The Keys of Life

Where one man goes to discover himself.

The Steinway (pictured), the Bösendorfer and their brethren aren’t just pianos. They’re colleagues. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.
The Steinway (pictured), the Bösendorfer and their brethren aren’t just pianos. They’re colleagues. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.
When I was growing up in suburban Chicago, I took piano lessons. It wasn’t so much that I was hot to play the piano; I wanted to take lessons because my big brother, Jack, took them, and if Jack wanted to do something, I wanted to do it, too. My brother got pretty good at the piano, but I never did – one reason being, I realized many years later, that I had what you might call musical dyslexia. To me, musical notes were a blizzard of black dots dispersed on lined paper, all sorts of dots, some with stems and flags, plus other weird and confusing marks with names like fermata and mordent, plus curt instructions, most of them in Italian.

It was also many years later that I learned something else: If you want to practice enough to play the piano even halfway decently, you need more than time and motivation to practice; you need a place to practice. You need a place where you can work hard for a long time, pretty much every day. After a lot of looking and a lot of frustration, I found such a place: the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, on Milwaukee’s East Side.

I first found a place like that a long time ago, and far away. I used to be a newspaper reporter, editor and editorial writer, and during one of my trips to the old Soviet Union, I took an afternoon off to clear my head after too many interviews with dissentients, refuseniks, apparatchiks and others with axes to grind. I decided to go to a concert. I don’t remember whether this was in Moscow or Leningrad, but I do remember the hall where the concert was held. It was housed in a building that, like Soviet Russia itself, was big, old and dilapidated.

The varnish on the floors of the concert hall had long since been worn away, and they creaked in a welcoming way. The audience sat on bare wooden seats, and around the perimeter of the hall stood busts of the famous composers, Bach, Beethoven, Wagner, Brahms, Tchaikovsky. There were no frills, no gleaming chandeliers, no ushers offering wine during the intermission. The only thing that looked new was the piano, a gleaming Steinway Model D perched front and center on a stage framed by faded maroon curtains.

Presently, a tall, elegant woman wearing a long red dress emerged from the wings. She was so poised and regal that, for an instant, she appeared as an apparition from the era of the czars. She stepped to the front of the stage, faced the audience and, lifting her chin, told us in a clear, strong voice what we were about to hear. The only words I recognized were Stra-VEEN-skee, GOO-schtoff MAH-lair and MOH-tzardt. The conductor, it turned out, was Maxim Shostakovich, son of the famous Soviet composer.

The Stravinsky was the suite from The Firebird; the Mahler was his First Symphony, and the Mozart was one of his piano concertos with a soloist I didn’t recognize. It was a good enough concert, but nothing special. (I realize this is a subversive thought, but all the Mozart piano concertos sound the same to me.)

Far above all else, the concert hall gave me a powerful impression of being a workshop, a simple, unassuming place where skills could be practiced and slowly learned, where students and teachers could devote themselves to making music. No audiences, no distractions. Just the essentials.

The Steinway, the Bösendorfer (pictured) and their brethren aren’t just pianos. They’re colleagues. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.
The Steinway, the Bösendorfer (pictured) and their brethren aren’t just pianos. They’re colleagues. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.

After I retired from the newspaper business, I wondered whether there might be such a place closer to home than old Russia, one where I might learn to cope with my dyslexia and play piano music – not like Lipatti or Gilels or Horowitz or Nelson Freire, God knows. But still play it. At least play some of the same music.

I found the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music to be that kind of place, and much more. It is housed in a dark, red brick Michigan brownstone on Prospect Avenue. The neo-classical revival landmark, built by industrialist Charles McIntosh in 1903, sits atop a bluff overlooking a Lake Michigan harbor. Its old parquet floors, like those in that old Russian concert hall, creak when you walk across them. Many of the rugs are getting threadbare, and some of the windows seem to have their original casements. There are busts and pictures of famous composers and performers.

When you enter the foyer, you sometimes hear the muted sounds of pianists or singers or clarinetists behind the closed doors of practice rooms. A workshop.

Awhile ago, telling myself that it was now or never, I began piano lessons at the conservatory. And, thanks to the devotion and talent of its teachers, good luck, hard work, and a nurturing aura that seems to permeate the halls and rooms of the conservatory, the mystery and fear surrounding those black notes and Italian instructions has started to dissipate. I have begun to learn how to practice, and above all to not panic, so that I am learning to play the B-flat partita of J.S. Bach, which is a piece of music through which it is possible to enter a world where everything makes sense and everything is beautiful.

I am learning something else at the conservatory: learning about its pianos. I have discovered that pianos are just like people. They are all the same – only different. Also like people, they all seem to have their own personalities. There are Steinways, Yamahas, at least one Young Chang, a yellow-brown Wurlitzer and an elegant Bösendorfer.

Some of them gleam like black diamonds, and more are a little scruffy. They are all scrupulously tuned and voiced; and, perhaps because they are played so often, they are all loose and companionable, eager to please. Except for one, a piano that sits alone in a first-floor corner room and acts like it has a chip on its shoulder. It seems to resent my presence and wants to be alone.

It tells me this by making me make mistakes. (I don’t go in there very often.)

The piano in the recital room, which I think was once the mansion’s ballroom, is a majestic concert Steinway that could be a clone of the one I saw in Russia. I don’t know why this should be, but that piano so intimidates me that I have not dared to play a single note on it. It would be rude, an act of impertinence, like being introduced to Pope Francis and calling him Frank.

Upstairs, in one of the practice rooms, is another concert Steinway. This piano is less awesome than its twin downstairs, and much more approachable. It’s like when you were a boy and had a favorite uncle; it has a big, deep, rich voice, and it never makes demands on you that you cannot meet. The more you play it, the friendlier it becomes.

The Bösendorfer is in a corner room on the second floor. It’s not the huge Bösendorfer with the extra black keys. But it is still impressive, and seems intent on making sure you know it. Playing it is like driving a Ferrari. The more time you spend behind the wheel – at the keyboard – the more confident you become, the better you get. Eventually, it becomes a trusted colleague.

Another piano – a small Steinway – in a smallish room on the second floor is exactly like an old friend, one who is glad to see you and has a bright, eager, sweet sound, and is willing to spend as much time with you as you want. I wish I owned that piano.

Across the hall, in a big, sun-filled room that overlooks glistening Lake Michigan, are two Steinway pianos, brother and sister. I always have the feeling that these two pianos aren’t played all that much, and for this reason feel forlorn and neglected.

I never tire of the music I am learning, partly because the music is rich and varied, partly because practicing on different instruments makes the music sound a little different. Along the way, I have also realized what, earlier, I had only halfway known: that the music is far better than I, at least, will ever be able to play it. But I am not giving up, not on the learning, not on the trying to get better.

Where and how does my expedition of discovery end? I know how it ends in my wild dreams. I am seated in a small recital hall before a Fazioli concert grand, an F308. I play the Etudes Tableaux series of Sergei Rachmaninoff, both Opus 33 and Opus 39. Like all of Rachmaninoff’s music, this piece evokes the illimitable expanse and mournful beauty of Russia. My performance is informed by magic.

As I bow to the audience and bathe in the tumultuous applause, I glimpse a tall, regal Russian woman in a long red dress. She is nodding her head, smiling.

‘The Keys of Life’ appears in the December 2015 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find the December issue on newsstands Nov. 30.

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Richard Foster is a retired writer and editor for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.