Music NotesMy blog about music, theatre, and all things musical theatre!
Rediscovering the Piano
How a musical instrument (and musical friends) can change our lives
by Tom Frueh
Did you play an instrument when you were a kid? Think about playing one? Or wonder what it’s like?
Let’s narrow that down: If “A Song of Penny Candy,” “Skipping Through the Forest,” and “The Tiresome Woodpecker” seem to vaguely exist in the mists of your memory, we might be kindred spirits. In fact, I’d go so far as to say there’s a good chance that you, like me, took piano lessons as a kid (or perhaps you played another instrument and worked on beginner pieces with similarly cute titles).
Those are some of the songs found in my John Thompson piano course books—
their bright red bindings decorated with a graphic reading, “Something new every lesson.” I loved their playful tunes, whimsical titles, and illustrations of frolicking bunnies and squirrels.
But even before I laid eyes on the “First Grade” book at age 7 or thereabouts, playing the piano was an obsession with me, one that was to last throughout my childhood, adolescence and into young adulthood. And now, after a decades-long hiatus from playing, the piano is again exerting its influence on me in unexpected ways.
The “accidental” pianist. It all began when I started picking out tunes by ear on pianos at school and in the homes of kind relatives. I was only 5 or 6, but I knew instinctively that I had an affinity for the instrument. Other peoples’ pianos quickly became my trusted and reliable friends (the better the piano, the closer the friendship), and by the time I was 8, I desperately wanted a piano that I could call my own.
Begging for keyboards. I finally launched a full-scale campaign to try and persuade my parents to buy me a thousand-pound box of stretched wires and hammers. It paid off. Arriving home from school one day, my mother led me into my bedroom, where I let out a shriek. She’d had a stunning upright piano placed against a wall opposite my bed, its beautiful wood cabinet proudly displaying exotic patterns in the grain. It seemed to literally invite me to complete the picture by sitting down and playing it, so I did.
Old can sound beautiful. Lifting the lid to see the dazzling array of hammers and hardware inside, I also saw the make and date of construction: Ebersole Piano Company of Cincinnati, Ohio, manufactured in 1900. Maybe this piano had seen more than a few summers, but its tone sounded beautiful and rich to me, its touch perfect. My journey with the piano had finally begun in earnest, because now I could play anytime I wanted, and I barely had to get out of bed to do it. Talk about a gift that could keep giving; thanks, Mom and Dad!
Besides providing a physical outlet for the tunes that were buzzing around in my head, playing was a way to challenge my geeky, introverted self to get good at something physical (sports weren’t going to make that happen, God knows). Though my parents graciously provided me with piano lessons (which is where I met the John Thompson books), I was far more interested in just sitting down and playing by ear the songs that I’d heard on TV or the radio. (Must I worry about time signatures, key changes and all those pesky sharps and flats?) I also loved sitting at the piano for hours improvising my own melodies.
Be my friend and I’ll play you a tune. The fact that I could sit down and play practically any song that people asked me to play won me friendships that had previously eluded me. At almost any gathering I attended, if there was a piano and people knew me, they asked me to play. Socially, at least, the piano helped get me through school—even though I felt a certain cheapness for my decidedly casual approach to serious musical study.
Throughout my childhood, the piano was indispensable to me on multiple levels—as a creative “sounding board,” a musical sparring partner, a trusted confidante, and a genuine friend in a private, indefinable way. It had become a literal instrument for joy and growth and solace. Upon entering college, however, I could only access my beloved Ebersole on the occasional weekend at home—but happily, there were practice pianos at school (many in sound-proof booths), and I could play in complete privacy whenever I could find the time. Just as I’d gotten past “Two Little Chipmunks” and “Cowboy on a Rocking Horse” long ago, it now seemed time to move beyond the pop and show tunes phase I’d been enjoying in the intervening years. My increasing exposure to classical piano and jazz, often through more sophisticated college friends, was helping to fuel those ambitions.
Give me bigger, better and longer. One of my college roommates, a great guy named Bill Hutchison, visited me in one of those practice booths one evening, and after hearing me play, proposed a series of musical challenges. He’d ask me to get up and turn away from the piano, and he would sit down and play a chord or musical progression or part of a song. Then he invited me to sit back down and recreate exactly what he had played, or as near to it as I could manage.
Apparently, I passed his test with flying colors, because he gave me so much enthusiastic encouragement after that (he’d also grown up playing the piano) that my prior indifference to performing for a “real” audience flipped 180 degrees. Thanks to Bill’s belief in me, I soon developed an obsession for the music of George Gershwin, particularly “Rhapsody in Blue,” and decided to start developing and learning my own piano arrangement—by ear—and just see where it went. That’s the power of encouragement.
