Brunswick, Melbourne, April 2015
Our piano tuner used to be an AFL footballer. Mostly, he lives down the coast, but works in the city a couple of days a week. “Clare,” he says, “You would not believe the number of mothers I see who could play piano really well and haven’t touched it for years. I don’t get it,” he says, all the while plucking cheeky tunes from the ivories. “When I was a kid, my parents had to drag me away from the piano so that the baby could sleep. When I walk past a piano, I just want to play it. I can’t keep away.”
I have been keeping away from our piano for decades. Apart from dusting it, I never touch the thing, and, until now, despite feeling vaguely guilty about this, have never felt the compulsion to do anything about it.
Since the visit of the piano tuner, however, things have changed. Something keeps drawing me to that long-neglected instrument. My fingers itch to play.
I dig out all my old sheet music. I have Mozart’s piano sonatas bound in dull green leather, Bach’s preludes and fugues, books of charming little exercises by Bergmuller and Czerny. There are my old AMEB exam books from grade 1 to grade 6. I start working my way through them all.
I played piano from early childhood, when mum taught me, all the way through primary school – where Miss Hardy used to hit my fingers with a ruler when I made mistakes – to high school. I did piano in what we used to call matric. Every night I practised for two hours; I loved the fact that it was study for a subject but was completely different from the other four. That was the pinnacle of my musical ability, culminating with an A in my final exam, when I knew I was playing better than I ever had before and ever would again.
And then, after school, nothing. Such a wicked waste: like growing up bilingual and never using your second language. But life, work and babies took over, and piano didn’t get a look in.
Forty years after I sat my final school exams, I discover I have a surprising memory for the pieces I played as a 16-year-old. I remember learning that there are several different types of memory operating when you play a musical instrument – the brain memory, the visual memory, the memory of the fingers, and that you have to keep them all in working order, so that if one of them fails, mid performance, the others will take over.
I marvel at the skills – visual, cerebral and muscular – that allow me to play up to ten notes simultaneously. It is like reading another language, and then having the meaning travel through my eyes to my brain to be spoken out, melodiously, through my fingers.
Not that it’s so melodious to start with. I am appallingly rusty. Sometimes I practise lines and phrases and trills over and over, one hand at a time, but mostly I just stumble through these gorgeous pieces, hoping that no one is listening.
An abiding memories of my childhood was of mum at the piano, making beautiful music, and one piece I member particularly clearly is Sheep may safely graze, by JS Bach. Bach, more than any other composer I know, makes me feel that everything will come out right in the end. Other composers were tormented souls; Bach seems to be a benign and contented family man with his 20 children, his round face and avuncular wig, his systematic working through the well tempered klavier, his logical way of approaching music. Sheep may safely graze epitomised this to me with its echoes of the 23rd Psalm: the sense of all being well, the sheep munching contentedly, all the world peaceful and bucolic and green.
I pored over all the sheet music on my shelves with no success; Mum’s copy probably fell apart, she played it so often. I downloaded it the next day, and printed out the two short pages. I played it when I got home; it was a lot easier than some of the pieces I had been attempting these last few weeks. I am determined to work it up.
It’s a lovely thing to do, play the piano. When there are twenty idle minutes of an evening, it’s a good way to spend some time. It uses a different part of my brain from reading, writing and administration. Most of all, it takes me back to childhood, and going to bed with the sound of my mother playing in the background. In the new landscape my family now inhabits, it provides a soothing, comforting oasis in my day. When I play Sheep may safely graze, it reminds me that in a world where death is suddenly breathing down our necks, creativity, music and beauty continue, mothers play their children to sleep and even in the valley of the shadow of death, goodness and mercy will follow me.
© Clare Boyd-Macrae. Clare is a Melbourne writer, and the author of Three Gates to Paradise (2006) and The Whole Shebang (2008), both published by Clouds of Magellan. This story was first published on Clare’s blog.