A sudden medical scare sent me spinning off into the past, unspooling the visions and variations of my aspirations over decades. Music came first, when my grandparents sent us an upright piano. I must have been three years old. I remember following the piano into the den and coming out when I could play “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”
And now, here I am in Paris, where I once spent a year studying music, hanging out at Shakespeare & Co. and experimenting with a diet that comprised two pastries from Le Notre a day and a kilo of carrots. I just wanted to try all the different confections in the display without gaining weight. So the malnutrition shouldn’t have come as a surprise.
There was fruit in my diet too (aside from the artful three raspberries atop a few of the pastries. After bad lessons with the famed music teacher, Nadia Boulanger, I would walk home from Pigalle, stopping on the way for some glace apricots.
Bad days were when she said, “Eh bien, ma petite, play me your cadences on G flat.” That meant the first chord of the cadence, whether the sequence began on the tonic, the dominant or anyplace else, was G flat.
Libby had her lessons before me. Libby was studying at Princeton University, but on a semester abroad, under the rigorous tutelage of Mlle. Boulanger. Her lesson was right before mine. And as I sat in the anteroom, I could hear Nadia coaxing her through her lessons. Libby couldn’t remember her cadences. Mlle Boulanger responded empathically, reassuring her as if she was a precocious five year old.
Then it was my turn.
We began, as always, with the realization of base lines from Duclos. One had to notate the exercises using four clefs. Not the usual base and treble clefs you learn when you first study music (unless you start with the viola or clarinet, maybe). Base, tenor, alto and soprano clefs, the latter three being moveable C-clefs.
Cross your hands and sing the alto voice. It was past 4:00 pm on an early December afternoon. The light was fading. I sat at the piano; Nadia, eyes clouded with cataracts, sat beside me. My penciled notation blurred in the grey blue light. I asked if I could turn on the lamp. “Eh bien ma petite, someday there will be no more electricity,” she remarked.
The lesson went on. I struggled through. There was a section she didn’t like. She asked me to change the tenor voice. I couldn’t see exactly where she meant, but I played the chord she dictated. Still not able to see, I hesitated. Nadia spelled out the next chord, her frustration rising, the darkness closing in and the anxiety. My pencil scrawls blended into the bluish sheen of the manuscript paper. Her voice grew louder. I had stopped trying to see the paper and was merely taking her dictation.
Suspended in darkness and despair, I sat and let her berate me. Finally, the lesson was over. As I left the room, Giuseppe, the butler was there to console me. It was part of his job to scrape young musicians off the oriental rug, reassure them and hand them their coats.
Decades have passed. I “retired” from classical music as my interests evolved. I acted, I wrote plays. I wrote articles. I got an MFA in writing. I got a day job. I taught writing in the South Bronx. I got another day job.
Working in a company with a bunch of other people is a lot like putting on a play. I didn’t mind the weekends and the all nighters at the accounting firm where I worked in communications. I liked the people. They weren’t just colleagues; they were friends. Even thirty years later, they’re still dear friends.
And if we weren’t hanging out in the office putting together a huge presentation on a Saturday afternoon, we’d have probably been hanging out in the park together.