My piano teacher, Nancy Kaesler, has run a piano studio in the foothills of Denver for many years. When she first agreed to take me on as a student, about ten years ago, most of her students were kids; I was one of just a handful of adults. In the intervening years, her studio has “grown up”, and many of those very talented and dedicated “kids” are now college graduates, or, more recently, college freshmen and sophomores, majoring in music. As the base of younger students has moved up and on, the open slots in the studio have, increasingly, been filled with other adults.
For me, this is a good thing. We now have a full contingent of adults who enjoy each other’s company, and also love to gather to play for each other, talk about music specifically and life in general, and to eat well and drink wine. We have “piano parties” several times each year, very informal gatherings where we play for each other and then eat and drink. As I mentioned, this is a good thing for me, and for the rest of the adults. What it isn’t necessarily good for, though, is Nancy’s regular studio recitals. With a dwindling number of kids, the programs for those recitals are getting shorter. Just this last year, Nancy lost her two most talented and accomplished high school girls to college programs. These two were always responsible for performing big works at the studio recitals, and their absence is very noticeable.
So, this spring, Nancy asked a few of us adult students to play in a couple of ensemble pieces at the studio recital, as much to round out the program as to give us a chance to play for an audience. I jumped at the chance, even though working on the recital material took me away from a couple of pieces that I wanted to polish this spring. I grew up playing in groups – whether playing piano accompaniments for church or school groups, or playing a variety of instruments in band and small groups in school – and I love the experience of making music with other people. Given my preference for classical music, I will probably never make it as a rock n roll musician, nor as a jazzer. Piano ensemble is, then, the best thing left to me.
The first ensemble piece that Nancy gives me is an arrangement of the Sabre Dance by Khatchaturian. This piece is arranged for five pianos! I have never before heard of such a thing. But Nancy is excited about the piece, and gives the lead piano piece to me. Ben, another adult student in the studio, has the second lead piano piece. Nancy gives the remaining three parts to three teenage girls in the studio – Laura, Taylor, and Amelia. While I don’t know any of the teens, I have heard (and seen) them all play at studio recitals, and trust Nancy’s instincts about their abilities completely.
When we get together for our first rehearsal – using the two grand pianos in Nancy’s studio, along with her digital piano and two borrowed keyboards - my impression is one of complete disaster. This piece is meant to be played fast and furious, and even at our slow speeds, we cannot stay together as a group. We sound horrible. But Nancy drills and drills us, and there are more rehearsals, and, finally, a few days before the recital, I feel that we have a chance of actually sounding okay.
The recital is late on a Sunday afternoon, and it is a gloomy spring day, threatening snow. The weather gives me a good excuse to stay inside at home and warm up for a long time before heading to the studio where the recital is held. A local piano dealer – Wells – has a performance room that is used for recitals. It’s a good facility, with two Steinway concert grand pianos on a stage in a sound engineered room, and it works well for most of Nancy’s recitals. But this piece – the Sabre Dance – requires FIVE separate pianos! The folks at Wells are extremely accommodating, and for our performance, they have arranged and tuned five identically sized grand pianos in the Steinway room, rather than attempting to move additional pianos into the performance hall. The three teenagers, Ben, Nancy, and I all gather here about an hour before the recital for some last minute practice, and it goes extremely well. I’m jazzed because I finally believe that we will be able to pull this thing off.
The other performers (mostly kids, of course) and parents and friends all arrive, and Nancy ushers them into the Steinway room where my four cohorts and I are waiting nervously at our pianos. In our final rehearsal this afternoon, Nancy has decided that we can crank up our tempo just ever-so-slightly, and I think that makes us all just a tad bit nervous. What if the piece falls apart entirely? It has, after all, happened countless times in earlier rehearsals. But we’re all game, and soon Nancy is counting out our first couple of measures, and now we are playing for the assembled crowd.
