Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Piano Recital (May 1, 2005)

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.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Boston Marathon 2005

April 18, 2005: It's all about fours. My fourth Boston Marathon. My fourth trip to the Mecca of long distance running. My fourth go at a seemingly modest goal of breaking the 4 hour barrier in the city that defines the marathon.

Can I do it this year? My training has gone well...until. Until four weeks before the race, I break the little toe on my right foot, just a klutzy, middle-of-the-night move, kicking my tile-enclosed tub on a midnight trip to the bathroom. The medical people have varying opinions and advice, but you know which advice I will follow: go for it. These last four weeks, I train through more intense pain than I've ever known before while running, not even at the end of my 50-miler last year. But I want it badly, I want this sub-4 Boston. I love the race, but it is this elusive goal that keeps bringing me back. My training base is huge this year - I have been running 70 and 80 mile weeks in all kinds of conditions, and I can taste that sub-4. But the question remains, can I do it?

It seems that the weather gods could not possibly curse the race with three consecutive years of hot weather, but in the weeks leading up to the race, that is exactly the direction the forecast takes. I try to rope in my goals, my hopes, my dream. I know that running in the heat at Boston - with the hills and the crowds and the hills - puts my sub-4 goal at risk. Well, I think, the least I can do is at least run a smart race. After all, it's the only way that I could possibly get under that 4 hour barrier anyway. So, while I pray for a freak storm to hit the city the night before the race (which is exactly what happened for my first run in Beantown), I decide that I will do everything in my power to run a smart race. That means, mostly, wearing my heart rate monitor (HRM), and listening to it every step of the way.

Mick and I fly to Boston on Saturday, and it feels like deja vu all over again. There are the veterans on the plane, the annoying expert on the ramp to board the plane, giving some unwitting newbie a mile-by-mile guide. There is the crew on the plane, offering "good luck" wishes as we land at Logan Airport. As Mick points out, it is a plane loaded with skinny people. There are the enthusiastic folks at the Dollar car rental agency, asking if Mick is running the marathon (everyone assumes Mick is the one running - he clearly looks more like a runner than me). There are the barren trees and the leaves on the ground, looking every bit like it's still deep winter, rather than the springtime that the temperature evokes. There is the hassle getting to the Hynes Convention Center to pick up my bib, and the traffic that makes me crazy but that Mick takes in stride (thank God he drives in Boston!)

This year, there is the v-team pasta party at Shari's home. It's a little weird for me to go, since I've absented myself from the v-board for most of the spring, owing to work and home and family (oh yeah, and training) taking up all of my time. But it's good to go, and to meet so many of these people in the flesh. There is only so much you can know about a person from their posts on a running website. Who would know that Shari's home would look like a place straight out of Architectural Digest? I knew before the party that Christian is a very fast runner, but who knew that he is such a great, welcoming guy - the kind of guy who makes you feel at home the minute you walk in the door? Who knew that Paula Sue is a chatterbox, and that she is fast friends with everyone walking in the door? People are familiar and brand new to me, all at the same time. Meeting people is a weird experience - they say their name, and I see the words in writing and then try to place them in the grand world of the v-team. Ariel walks in the door, and I feel like I've known her forever. Thorin comes in a bit later, and I feel like I've known him forever-and-a-day. This is a weird and fun experience.

This year, our schedule allows us nothing but laziness and sloth on the Sunday before the marathon, and I can't remember a more delightful day. Mick and I have a leisurely breakfast at our B&B in Arlington, and then laze around reading books all afternoon. I'm reading "Swimming to Antarctica", by Lynne Cox. It is the story of the author's life as an extreme endurance swimmer. Lynne Cox is close to my age, and she started breaking world records for epic swims when she was just 15 years old. Her special focus has been on cold water swims (the English Channel, the Bering Straight, the Straight of Magellan, and, as the book title suggests, swimming to Antarctica). As I read about her accomplishments on this warm April day, I try to pull the coldness out of the water that she swims through into my body. I commit to memory passages about the cold, and her focus on keeping her core temperature high throughout her swims in icy waters. I read and re-read passages in which she has to draw from everything that she is made of to finish a particular adventure. I file these away to bring back out on Monday, in hopes that these thoughts will give me strength, and keep me - if even just a tiny bit - cool on my 26.2 mile run from Hopkinton to Boston.

Race day arrives, and the weather predictions turn out to be spot-on. The day-after reports will have the temperature in Hopkinton at 70, the temp at the half-way point also at 70, and the mercury in downtown Boston at race finish at 69. This is, once again, a beautiful day for spectators but a hellish day for runners. I put the four hour goal out of my mind and just worry about running a good race.

