Songs in the Key of Friendship

Playing piano duets with my best friend of 34 years is more than a challenge — it’s the soundtrack of our relationship.

By Selma Moss-Ward

Our Mutual LoveWe sit at the Yamaha upright in a moment of interruption, which happens frequently during our lessons. Our eyes move from the page of the Schubert Fantasy in F Minor for one piano, four hands — I play primo; Heather, secondo — to our Dutch coach, Jeannette Koekkoek, who, though in her early 40s, has a mouthful of pastel-colored braces. They complement her punk haircut, which is an entirely faux shade of blonde.Jeannette drapes herself over the piano and leans into our faces, up close and personal. The piano is in a deconsecrated 14th-century Tuscan chapel made of stone, brick, and wood beams. Stone and brick make lovely chapels, but they are acoustic horrors — the reverberation when we play is deafening."You know what is your problem?" Jeannette quizzes, glaring through her granny glasses. Heather and I smile, amused at the thought of having just one problem."It is you are too nice girls," she says. Two nice girls. I try to decode what sounds like a cheesy pickup line. I am 48; Heather will be 48 next month. If a guy said something like this, I’d think he’d had a few too many."Here, in this passage, you must play fiercely! You must not be too nice," Jeannette explains, thrusting her face between Heather and me. "Be mean girls!""I see what you are saying," Heather says, smiling. As a psychoanalyst, she is good at understanding submerged meanings. "Again?" she asks me.We rip into the notes this time, accelerate maniacally through the fugue, and arrive at the last iteration of the sad theme that weaves throughout the piece. The mood shifts from intense drama to haunting poignancy. Then it’s over, decaying notes hanging in the air. I glance at Heather, who is looking meditatively at her hands, now folded in her lap. As if she feels my glance, she turns and we give each other a huge hug.Secrets of Musical SisterhoodMusic has been a part of our lives since childhood, but for the past decade, playing duets has been a unifying aspect of our friendship, the way some friends take up tennis or go shopping. We were 14 when Heather and I met at New York’s High School of Performing Arts. Music was our refuge from unhappy homes. To practice the piano was to block out pain and create an expressive release.We both left the school before senior year — I to attend college early, Heather to move with her family to Florida — and we lived hundreds of miles from each other for decades. We rarely spoke in those years, but now that our children are grown and our lives are more flexible, we have been meeting regularly for duet lessons in our home states of North Carolina and Rhode Island. It was my teacher in Providence, Arlene Cole, who first noted that many of the challenges still facing us had nothing to do with music, but with our approach to it. "You play too pianistically," she pronounced with typical music teacher candor. "This is not a solo performance, and you are not prima donnas; you need to make room for each other and play as one."Duets, like any relationship, require expanded awareness, and we hadn’t considered what happens when two are seated on one piano bench. So when I learned of a chamber music workshop for amateur musicians in Monte San Savino in Tuscany, I took Arlene’s advice to heart and persuaded Heather to enlist with me. It seemed, on some level, deserved, the result of having lived so long doing things for others. At last my children were independent. At last I felt sure enough at work to take time off guiltlessly. At last I had the financial wherewithal. Playing Schubert in Italy became my reward.The day before the weeklong workshop started, my husband, Harold, and I flew into Florence and caught a train to Arezzo, the city closest to Monte San Savino. Heather had already arrived, and the three of us walked the city’s steep streets in the golden late-afternoon light, stumbling upon the birthplace of Guido d’Arezzo, the medieval monk who is credited with developing modern musical notation. Harold photographed us in front of Guido’s house, my arm around Heather, both of us smiling at the idea of playing in an idyllic hilltop castello surrounded by olive groves.The Dance of a DuetBefore she plays a piece, Heather studies the score and writes in fingerings. My style is to plunge in, ignoring classic piano rules about practicing methodically before putting it all together in slow motion. I often tell Heather, whose meticulousness is the opposite of my approach, "You’re my conscience." It’s she who counts us through the sticky timing issues and tries to figure out how we can cross our hands without becoming a human knot.So what propelled us to move beyond our set ways and decide to work as a team? It was partly the wish to perform beautiful music well and partly the desire to reach a higher level of accomplishment. We changed our postures. We scrutinized our hands in motion to make sure we’d hit unison notes actually in unison, not a split second apart. We developed a system of breathing cues and sidelong glances to synchronize