely so all three are on the same pitch. Then he double-checks by playing chords and octaves. These days he uses a computer program loaded on a tablet instead of the tuning forks I was expecting him to pull out of his bag, but his ear is clearly his most important tool.
The keys below middle C are also attached to little mallets. They strike only one string. Each string is tightly coiled and each is gradually thicker as you move toward the lower and lower sounds. That tuning process was faster, but still precise.
So maybe I’m wrong. Maybe we were a musical family. Maybe we still are!
Be curious! (and keep a song in your heart)