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.

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