And, wow! Does this sound grand! Five Steinway grands, in perfect pitch, and a great arrangement of a great work of music! We are all “on”, and the sound is terrific. Ben, a retired engineer, is sitting at a piano next to me, and he is absolutely jumping on his piano bench – he’s bouncing so much that change or keys in his pocket are keeping time with the music. We’re all grinning ear to ear, and the parts all come across in perfect balance. The two places where we’ve had the biggest problems in rehearsal – where we switch suddenly, without warning, from 4/4 time to ¾ time, and then back again – are flawless. We finish the piece with a bang, and we all jump up off our seats, flush with excitement and the special comradeship that you can only get by making music with other people. Who would have thought that this motly crew could pull this off? It’s a triumphant beginning to any piano recital.
The only resemblance of the second ensemble piece to this first rousing exhibition is that they are both big rousing numbers, and both big crowd pleasers. The second ensemble piece is one that Ben has brought to the group – an arrangement of Stars and Stripes Forever for two pianos/eight hands. For this piece, Nancy has assembled a group that includes Ben and me, and two adults who are new to her studio. In fact, only Patti is a student – but that is misleading. Patti is also a music teacher, who has specialized in horn, and she is taking lessons from Nancy to work on her piano skills. Patti’s horn experience proves to me extremely helpful to us as we rehearse the Stars and Stripes. The fourth pair of hands for this piece belongs to Catherine, who is not a student of Nancy’s, but is another skilled adult pianist. Catherine is an Episcopal priest who is taking a sabbatical to go back to college to earn a degree in piano. We are, indeed, another very unusual group.
In contrast to my lead piano part in the Sabre Dance, Nancy gives me the bass part on Piano II for the Stars and Stripes. When she distributes the music, I’m happy to have this low, booming part; I think that I will have a chance to “hide out” down in the oompah section. It is only at our first group rehearsal that I realize that I am only half-right. It turns out that my part – the oompah section – is, in actuality, the lead melody part for most of the arrangement. The other three piano voices add much in the way of ornamentation and other band instrument sounds, but the core of the piece is in my part.
Nancy puts the second ensemble piece dead last in the program; is there anything more fitting than sending people on their way with the Stars and Stripes ringing in their ears? Someone in our little group volunteers to bring costumes, so we have Uncle Sam hats and little bow ties on when we walk onto the stage for the recital finale.
Now, the costumes are fun, but they soon present a problem that I haven’t anticipated. My little hat is just a tad too small for my head, and it wobbles as I walk. When I sit down at the piano, I think that the hat will be fine if I just hold my head still. But that is a problem. You see, Nancy has given me, by virtue of my position in the group, the job of counting out the start, and signaling movements (hands on the keyboard, coordinating the next section, etc.) to me – and we have practiced this in rehearsal. And…the way I signify these things is by nodding my head.
So as we start our rousing finale to the program, my hat wobbles precariously on my head, and I give nearly-imperceptible nods to signify the start of the piece. We have a grand, rousing introduction, but soon, as I signal a page turn to our page turner with a nod of my head, my hat starts wobbling out of control and falls off my head. The alert page turner catches it in mid flight and returns it to my head! I hear a titter from the audience, and then decide that the music is the important thing, and hang the hat! Soon the page turner is splitting duties between watching for critical page turns, and also keeping the hat on my head. So much for a dignified performance!
But no matter the hat, I’m having a grand time. The booming bass of the Steinway concert grand that I’m playing is a perfect match for the music, and the bass reverberations resonate all the way up from my feet through my stomach. We are not playing this quite as well as we have in rehearsal, but the quality of these two perfectly matched instruments – along with the enthusiasm of the audience – makes up for any gaffs that we have as performers. Too soon, we are on the last page, and the last rousing chords are struck, and we all jump to our feet. It’s a small audience, but it feels like thunderous applause.
It’s been a long time since my last public ensemble appearance – maybe high school. There are, always, things in life that you leave behind as you age. My ensemble piano experience is a lesson in remembering that you don’t always have to leave all the good stuff behind. It’s no wonder that Mick Jagger and the boys keep going, although they are geezer-rocksters today. There’s really very little to compete with the joy of making music with other people. And so, now it’s time for me to go practice my next ensemble piece, and hope for another generous audience.