Friday, June 03, 2005

The One in Which I Try to Sidestep Organ Puns

I often forget the way playing the piano can clear my head.

One of the reasons I chose this condo was that the owners planned to leave behind their piano, as it was too cumbersome to move and wouldn't fit in their new digs anyway. Have you read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn? The connection is not lost on me.

When I first moved in, I played the piano a lot -- not especially well, but a lot. I was trained as an organist from about age eight or nine until my late teens, and played for several church choirs (Masses, weddings, funerals, Confirmations, First Communions, etc.) beginning at about age 13 and ending in my early twenties, when I became too busy with college and life in general. I was no virtuoso, but I was blessed with a patient mentor named Lorraine Stiles, and I knew my way around a keyboard well enough that eventually I was paid to play on occasion.

Often I asked a friend of mine to show up to weddings to turn pages for me, and I usually took her out to lunch afterward. That was fun. Funerals weren't fun. Once I played for the funeral of a girl who'd gone to my school. Her family was Greek and I could hear them wailing downstairs as I played in the choir loft. The memory of that sound still rips me apart. After my Uncle Al died in 1984, just days after my high school graduation, I organized a choir comprised of my friends and family with the best voices, planned the music and rehearsed everyone, and we provided the music for his memorial Mass. Although it was horrible that he died, I felt really blessed to be able to honor his memory in my own way, especially since the visiting priest forgot my uncle's name and the memorial was a bit bungled.

The church housed a grand piano, as well as the pipe organ, in the choir loft. Most of the time, no one played it, but one or two choirs for which I played sometimes brought in a pianist to add to the accompaniment on special occasions like Christmas. We also had guitarists most of the time, drums a lot of the time, someone on chimes on occasion, and brass once in a blue moon.

I practiced a lot at home and at the church (I still have the old key to the church organ on my key ring), and loved to play for hours at a time. When practicing in the empty church, the only thing that would stop me was my own rumbling stomach. You know how folks talk about being "in the zone"? That's what it was like for me. I played hymns, parts of the Mass, classical music and the odd secular piece. The pastor, Monsignor Duffy, frowned on the use of secular music in the church, but I played it sometimes if the church was totally empty, and if the music was pretty and could be construed as worship-worthy. (Monsignor Duffy has passed away since my days there, and I have a feeling he forgives me.) ;^)

Anyway, I got sidetracked by life and things were changing at the church, so I moved on and the church hired a proper music director. I'd been volunteering my time anyway, playing up to three Masses on Sundays and practicing on my own time as well, so it seemed like a good idea for me to make a change.

But I missed playing.

You probably never see pipe organs in hotel lobbies or church halls, but I bet you see pianos around. I often wished I could just sit down and play every time I encountered an unattended piano, but despite what most people think, playing the organ is a lot different than playing the piano. Since I wasn't trained on the piano, I found myself at a loss. Yes, I had a four-octave electric keyboard at home, but it was nothing like the organ I used to practice on, with its multi-octave pedal board, expression pedals, double keyboard and gazillion stops. Still, I made do for a while. Then life accelerated and I forgot all about playing. In all honesty, I was frustrated with the limitations of my electric keyboard and longed for a proper instrument.

Fast forward to 2003, as I looked for a place to live. The owners of the condo were planning to leave most of their furniture, as well as the piano. As coincidence would have it, I'd been browsing through piano ads online for years, dreaming of buying or renting one someday. Why a piano and not an organ? Well, look at the ads and tell me how many ads for electric organs you find. Also, maintaining the older ones is a pain. Besides, pianos sound lovely and organs sort of peaked in the seventies. Remember going shopping and hearing the salesmen at organ stores playing schmaltzy tunes that wafted through the mall? Heh. You don't encounter that any more, I'll bet.

So now I have a piano. I don't know how long I'll have it, as I'm thinking about moving again, and it costs money to move and tune a piano.

Although I played it a lot right after I moved in (and started to sound pretty decent), once again life took over. My son's dad and I went to court and I found myself leaving the piano closed for ever-longer periods of time. I began devoting more attention to my computer keyboard than to the ivories.

A little while ago, though, I went downstairs, flipped up the cover, checked the keys for dust, and played. I was rusty, but some tunes came back to me as I played, and I didn't even close the windows.

It felt good to be back on the bench. Maybe I'll do this more often.