A vacant piano in an empty room sends me a powerful invitation. It’s like someone has left an Aston Martin DB9 Volante with the keys in the ignition and a sign on the dashboard that says, “take me for a spin.” If I come across an unlocked Baby Grand in a hotel lobby, I find the silence too heavy a burden to bear. I can’t pass it by without sitting down to pick out, let’s say, “Sweet Baby James,” “Killing me Softly,” or the Welsh anthem, “Men of Harlech.” Having learned a few dozen chords, I can plink my way, more or less, through Imogen Heap’s dissonant “Hide and Seek” or more straightforwardly through John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
When I’m seated at the piano, the last thing I’m ever looking for is an audience. Well, I take that back. A few years ago, after I had a minor medical procedure and I was still zonked from the anesthetic, my wife left my side briefly to retrieve the car. Not finding me, she followed the sound of applause to the crowded lobby, and there I was, seated at the piano. The patients had mistaken me for the entertainment—poor things. On another occasion I got one of the best laughs of my life when, after having found a resonant Steinway pushed into a corner at an Irish dance festival in Philadelphia, passers-by stuffed dollar bills into a glass following my rendition of Tommy Makem’s weepy “Four Green Fields.” I was amused because I was amazed.
As it happens, four long years of piano lessons haven’t left me with the ability to read music. This case of functional musical illiteracy bemuses the members of my family who can all sight-read with ease; hearing me play, they react as you might when reading the news item about the closet illiterate who worked for years as a teacher. But, having faked it for so long at lessons and recitals, I was just as surprised to learn that my daughters, who could perform minuets and gavottes without a fault, had never been asked to improvise a tune. In fact, it never once occurred to me that they could not play by ear, just for fun.
Play calls up a paradox that I’ve written about in my blog at Psychology Today. Clearly, play is voluntary and usually fun. But practicing, the dedicated, compulsory work of learning to play music, can be antithetical to play. Music lessons will burn the enthusiasm out of many. But you cannot play without practicing, and practice entails work, sometimes hard work, and deferred pleasure. Then, too, without enough skill you might not enjoy your own playing, much less harbor any hope of entertaining others.
Still, plenty of famous musicians could not read sheet music—John, Paul, George, and Ringo for starters. The great jazz pianist Errol Garner—composer of “Misty”—could not read music. Neither could Irving Berlin, who wrote “God Bless America” and “White Christmas.” Berlin, who played mainly in F sharp major (mainly on the black keys), used a special “transposing piano” to shift to lower or higher registers. Luciano Pavarotti, the incomparable tenor, could not decipher a musical score. And Django Reinhart, the innovative French jazz guitarist, could not read music for most of his life and an injury had deprived him of the use of two fingers on his left hand.
My only handicap may have been that, in the formative years, I enjoyed playing football more than practicing piano. I still struggle with musical notation, of course. But now, prepared with just enough technique and a smidgeon of theory, this bad student plinks away at the piano every day, and just for fun.