Monthly Archives: December 2014

An Inheritance

I sold Mother’s grand piano last week.

She bought the piano in 1947 with an inheritance from her father.  What an extravagance for a young family with three small children and a too-small house!  It’s too late to recount the whys and hows of her purchase. She passed in 2012 — 11 days short of her 100th birthday.

She began piano as a young child, practicing at the neighbor’s because her family didn’t own a piano.  Later she entered Willamette University as a music major, but quickly learned her only career options were performing on the concert stage or teaching piano — neither of which interested her — so she transferred to Oregon State to major in home economics.

Her love of piano music must have been deep — deep enough for her to purchase a mahogany Knabe 5′ 8″ grand piano.  Like their other furnishings, the piano wasn’t new, but someone had loved it well since its creation in 1919.

I began taking piano when I was eight and practiced on that grand piano for ten years. I continued lessons through college and beyond, though I, too, wasn’t a music major.

Like Mother, I bought my own piano, an old Krakauer upright, when I had a young son.  Though Mother and I never talked about it, I suspect piano music gave voice to soul and spirit for both of us.

I always knew Mother’s beloved piano would be mine one day — and that’s exactly what happened when she moved to assisted living a few years ago.  The very presence of her piano in my living room called for intentional playing and a return to regular practice.  My fingers knew those ivory keys.  My hands knew her patina when I dusted her, just like I did as a child.  An antique music cabinet filled with Mother’s music accompanied the piano to my house.

I’ve been honored to have her piano.  And for the last few years I’ve played it several hours nearly every day as I work to improve my skills.  Now that I’m retired, I have time for lessons and practice — and I have more passion than I’ve ever had for playing piano.

But the piano needed major work to be it’s best — and even with extensive repairs it would still be a nearly one-hundred-year-old piano.  For the same money I could have a new piano with better sound, improved key action, and an uncracked sound board.

My new Knabe grand piano arrived last Friday.  Though I was looking at other brands, the stars in the universe aligned in unimaginable ways for this exact piano to be mine. The outer design is nearly identical to Mother’s piano, but the keys are more responsive to the nuances of touch.  The bass notes are rich and alive.  And my fingers are at home on new keys.

But a question I’ve pondered for weeks still remains:  how could I sell Mother’s piano? Some friends responded as if the piano were a sacred artifact to be treasured forever, that somehow I had betrayed her.

I’ve come to a different conclusion.

My inheritance from Mother is my love of piano music — not the piano itself.  Because she loved playing piano, she wanted her only daughter to share that love.  She made sure I took lessons and practiced.  Together we heard exquisite pianists touring with the Community Concerts.  We positioned ourselves in the auditorium so we could watch their hands on the keyboard. We went backstage to get autographs — autographs of pianists who became well-known later in their careers. She, not her piano, is the reason I still play the piano, that I believe I can improve, that I attend piano performances often, and that my passion continues to grow.

Her piano is not ready for piano heaven yet — she has a few years left.  Another family will invite her into their living room and cherish her presence — a family whose children will sit at her keyboard, learn their scales, and practice their pieces before their feet can even reach the pedals.

The inheritance began long ago when Mother introduced me to piano, and continues when I sit to practice and as I learn new techniques from Dr. B.  The arrival of Mother’s piano in a new home will carry her legacy as well.

Such an inheritance can grow us for a lifetime and beyond.

Until next Tuesday…




What They Said

A true account of a past Christmas…

* * *

Divorce has a way of fracturing the holidays. Today is Christmas and my grown children are spending the day at their dad’s. They will be at my house tonight and tomorrow. I am alone until tonight.

I putter in my kitchen all day, thinking about the kids, the gifts under the tree, our time together and Christmas night grazing on their favorite foods: boiled shrimp, tiny country ham biscuits, white cheddar cheese, chocolate covered pretzels, cucumber sandwiches, snickerdoodles and brownies, sparkling grape juice, port wine cheese, pepperoni slices, and crusty bread. Late in the afternoon I arrange the buffet on the long counter that separates the kitchen from the living room.