And what can I say about this Boston that I haven't said about other Bostons? The start seems very crowded and less well organized than in the past, but I wonder if my expectations have become too high. The race start has all the elements that I've come to know and expect: the Massachusetts state trooper who always sings the national anthem, the early start for the wheelchair racers, the fly-by military jets at the conclusion of the national anthem, and the interminable waiting after the gun goes off. This year, we wait, it seems, nearly 10 minutes before my corral even begins to move. And then I'm crossing the starting line, and having the time of my life once again.

Something about that downhill start just makes it a joyful experience, and causes me to drift off to the side to high-five the kids along the fence. Then there are all the familiar things along the route that I have come to know and look for: the "welcome to Brookline" sign at about 1.5 miles into the race (Brookline is actually the last town before you enter Boston, so the sign is about 22 miles too early), the boombox playing the theme from Rocky somewhere in the first mile of the race, the "check your style" sign at the electrical supply place with reflective windows somewhere around 8 miles into the course, the actual "Now entering " signs along the course, the place where the road splits in Ashland, the right hand turn at the fire station in Newton, the Citgo sign that seems to loom forever in the foreground, the brief glance at Fenway Park, and the fans.

Oh, the fans! How they make this race! They are there the entire 26.2 miles. There are people of every age and color and background, and they all come out, and they all yell encouragement, and more of them than you can imagine bring their own offerings. Kids stand out offering orange slices and cups of water and popsicles and paper towels and sponges and Gatorade and jelly beans and more orange slices. Angels stand along the roadside offering up ice - in cups, in chunks, platefuls of cubes, and more cubes in the hands of little kids. The women of Wellesley do not disappoint - their screaming is like the Sirens' song, and beckons us long before we actually reach the Wellesley campus. The volunteers! With water and Gatorade, always someone with a hand out, never a wait. The way the crowds are there, always there, screaming, yelling encouragement, crowds getting thicker and thicker until you hit that finish line. Kids, more kids, and grown-up kids, standing along the roadside with hands extended, just waiting for the high-five.

What is different this year? Watching my heart rate monitor, I rein it in, much more than seems right in the early miles. My pace for the early miles is slow, but I'm determined to run a good race today, so I am a slave to this little device. I watch the runners around me surge past, all going faster than me; I feel like I'm on a sandbar in a river that is quickly flowing past. But I go slowly, and keep my heart rate in check, and just watch everyone else run by. I think of Lynne Cox and swimming in 38-degree water, but the image doesn't help much until I start grabbing ice from the angels on the side of the road. Then I feel my core temperature stabilize and stay cool. I take more water and more ice along the route (I chew on the ice, I let it swirl around in my mouth, I bathe my neck and hands in it), and I run under every sprinkler and fire hose and squirt gun and spray bottle that people have to offer, and feel delightfully cool when the gusty headwind hits my soaking wet body.

Mid-race, all the water and hoses and spray cause my watch to blank out for a mile or so, and I lose any sense I ever had of what my total elapsed time is for this race. The clocks on the course do me no good, since it seems that I missed the elapsed time on the clock when I crossed the start line, and have no idea of the differential between clock time and my own race time. I'm mostly worried about the loss of heart rate readings, afraid that I'll extend myself too much and crash at the end of the run. But habit keeps me checking my watch, and it comes back to life, so I have heart rate and mile splits again, and keep running.

Around the halfway point, in Wellesley, I'm joined by a runner from Corning, NY, who chats me up and makes the next mile or two go by quickly. In the last two years, this is the point along the course where I've started to feel that I'm on a death march, and in the past I've slowed substantially and started walking through the aid stations. Not today. For all the heat and headwind and slowness, I'm feeling pretty good. My running companion and I talk about ultras that we have run - or plan to run - and the next couple of miles pass quickly. But this unnamed person stops to walk at the next aid station, and I lose him, and now I'm back into my own little groove.

And now, the long downhill into Newton, and I search the crowd for Mick. Four years running, and there he is, at the same spot, this year ringing a cowbell. I pick him out of the crowd before he sees me, and stop to give him a kiss, and then I'm off, heading up into the hills of Newton. As we start up the first of the series of hills that starts here, a runner asks "Is this Heartbreak Hill?", and the seasoned runners in the crowd all laugh. "No," somebody tells the petitioner, "you have 4 miles of hills to go before you hit Heartbreak, this is just the beginning." I laugh. Other runners dread this part of the course, but over the years I have started to think of it as my friend. No matter how bad I feel when I get to Newton, I have learned that I can make it to the finish without crawling. Today is no exception, and it's a special triumph for me as I motor up the hills. I've done some mental math, and figured that I can let my heart rate go crazy, and in the last couple of miles through Newton, I pour it on. It seems that most of the field of runners here is suffering - people walking, crawling, stopping at medical tents, stopping on the side of the road to stretch - but I am feeling good and strong. That tide moving out to sea while I was standing still earlier? The tide has turned, and now I am the one moving while the rest of the world stands still.