As I plunged into Gershwin, I was determined to learn this piece in the published key, and as accurately as possible. I worked for months to get it as right as I could, also translating some of its most familiar musical passages written for other instruments in the orchestra to the piano keyboard. Whenever I practiced within earshot of others, amiable kibitzers reinforced Bill’s praise.
At last, an opportunity to perform the work for an audience presented itself (in a variety show), and soon, I found myself walking onto the stage of Boll Theatre at the University of Dayton, incongruously approaching a gorgeous Steinway grand—the longest one I’d ever seen—that patiently waited for me center stage and seemed to say, “Okay, kid, let’s see what ya got.” (Scroll down for Part Two)
What am I doing here? My palms were sweating at the thought that I was about to play the piano in front of a “real” audience for the very first time—and attempt Gershwin, no less. What would they think? How would they react? Would they laugh? Would they boo? Or would they just walk out because my hands kept getting stuck to the keys?
The piano bench had been placed a little too far from the keyboard. I picked it up and moved it to the right distance. But that was as much as I could postpone the inevitable, and I sat down and began to play the opening trill of “Rhapsody and Blue” (usually played by a clarinet).
Happily, my sweaty palms quickly dried up, and I played, it seemed to me, better than I had at home or in the practice rooms—my confidence, no doubt, shored up by the beautiful, heretofore unknown sound of a Steinway grand in an acoustically friendly theater, as well as the warm energy of the audience. It felt increasingly good to be sitting at that piano—even (forgive the pun) rhapsodic.
After finishing the thunderous finale, the audience applauded appreciatively, maybe even somewhat enthusiastically, and I bowed from the waist for the first time in my life. After the performance, my family (who was definitely enthusiastic, God bless them) took me out to a fancy Italian restaurant to celebrate. During that dinner, my mother said that while I was playing, I looked like I was in Heaven.
A rival love. While all this was going on, I’d also started “dating” the theatre (college is where we play the field, after all), appearing in any play at college I could get cast in. Unexpectedly, I soon found myself as smitten with the theatre as I was with the piano, and it never occurred to me that a fusion of the two might be in the works.
After I graduated, my love of plays evolved into a love of musicals—and getting cast in them meant that those time signatures, key changes and pesky sharps and flats I was willing to back burner whenever I could now demanded my attention in a big way. I had already made some headway in college — for example, when I played a challenging piece by Khachaturian for a piano exam, with the sheet music open in front of me, I got an A — but my teacher said, “You played it perfectly. But you weren’t reading.” And indeed I wasn’t; I’d instinctively memorized it as I practiced with the sheet music.
Thanks largely to a long succession of diligent and brilliant music directors I worked with in musicals, music theory was front and center and far more welcoming than it had ever been, even if actually playing the piano would have to wait while singing prevailed.
I wondered if that wait might turn out to be permanent, but the piano was already hatching its own secret plot to return to prominence in my life.
Let’s put on a show. Somewhere along the line, I got the idea to write and perform my own one-man musical. My subject was the famous magician Houdini (another new obsession). I’d grown up improvising songs at the piano, but now I had to write them down so an accompanist could eventually play them for me while I sung. And then there was the matter of writing lyrics.
The continued kindness of friends. A pal I’d done a few shows with (Bill Waldinger, a very skilled pianist) helped me get started notating the first few measures of my songs (by hand), after which I had to sweat through it alone. But after the better part of two arduous years, I finally had my own original musical score—written in pencil on ledger paper. Technically, I was still playing the piano all this time—but composing at the piano is a lot different than sitting down to play it.
Another fork in the road. I found a fine director (Elizabeth Gee), Bill recommended an excellent accompanist (Matthew Ward), and rehearsals for “Houdini” began in New York. The show was well-received, particularly the score (“very catchy” according to one critic), and I was happy and encouraged. But I didn’t have an immediate idea for another musical, so in the meantime, I auditioned for and performed in more “classic” musicals like “Fiddler on the Roof,” “The Music Man,” and “A Chorus Line” (I’d also started dancing just after college).
The piano continued to wait in the wings, silently, patiently.
Then, in the blink of an eye (as often happens in life), almost twenty-five years rolled by. There were a lot of musicals in that time, though I had recurrent intermittent pangs to return to “Houdini.” But if I ever did get around to it, I wanted to incorporate some new ideas, not the least of which was revisiting the score and learning music notation software. But actually playing the piano? Still too busy.
