Music from My Grandmother’s Hands, and Mine

MP900382768My grandmother’s red-lacquered nails clicked lightly on the keys as she played the piano. She played classical music and big band songs, her hands flying over the keyboard to bring melody and harmony from nothing. The taps of her manicured nails only added to the music in my young mind.

MP900289396This was my father’s mother, whom I thought of as my more fashionable grandmother. She had beautiful curly hair she kept well-styled, she dressed well, and her nails were always painted.

And she could charm music from the keys that brought a smile to my lips and joy to my soul.

Poul Friis Nybo, Woman Playing the Piano

Poul Friis Nybo, Woman Playing the Piano

I later learned that she had played the piano to accompany silent films in the late 1920s – a glamorous occupation, in my naïve opinion, almost as important as the movie stars themselves.

I don’t recall when I first heard her play. I think I was quite young. I couldn’t read music. I tried to make sounds on the piano like she did, but after I plunked one key I didn’t know which to plunk next.

I started piano lessons when I was eight-and-a-half. I was very disappointed in my slow progress. I guess I thought that as soon as I could decipher the odd black and white notes, with their tails and bars, I would be able to play like my grandmother.

But after a few months, I could only pound out simple songs, one note at a time, my thumbs positioned carefully over Middle C. I couldn’t come close to matching my grandmother’s hands that ran lightly from treble to bass.

My piano teacher held recitals twice a year, at Christmas and in the spring time. The recitals started with the newest students, and ended with the most experienced. Of course, I started as a newbie, leaden-fingered, with a rhythm set by my halting coordination, not a metronome.

But after five years, I was the last student to play at the recital. That year I played Pomponette (composer forgotten) and Sakura (Cherry Blossoms, a traditional Japanese song).

One winter morning as I practiced these songs, I remember doing a particularly nice job on Pomponette, as well as on a sonatina or two. The music rushed from my fingers. When I finished, I stopped, stunned. For the first time, I felt that I had interpreted the music the way the composer wanted.

My fingers were becoming as trained as my grandmother’s.

Unfortunately, my piano teacher moved right after that year’s spring recital. I took lessons from two other women over the course of the next year. One was too serious and competitive about music for my taste, and the other wasn’t a very good teacher. I lost interest, and switched to the guitar.

I haven’t played the piano much in recent decades, other than a few Christmas carols out of the book I used for those Christmas recitals so long ago. But I remember my grandmother’s hands, and the day I made music.

And I still have dreams of taking up the piano again. I would like to play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata competently before I die. But it will take a lot of practice, as well as dreams.

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  1. Lovely post, Theresa. That is very cool your grandmother played the piano to accompany silent films. Have you been able to see any of the movies? I’ve always wanted to learn to play the piano. I played the clarinet when I was younger.

    • Thanks, Jill.
      I don’t know what movies she played for. She lived in Arnold, Nebraska, at the time — a very small town, and played at the movie theatre there or somewhere nearby.

  2. Theresa,

    My grandfather was the musician in my family. He did not play concerts; he played his fiddle at barn dances in North Dakota. When he was older, he played for his grandsons. Men who could farm the North Dakota land were serious people who did not usually let anyone see them smile. By the third tune, grampa was smiling and dancing a jig. Thanks for reminding me, Theresa.

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