Muscle memory is a marvelous mechanism. Now that I’ve gotten that alliteration out of my system, let me explain.
The piano pictured above is a family heirloom Bluthner grand piano built in 1909. We know this because we found the serial number inside, then looked it up on the Bluthner age table. It was brought over from Europe by my mother’s family in the late 1930s. My uncle had it for a number of years, then my parents took it when he died. I’ve had it since about 1985. When we recently downsized, we made sure there would be a dedicated space for it — and what a space it is! Suffice to say the picture barely does it justice. After several months in storage, we finally got it to its new home. Then last week we got it tuned.
Many have asked me if I play. My response is, “I used to.” I took lessons all the way through high school, and apparently became good enough that my piano teacher sat me down and said, “I want you to think seriously about Julliard.” It was a mark of how much I loved her that I didn’t let the first words that sprung to my mind pop out of my mouth: “But Libba, their pre-med sucks.”
I kept my hand in pretty well for the next few decades. Through my 20s and 30s I would sit down and teach myself pieces from this old Schirmer Handel album that contained a Passacaglia from high school. I got to the point where I could play more than a few of them entirely from memory. Then kids came along and started demanding more of my time and attention, as did the medical practice with its hundreds of patients. Gradually I stopped going into the living room and futzing around with the Handel. Finally, I got to the point where I could only play the first few notes of a few pieces before my fingers fell apart.
The freshly tuned piano sits out in the open. The guy has left the lid open, allowing all of the sound to escape the confines of its old black hardwood case. I sit.
And can barely play more than a few notes.
But I fish out my old music book and leaf through the pages.
Here; let me try this one. Slowly, I begin to play. Studying the music after those first few notes, I continue, gratified as the familiar tunes emerge. Plenty of sour notes, of course. My fingers have to re-learn what an octave feels like, the shape of different chords in my hands. It may be called “muscle memory” but there’s a good bit of proprioception as well. Gradually, I make my way through the pieces. Even though the notes aren’t all there, I find the intonations still are. Legato here, I remember; these notes accented; forte the first time this figure appears, then piano for its echo.
I have to admit I’m surprised at how quickly it starts to come back.
I’m reminded of a Beethoven quote my sister told me about:
To play a wrong note is insignificant.
To play without passion is inexcusable.
Plenty of passion left in these old fingers, even as I fumble for the notes.
Maybe someday soon I’ll be able to say “Yes” when asked, “Do you play?”
Note to this crotchety old guy in his 80s whom I’ve known for years: It’s ready for you whenever you come to visit.