A seasoned novice. I knew nothing about music notation software, or what it would take to venture beyond lead sheets with a melody line and chords for accompaniment (which characterized my handwritten score for “Houdini”). I started to ask musicians for advice, but I never seemed to get the clear, specific answers I needed. But then I happened to speak to a wonderful pianist I’d worked with on a few shows, Tim Rosser, and he graciously shared his knowledge of music notation software with me.
Next I spoke with another fine musician and performer I’d done shows with, Christian Edward, who was enormously helpful and generous in sharing his knowledge with me, even advising me on possible accompanists (others I knew were unavailable). It’s thanks to Christian that I met Chris Piro, who would open up a whole world of new music and theatre possibilities to me. And much more.
A musical renaissance with a dash of violence. Chris waded through my handwritten “Houdini” score to accompany me in a next-generation` production, and then introduced me to the musical software Sibelius, walking me through the basics of its vast notation capabilities. As I struck out on my own to learn its intricacies while notating another new musical I was writing, “Partners,” I began a long and bloody battle of man versus software.
Somewhere in the distance, a piano was laughing at me.
Let the solitary screaming matches begin. To say that learning Sibelius was a trial and error process is an understatement. Chris was happy to troubleshoot solutions when I couldn’t figure out a fix, but new struggles continued to pop up. When I got frustrated that the program wasn’t doing what I wanted it to do (roughly every fourth or fifth measure), my laptop was on the receiving end of my pent-up verbal venom.
Ultimately, it took a solid year to learn the software while wrapping up my score for “Partners,” which was scheduled to debut on Theatre Row. Finally completed, I then set out on notating/revising my “Houdini” score in Sibelius as well.
As I did so, I was also adding new musical sections, writing additional songs as well as more incidental music, along with more elaborate accompaniment for the songs I’d previously written in pencil. Sibelius was finally feeling comfortable, like a pair of stiff dress shoes that took forever to break in. It didn’t supplant the difficult and painstaking work of composition, but it made the technicalities (such as transposing keys and moving sections of music around) much faster and more efficient.
“What took me so long to figure this out?” I kept asking myself. But the journey was worth it: not only did I have a powerful tool to put to work as I composed more new music, but we presented the revised “Houdini” on Theatre Row (this time directed by a wonderful performer and director, Jen Jurek, with Chris music directing and accompanying me). The new version of the show was named a Critic’s Choice selection and got a great review from All About Solo.
But this winding path through musicals and songwriting and Sibelius came with a price: it was distancing me even further from actually playing the piano.
The value of validation. With the encouragement I was getting from the theatre community, not to mention a chorus of friends and strangers, I was anxious to write the next score and the next show, and had barely started it when the Covid-19 pandemic hit and New York went into lockdown. I was very blessed in that I was still earning a living writing, but was determined to have my next musical ready for production once the pandemic wound down, so I set myself a weekly quota, and completed the new show, “Days of Thirst and Beauty,” in just a year (“Houdini” had taken two to write initially, and then another year to notate and revise).
Technically, the piano hadn’t “moved out of the house”—it was still my roommate, but I never really communicated with it. Even a quick glance at its keys was inspirational, but always bittersweet. I was taking from it, but not giving back, like an old friend I took for granted and never bothered to call.
But that was finally about to change. (Scroll down for Part Three)
The new show with something extra. My next show would be “After the Show with the Man Who Owned Broadway,” about the great Broadway composer and producer, George M. Cohan, who wrote classics like “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “Give My Regards to Broadway.” I’d worked on an earlier, far different version of the show with another fine director, Meryl Tanner. But this time around, I had all new ideas about what the show would be. Cohan’s music would take center stage, and I would accompany myself as I sang the songs.
Suddenly, I had to become a pianist again (a singing one), after a hiatus of approximately 28 years! Chris wouldn’t be accompanying me onstage this time, but I needed his knowledge, skill and advice just as much as ever.
One of a kind. Throughout the journey with my solo musicals, Chris proved himself to be special not just because of his expertise as a pianist and musician, but by his patience and kindness toward me. There was no judgment. Never once did I feel “looked down on” as I had sensed from some musicians through the years. I never got so much as a whiff of musical snobbery towards me or my work—only openness and support and friendship—but also honesty and directness. Through a spirit of mentorship and a willingness to share his knowledge, Chris enabled me to move past the musical niche I’d fit for myself and into a realm of greater possibilities—and to bridge those two worlds and go back and forth between them at will. Most importantly, he made me want to be better.
