In an essay on Winston Churchill, the late British psychoanalyst Anthony Storr mentions that Churchill, at age 11, expressed a desire to play the cello, but that the interest “was not encouraged, and soon died out.” What might have been, in Churchill’s case, is intriguing to Storr: “It is possible that music might have become important to him,” he writes, “for, as many musicians know, the world of sound can be a never-ending source of solace, and the ability to play an instrument is both a means of self-expression and a source of self-esteem.”
I remember nodding in agreement with that passage when I read it, 40-odd years ago; nodding vigorously, in fact, because I knew it to be true in my own case, but had never heard the idea expressed before. I make no claims as a musician—piano, tenor saxophone—but as a means of self-expression and source of solace in my life, the ability to play an instrument has, shall we say, played its part. The self-esteem is another matter.
I like to say that I am self-taught, but it isn’t quite true. My two older siblings and I took piano lessons in Washington from an instructor who might have been sent down from central casting: “Madame” Tamara Dmitrieff was a White Russian—supposedly the daughter of a high-ranking officer in the czarist army—who bore a slight resemblance to Marlene Dietrich. She spoke Russian-accented English, of course, in a high nasal tone and had once been a student of Sergei Rachmaninoff. (An autographed portrait of Rachmaninoff, at any rate, hung on a wall in her office.) My sister and brother flourished under her tutelage.
I did not. In my defense, I should say that this was not for lack of enthusiasm: I wanted to play, tried as hard as I could, and practiced the mandatory daily half-hour. But I was a mediocre sight-reader, intensely disliked the rote Czerny/Bach/Mozart scales and exercises “the Madame” inflicted on her students, and I yearned to play jazz. Such music, needless to say, was out of the question, both at home and in the studio; and while my siblings excelled at recitals, Madame Dmitrieff and I settled into a musical cold war.
In retrospect, I think she was more amused than exasperated about my attitude—I have no recollection of anger—but since I never progressed much beyond Haydn or the easier Beethoven pieces, she was content to concentrate her energies on my deplorable keyboard posture and pigeon-toed gait. She taught in an oversized ballet studio, with barres and mirrors along the walls, and I was required each Friday afternoon to march across the dance floor toward her fleet of Steinways, my recalcitrant feet pointing out, not in.
In due course, after seven lean years, I was permitted to retire from lessons, and didn’t touch a piano for some months. But then, one spring afternoon at the age of 15, I happened to hear a woodwind quintet by the modern composer Arnold Schoenberg, and its atonal theme sent me back to the keyboard. It’s a blessing that no one was home at the time, because I must have spent a couple of hours trying to reproduce the sound I had heard—and then began to add the occasional blues-style chord, and move the fingers of my right hand in rhythmic motions. Instant Thelonious Monk.
Well, not quite. But in one cataleptic session at the piano, I had discovered that I could make sound—set down notes and phrases, invent chords, even duplicate melodies—with ear and fingers only, and without recourse to sheet music. I was, in fact, almost entirely liberated from the business of musical notation, free to teach myself the means of conjuring the sounds I heard in my head and shaped with my hands.
This accidental/incidental technique has served me reasonably well in the intervening half-century, has allowed me to sit down and play what I want to play, when I want to play it—even survived the loss, at age 20, of the use of one finger. It has its limitations, to be sure; but in the sense described by Anthony Storr, has been a source of solace, self-expression, and—well, great fun.
The breakthrough was necessarily secret at the time, as was my listening to jazz on LPs and the radio, since my parents resolutely disapproved of such music. But I persevered in their absence, and once gone away to school, embarked on a lifetime of messing around at the piano. With some credit, I suppose, to my long-ago teacher. And some rewards as well: I was at a dinner, several weeks ago, and the speaker was reminiscing about a gala affair where the partiers danced “while Phil Terzian played the piano.” Take that, Madame!