I am delighted to share this reflective and uplifting vignette by Canadian pianist and educator Amy Boyes.
“Everything We Play” is a personal essay written from the perspective of an exhausted mother and music teacher. Wishing for some uninterrupted practice time to play something emotionally satisfying, the author is reminded by her young daughter that all music-making is beautiful…
Everything We Play
What a strange way to start a piece. A subdominant major seventh chord. Calm yet uplifting.
Gymnopédie No. 1 by Erik Satie is not new to me. I’ve played it many times and have taught it frequently to teenagers who have needed a quick, easy piece for an examination. I often regret assigning it though. The left-hand jumps and long melodic lines are hard for young pianists to control and they take the fortes far too literally.
“It says to play loudly,” they chirp when I suggest their renditions are not channelling the last warm evening of summer.
“Everything should be played in context,” I reply. “Everything should be kept in character.”
And what is the character of this piece? I wonder as the right-hand melody weaves and meanders in a long line floating above my head in an imaginary ribbon. Peace? Melancholy? Despair? Hope? What part of my life does this represent? What was Satie getting at?
I think of my day. It hasn’t been easy. I’m exhausted. I was up many times in the night with my infant son, Zachary who lies on a sheepskin on the floor beside me. He’s quiet now, chewing on a rubber strawberry with a long green stem, a recent purchase intended to help him with his teething. He has a glint in his eye though, a warning his patience is about to expire.
“Can’t be lying on the floor listening to Satie all evening!” his eyes seem to say. “Gotta be walked around!”
My practice time is limited so I wonder why I play Satie. Should I practice something more challenging? More interesting? Maybe a Bach-Busoni choral prelude or a Brahms Intermezzo?
I play on. My husband is out. It’s my evening off from teaching and I don’t get many chances to play. Besides, I like Satie’s piano music, the Gymnopédies and the Gnoissennes. They transport me to a different time and place, a world I can’t even picture.
“How-da-ya spell ‘daisy?’” my seven-year-old daughter, Madeline calls from over the top of the grand piano. She’s drawing pictures of flowers at the dining room table.
“D-I,” I misspell in a stilted voice, Satie and spelling vying for my mental faculties. “A-S-Y.”
“D-I? That can’t be right,” Madeline argues.
I pause playing, my foot still on the damper pedal, a beautiful seventh chord filling the room. “D-A-I-S-Y!” I blurt as if the mental effort required to spell “daisy” is a monumental achievement. “Just let me play for a bit though, okay Madeline?”
Madeline looks offended as she slides off her chair and wanders over to the piano. “What key are you in, Mom?”
“D,” I mutter, knowing this information will inspire Madeline to play Ds on my second piano in an improvised duet, a tonic pedal alongside Satie’s chords.
As I jump back into the piece, Madeline scoots onto the squeaky piano stool and plays D over and over. Sometimes her Ds lands with my beats, other times they bounce slightly to the left or the right in a vain attempt to nail down a pulse like a child might attempt to catch a slippery minnow.
I play to the end of the piece and sigh. Zachary’s arms and legs are flailing now. He will lose all patience in approximately five minutes.
I toss the folio of Satie’s piano music on the piano lid and retrieve some church music. I should be practicing Sunday’s music, not Satie’s. Thanks to the pandemic, my church’s services are virtual, and I pre-record music for streaming. I find it hard to motivate myself to practice for these performances. I never know: Do parishioners skip over my playing in the service stream? Do they listen on lousy devices that make my piano sound like a garbled harpsichord? Do they get bored, mute me, and go fetch a tea before the pastor’s message?
I ask myself these depressing questions as I play an arrangement of “Holy, Holy, Holy,” a hymn nearly as old as the modern Christian church. Madeline accompanies me with a repeating E-flat, delighted by the new key, the lift of a semitone, the thrill of a black note. She plays happily, slightly more in time with this majestic piece than with the sultry Gymnopédie. I hear her whisper, “Yeah!” when I land on E-flat chords, the rub of dissonances resolving into tonic chords.
Just as we come to the end of the piece though, Zachary explodes into a rage, the miseries of a four-month-old hot on his tongue, billowing from his lungs.
“That’s all for now, Madeline,” I say, shutting the piano keyboard lid. “It’s your bath time anyway.”
“Ah, man…” Madeline whines as she slides off the piano stool which squeaks again. “We were making such beautiful music.”
I pick up Zachary. “Were we?” I ask, a facetious note in my voice.
Madeline is oblivious to my sarcasm. “So beautiful. Everything we play is beautiful!” She sighs dramatically as if I am too dimwitted to understand. But the simplicity of her words surprises me. She gets it, this thing called music. She understands the joy of playing with others, the thrill of whacking the tonic just to hear a resolution.
Though nothing is perfect this year and I can never seem to get to the piano except to teach, Madeline expressed what I should have been thinking: we are lucky to play an instrument, to make music when others have the resounding silence of solitude and isolation to endure. I’ve taken music-making for granted, my ability to play as a matter of fact, and I should be more grateful.
“We’ll teach Zachary to play piano too, won’t we?” I joke, comforting the wee boy who wipes his eyes and nose on my shoulder.
“Let’s wait ‘til he’s older, Mom,” Madeline advises. “I don’t think he has a steady beat like I do.”
Amy Boyes is a music teacher, examiner and adjudicator in Ottawa, Ontario. Her articles can be found in the Piano Magazine (formerly Clavier Companion), Canadian Music Teacher, American Music Teachers’ Magazine, and others.
Amy’s first book Micro Miracle was published by Signature Editions in 2019.