In an almost too-perfect coincidence in 2020, I was overjoyed when I saw and heard Chris play a wonderful rendition of “Rhapsody in Blue” as part of the program at a recital he gave at his grad school alma mater, NYU. For me, it was a “past meets musical future” moment of reckoning: “That’s Chris up there,” I thought, “splendidly playing this piece that meant so much to me, but far better than I ever could hope to do.” But that in itself felt like a perfect reason to sit and play the piano again. It was like watching a favorite dance teacher demonstrate a complex combination with outstanding technique and passion, and it was both an invitation and a challenge for me to try it, and strive to do better than my best.
Two of a kind. As Jen and I started acting and staging rehearsals for “After the Show With the Man Who Owned Broadway,” we focused more intimately than ever before on acting choices for the complex, multi-layered Cohan. Like Chris, Jen was also amazingly supportive and helpful, and very technical and specific about her craft. It’s no surprise that the three of us clicked so well.
After the long process of researching and choosing which of Cohan’s songs would be included in “After the Show,” it was time for me to learn them—because I’d made a commitment to sing and accompany myself and was determined to see it through.
I asked Chris to play through all the songs so I would have a point of reference against which to compare my playing—a standard to aspire to. But as I started trying to learn the songs, I quickly realized this task was far bigger than I had anticipated. Not only was it necessary to memorize the lyrics and the melodies, I needed to practice them on the piano to the point that they would sound as natural and as easy as if they were being played by the composer. This was going to take a lot of practice—and in terms of sitting down and playing, I had effectively been away from the piano for decades.
So you decided to come back, did you? Meeting the piano again was like running into a long lost lover I’d broken up with, but never bothered to send a “Dear John” letter to. The piano felt steely and tentative as I placed my hands on the keys with the intention of really playing for the first time in forever. Keeping a journal of my progress, I started writing things down like, “The task seems insurmountable,” and that is indeed how it felt. For the first time in my life, playing the piano no longer felt physically natural to me.
These were not even especially difficult songs, but I was stumbling over the keys like a rank beginner. I persisted in my practice and it helped, but even when I made progress at home playing alone, I would let self-consciousness get the better of me during rehearsal, and I’d lose the gains I had made.
I stepped up the practice, and it all started to feel better, slowly but surely. The in-depth scene study work with Jen, and her advice to “invite the audience in,” was helping me to play more naturally and “through the character” and, in a sense, get out of my own way. Her guidance as a truly interested and involved acting coach was showing me how to lose my musical self-consciousness and dissolve into (or perhaps fuse with) the character, and therefore overcome those deep-seated feelings of inadequacy.
My first rehearsal as a pianist with a pianist. Then came my first serious music rehearsal with Chris. I played and sang all the songs from the show for him, and he advised me about fingering, tempos, accents, and other technicalities. In just that one rehearsal, I was suddenly transported back to my very first days with my very first piano teacher, working on “Skipping Through the Forest” and “A Song of Penny Candy.” It reminded me to go back to the basics, just as a dancer who has been away from class for many years needs to do to get back into shape. It also gave me a much-needed shot of confidence; I’d learned these techniques long ago; in theory, I just had to reawaken and refresh them, and I knew I could trust Chris to help me do it.
Playing the piano and singing as I played was still a daunting task that called for more hours of regular rehearsal, but it was becoming less and less insurmountable to me. That rehearsal with Chris not only took me back in time, it brought me full circle while providing an “educated” springboard into starting a possible new future with the piano.
Hello, old friend. The piano and I had finally reconciled. We were truly starting to reconnect as old pals. The attention to technique suddenly became a welcome and invaluable asset to not just playing the piano, but performing and acting as well. And with these came a new sense of pride and seriousness, plus a renewed gratitude for the friends and colleagues who helped and continue to help me make these ever-evolving dreams come true with astonishing generosity.
But it was, ultimately and especially, a rediscovery and whole new appreciation of the power of love—certainly for human friends, but also for thousand-pound wooden, brass, and polymeric ivory ones. That quirky universal truth we all experience at one time or another came to mind: no matter how much time has passed, there are certain friends you can always re-connect with, and pick up exactly where you left off. It may take more work than you anticipated to actually do that, but it will happen, and when it does, it seems like it was inevitable.
Musical instruments, like musical friends, are magical. Even though there are plenty of challenges ahead, as well as many more hours of arduous practice, I look forward more than ever to moving ahead together—in sync, in tune, and in friendship.
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