Earlier in the day I gathered the logs from the wood pile out back, arranged them in the fireplace, and vacuumed the wood bits from the carpet. When darkness falls, I light the fire and listen to its start-up crackling.

Every dirty dish in the kitchen is clean and stashed. The tree is glittering in the corner. The lights are dim. Strains of Mannheim Steamroller’s Deck the Halls warm the house. I settle into my favorite chair to read until they arrive, but I am too excited. I walk through the house, inspecting the perfection. Peeking out the window, I look for their car lights coming around the corner. Not yet.

Again, I settle in my chair to read, keeping one eye on the window. Before long, in the street light’s glow, I see snow starting to fall. I step into the night to make sure. Yes, it’s snow, just in time for our Christmas.

Back inside, I warm by the fire, hum with the music, and double check the buffet. Waiting is too hard—especially when it’s Christmas, especially when my kids are arriving after their long absence, especially when I have made their favorite foods, especially when their gifts are piled under the tree.

Finally I hear car doors slamming and voices chattering. By the time I open the front door they are standing on the porch, arms loaded with packages and snowflakes dusting their hair and coats. After a flurry of hugs and boxes and bags and coats, we settle in the living room with an unspoken sigh of relief—finally we are together for tonight and tomorrow, finally the hustle and bustle is over, finally we can just be.

They love the food. They appreciate the music. I am thrilled with the snow that graced their arrival.

Tonight the gifts don’t matter—that’s what they said. Of course, they won’t refuse them, but they would be just as happy without them.

That’s what they said.

* * *

Until next Tuesday…

A Repertoire

I’ve always believed a repertoire is something belonging to accomplished musicians.  Mere mortals like myself would never have one. In fact, it sounds presumptuous. At least that’s what I thought until a few months ago.

At my piano lesson, I played Chopin’s Nocturne (opus 9, number 2) for Dr. B.  I had worked on the piece for months, perfecting the musical nuances and my memorization.  Dr. B. was pleased with my playing that day. I was too.  For the first time since I began studying with him, he put a check mark on my music to indicate completion.  The sticker he offered was not necessary — not like it was when I was a young pianist.

“You can add this piece to your repertoire,” he said.  “Play it occasionally so it stays fresh.”

I didn’t tell him I didn’t have a repertoire.  I’ll take his word for it.

Two weeks ago I finished another piece:  Brahms Intermezzo (opus 118, number 2).  Again, I accepted the check mark, turned down the sticker, and savored his comments in my notebook:  “Excellent.  Done!”

Webster says a repertoire is the “complete list or supply of dramas, operas, or musical work available for performance.”  So, yes, I have a repertoire of two pieces that are ready for performance.

Webster also says a repertoire is “the complete list or supply of skills, devices, or ingredients used in a particular field, occupation or practice.

The term now takes on new meaning.  It’s easy to think of compositions ready for performance.  But what skills of yours are ready for use at any time?  What skills have you perfected? What skills are an integral part of who you are and what you do?

This limbo time at year’s end and year’s beginning is a perfect time to examine your repertoire.  Perhaps a list would be helpful to see yourself anew, to value your abilities, and to own your uniqueness.  This assessment is not about comparing yourself with others, but to raise your skills to their rightful place. Hobbies and spare time activities are not to be dismissed as irrelevant and unimportant.  They may be the expression of your passion.

In the process you may discover your repertoire is lacking in some places.  Perhaps you hoped it was more — more items, more accomplished, more polished, more solid.  The truth is that everyone’s repertoire has holes — holes that can be filled with more learning, more practice, more time, more persistence.

I’ve heard concert pianists since I was young because my mother thought it was important for me to hear the best.  I’ve continued attending performances. After a concert my self-talk silences my playing with “Why do I even bother?  I’ll never be able to play like that.” Several days pass before I can return to my piano and resume my practice.

All of that changed a few weeks ago when I attended an all-Chopin concert played by a brilliant pianist. During the concert I heard his playing as my inspiration but not the standard for my own playing.  Since then I’m choosing to measure my playing by how I played last week or last month or last year.  If I’m improving I’m on the right track.  My goal is to play my music the very best I can, with the guidance of an excellent teacher.  Now at concerts I watch for techniques I can use to enhance my own playing.