entrances. Having known each other for so long, we are relaxed together, which is especially important when playing duets since it requires being intimately tangled — thighs touching, knees knocking underneath the keyboard, arms passing into the other’s territory, fingers flying in each other’s way. Heather tries to minimize collisions by writing warnings like "Move in from above!" and "Raise hands here!" Even so, there are occasional mishaps: Fingernails scratch, notes are missed, a foot gets stomped when the person doing the pedals skids over too far. When we play, we are sisters, tangled in music and in what we have shared over the years.In high school, we weren’t as close. I remember Heather as the girl who always smiled, the "too nice" one. She remembers me as angry. "I thought you were scary," she says to me now. "You’d talk about your parents in a way that was harsh and true, and although I was having a horrible time at home, I could not say it."Similar Lives, Separate PlacesHeather and I couldn’t have known then that our lives would move in roughly parallel ways. We both married in the mid-1970s; by the early 1980s, she was living in Washington, D.C., and I was in Illinois with one child, soon pregnant with another. In 1984, I moved to New England to teach college, while Heather and her husband settled in North Carolina, where she trained to become a psychoanalyst and had a daughter. It was only when we were well into our 30s, and I had gotten a divorce, that we reconnected and began to fill in the missing parts of our lives for each other.But as I learned in Italy, there were things I still didn’t know, such as the fact that Heather was in constant physical pain from repetitive motion injuries during our last year at Performing Arts. "I was playing a Liszt etude, and it hurt so much that I concluded I wasn’t any good and gave up piano," she tells me three decades later. "I felt like I had an amputation because something I had loved and really wanted to do professionally had been taken away. I’ve always had this terrible grief about the piano — loss and a sense of failure combined."Heather fortunately found teachers who specialized in the Taubman method, an ergonomic way of playing, and she returned to the piano in her late 30s. She even bought herself a Kawai grand to celebrate her 40th birthday. But it still hurts to think of her loss, of 20 years without a piano’s companionship. During that time, I practiced solo pieces, took chamber music classes, and accompanied singers. There were periods when I was so busy with work and family that I didn’t play for months either, but in retrospect, I feel insensitive. How could I have known her for so long and been so unaware?"I was barely surviving those years," she confesses. "In a way, our relationship parallels my absence from the piano. When I was unable to play, it actually hurt me to hear music. I couldn’t have talked to you about it then as I can now. I spent so many years just trying to unbury myself."Unburying is Heather’s metaphor for her midlife growth. For me, it involves calming down and understanding the value of reining myself in, of questioning my rationale for anger. If a driver cuts me off in traffic, I don’t need to lean on the horn and feel my blood pressure rise. I can imagine playing a slow second movement of a sonata by Mozart or Beethoven instead.The trip to Italy was a turning point because it allowed us to see that we’ve grown in other ways too. "You’re much more tactful and caring," Heather says. "When we met, what was obvious about you was a fierceness that is no longer your leading edge. I, on the other hand, have become fiercer over time." She pauses thoughtfully and adds, "Now we are complementary; the way we work with each other moves us forward."The summer after Italy, we spent a week playing duets by Dvorak at Kneisel Hall, a music institute in Maine. This time, I was secondo and Heather was primo; I pedaled and she turned pages. It was unseasonably humid, so our fingers slipped on the moist keys of the out-of-tune Steinways. Jeannette was also there, and she wanted us to play with precision, to astound the audience. "Make their hair stick out!" she commanded in her quirky English. We weren’t mean girls, exactly, but we weren’t Pollyannas either. A new persona emerged as we played with more precision, more intuition. We felt the music as an internal wave of meaning that we could express physically.The fact is, Heather and I play for each other — and occasionally for husbands and children, who politely appreciate our duet mania, perfunctorily applaud, then rush out. "When I practice my parts, I feel like I’m practicing for you," Heather says. "It brings me to a much higher level than if I were just dabbling around."I feel the same, but even more than that, I feel kinship as strong as family through this connection. When I play a duet with Heather, the conversation of music lets me express my joy in our friendship in a way that’s deeper than words. Selma Moss-Ward is an English Professor in Rhode Island.Originally published in MORE magazine, June 2006.

First Published Mon, 2009-04-06 18:19

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