Now, it's fun and I'm having a grand old time, even though everyone around me seems to be suffering. About half-way up Heartbreak Hill, I see a woman from our B&B - a fan, here to support another friend of hers - and shout her name, and she turns around and calls out my name. Boston is all about new friends. I pass a guy carrying a flag and wearing a shirt with "In honor of Jeremy Wright" and I hail him: Jeremy Wright was a young first-class snowshoe racer in Colorado before he joined the military and was killed in Afghanistan earlier this year. I start to see all the people who passed me early in the race: the two women dressed in pink and purple outfits, with tiaras of silver sparkly stuff and flowing ribbons; the two women wearing filmy Superwoman capes; the woman from my corral with a bad case of acne on her shoulders; the little old lady with the green funky hat with all kinds of pins on it. It seems there are tons of women running this race in pairs today: another couple of ladies in Lone Star state shorts and cowboy hats, a couple of mother and daughter teams - proudly announced on the back of their shirts.

These last miles are wonderful, heaven, I am running now, finally really running, and it feels good. I have never felt this good in the final miles at Boston, and I thank my heart rate monitor - the one that I am totally ignoring now - and just enjoy the feeling of having something left at the end of the race. It's all good now. I count steps, and I concentrate on breathing, and, every once in a while, I veer off to the left hand side of the course to high-five a few more people. The aid stations become haphazard after mile 21 - they were steadily every mile before that, but there are no left-hand side stations for mile 22 or mile 24. Never mind, I am well hydrated and feeling good, and when I get a little thirsty I grab some water from a spectator. Beautiful spectators.

The end of the race comes quickly, although I still have no idea how much time has elapsed since I started to run. At some point it has become apparent that I will not break four hours today, but I also think it will be the best of my hot-weather Boston outings, so the four hour goal is not quite as important. I pass people like crazy running down Commonwealth, and again on the turn onto Hereford, and again on the final turn onto Boylston, and there, down the road, is the big blue and gold Boston Marathon Finish sign. The official time clock just turns to 4:21:01 as I cross over the finish line, and my fourth Boston Marathon is in the bag.

I feel great as I walk through the finish area - no cramps, no stomach problems, just tired muscles and sudden hunger - and wonder what my net time was. 4:08? 4:10? It's hard to tell, what with my watch dying for a while mid-stream. I find Kathleen - from the v-team party - as I'm walking along, and we make our way together to the family meet-up area. It's grand to have a friend - albeit of recent acquaintance - to walk together through this maze. Just as we reach our meet-ups points, I see the marathon scoring table, and head over to see if they have my net finish time. They do: 4:04:00. Something about this particular race and fours. Fourth Boston Marathon, and a time of 4:04 flat. I should have been able to see it coming.

The next hours go by in a blur - a happy blur, mostly, for I've accomplished one of my goals for the day, and I love feeling good at the end of a marathon; I love finishing strong like this. When I get home, I will have an email from a friend saying, "you broke your Boston curse". And I will appreciate - truly appreciate - every kind word offered by people who know that running a negative split (somehow, in my conservative approach to the race, I ran the second half slightly faster than the first) is a major accomplishment on this course. When I download my splits by mile the next day, I'll see that the 26th mile was the fastest of my day, and I will take considerable pride and pleasure in that fact. I wonder if maybe I am done with this race, at least for a while. It's a great race - the best! - but there are many other marathons to run, other ways to spend my time in April, and the costs and hassle of getting here are not insubstantial. Maybe it's time to think about other goals.

But Mick and I retire to the B&B and our books after a nice post-race dinner, and I finish the Lynne Cox book. I know, before I finish the penultimate chapter, that she will succeed in her quest to swim to Antarctica; this is a woman who has met every goal she ever set out to vanquish. In the final, brief chapter, Ms. Cox recounts the story of a seven-year-old boy in Nebraska who asked her the question, "If you had a goal and worked very, very hard toward it, but you didn't accomplish it, would you still be happy?" Her response: "I would have been happy that I tried to reach my goal, but if I didn't succeed, I would want to go back and figure out what I thought I needed to do to accomplish it, and then try again." She later wonders if what she told him was helpful. Should she have told him to reevaluate his goals and lower the bar if the goal was too high? But then she says, "that's not the way I do things." And I realize, as I'm reading, it's not the way I do things, either. And so, next April, in a little race from Hopkinton to Boston that starts at noon on a Monday, Patriot's Day, you will find me trying once again to meet that sub-4 goal. Whether I succeed or not, I know that I will have a lovely run over a well-traveled course.