So, when you consider your repertoire take time to learn from the masters: use their techniques and their discipline to enhance your own storehouse of skills. But remember, the only comparison that matters is with yourself:  where have you been, where are you now, and where are you heading.

As you walk into the new year

  • Show up: assess your repertoire
  • Do the work: create a plan for filling the gaps
  • Claim your life: live your passions

Until next Tuesday…


The consistency of small things

We’ve learned to want it all — instantly!

Back in the day, we saved for a new couch, we put money away all year for Christmas, we saved for vacation.

Now we charge first and pay later.  We’ve forgotten how to wait, how to anticipate, how to plan for what we want.

If we want to lose ten pounds, we forget that it took weeks or months to gain the weight. Yet we want it gone instantly. We’re too impatient to retrain our taste buds to enjoy veggies, to rid our system of sugar so it no longer craves sweets, to gradually reduce our portion sizes so we are full with less food, to make a healthy decision in this moment.  We want to be thin, but we hate the process of getting there.

The same is true of writing.  We want to be the author of a best seller.  We want it completed quickly and easily. We believe the workshop hype of writing a novel in a week or a month using some guru’s magic formula.  We love the vision of success more than the process of getting there.  Studying writing styles and practicing sentences and dialogue and scenes is too tedious for us.  We hope minimal effort will bring success.

Piano playing is the same way.  I wish I played as effortlessly and easily as a concert pianist. I want their success without the hours  (and years) of tedious practice.

The problem is that we only see others’ success.  We don’t see the daily discipline of making better food choices, exercising, writing 500 words a day, practicing scales and arpeggios, learning the music note by note at a snail’s pace.  No one sees these efforts — these weeks and months and years of efforts.  We only see the public accomplishments — when the results looks effortless.

I’m coming to understand our progress depends on the little things.  I don’t need to reform my entire world as if it’s an “all or nothing”  race to the finish. I need to practice consistency in the small efforts. If I miss a day, I can show up tomorrow and begin my work again.

Small efforts like:

  • clearing your desk at the end of the day, to eliminate distractions for tomorrow’s writing
  • working on the challenging measures in a piano composition, leaving the entire piece for later
  • practicing sentences or metaphors by using a published author’s work as a model
  • putting your gym bag in the car tonight so it’s ready for tomorrow
  • being intentional by blocking time on your calendar for writing or exercising or practicing
  • adding one veggie to dinner every day

You get the idea.

Start small. Consistent small steps will change your world.

Until next Tuesday…


“We live in a time of great noise.” I quickly jotted the sentence on my church bulletin, lest I forget it before pondering.

The holidays are noisy — and have been for months.  Incessant bombardments clamor and disrupt this season touted as a time of peace and joy — peace and joy often overshadowed by expectations, oughts, shoulds, and perfections.

Outer noise is easy to rail against — that noise that tells us what we ought to buy, where we ought to live, how wants are really necessities, and how we ought to look and act. We get thousands of noisy messages every day — from newspapers, magazines, television, radio, billboards, a walk through the mall, or a drive down the street.

We also have interior noise —  our beliefs about being good parents or spouses, the boxes we’ve created that define our existence, our drive to do more and be more and have more, the need to impress, to be successful, and to gain the approval of others.  We’re full of such thoughts, some we’ve entertained for a lifetime.

What would happen if the noise stopped?

Could we stand the silence?

We’re so accustomed to our noisiness and busy-ness that It’s nearly impossible to imagine our life any other way. If the noise stopped, perhaps we think we’d cease to exist or that life would have no meaning. It’s actually easier to continue life as we know it, than to consider a different style. Thinking and pondering can mess with your life.

Silence is unsettling for many of us.  We often go to great pains to guarantee we have no silence.

But…if the noise stopped…if we chose to silence it for a while…

  • we might realize we are like hamsters, continually running on the exercise wheel but going no place.
  • we might ponder what matters, beyond all our stuff and activities.
  • we might understand that we have enough — more than enough
  • we might be kind to the cashier
  • we might hug our child or our spouse
  • we might have time for patience

Until next Tuesday…