The Piano and I, by Don Robertson (2000)
The piano and I have had a long love affair, albeit on and off. For the beginning of this story, it is necessary to go back to my home in Denver, Colorado in 1945.
When I was just a child of three, classical music was my first love. In fact, it was the most meaningful thing in my life. I remember having a 78rpm album of Beethovenís Fifth Symphony that I played over and over on the family record player. A friend of my parents thought that this was pretty unusual and encouraged my mother to take me to a very special lady, Antonia Brico, who conducted the Denver Businessmenís Symphony and taught piano in Denver. She was well known for being a very demanding person, and she accepted only a few students. My mother found her in the phone book, made an appointment, and then drove me over to her house. In the front part of her house, there was a room that was her studio. The walls of her house were filled with photographs of famous European musicians, composers and other personalities. Many were signed, such as: "To my beloved Antonia, Queen Juliana of the Netherlands," "To Antonia with love, Albert [Schweitzer]." There were letters from famous composers and musicians and many wonderful musical knickknacks and books.
"He is too young. I donít accept anyone younger than five!" she said assertively. However, after my mother told her more about my love of classical music, she changed her mind, and I began coming to her house for lessons.
I soon became very close to Dr. Brico. Going to her house became the highpoint of my life. I was very young, so she couldnít do much with me, but I remember sitting at her keyboard with the lid pulled over the keys, practicing lifting my fingers slowly up and down. I loved sitting beside her at the piano, learning about music. It seemed to me that this was the way is was supposed to be. She taught me the notes using a piece of white cardboard that had a music staff printed on it with a music note on a string that slid up and down the staff. She would place the note somewhere on the staff, and I had to tell her the letter of the note. I loved learning about the notes and wanted to know how all the notes fit together to make a composition. But I was still too young to even manipulate my fingers directly on the keys of her grand piano.
"When your fingers are stronger, I will open the keyboard and start teaching you how to play the keys themselves."
The following summer, Dr. Brico was leaving for her annual voyage across the sea to visit her friends, among them the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius and the famous Dr. Albert Schweitzer, who lived in Africa. She asked my mother to take a couple of pictures of her holding me in her arms. She was going to show them to Mr. Sibelius.
"This boy will be a great composer someday," she told my mother.
When she returned, she brought me a little hat that she had purchased in Sibeliusí Finnish homeland.
Meanwhile, my Father was becoming very anxious about my piano studies with Dr. Brico.
"Sheíll turn him into a goddamn prodigy!" he complained.
Many years later, my father told me that he believed that Dr. Brico would have ruined me, that she would have used her strong personality to mold me into some sort of strange, effeminate creature: a child prodigy; and that this would have prevented me from growing up as a "normal" person. My father, like his own father, was a lawyer, and neither of them had any respect for musicians. In fact, if you didnít become a highly successful businessman, banker, lawyer or surgeon, you were pretty much finished as far as having a successful life was concerned.
My lessons with Dr. Brico quickly stopped. I was not allowed to study with her again. The effect on me was as if an anvil had been dropped on my head. I mourned the loss, and I missed Dr. Brico incredibly, but it was over. I dreamed of that house, I thought about her. I could close my eyes and see the walls on which hung the pictures of orchestras, of violins--old, shiny and worn--and the narrow, black shapes of clarinets with their sparking keys, and the oboes, bassoons and celli.
My interested in music only grew, instead of waning, Grandmother Robertson, always supportive, owned an old upright piano that no one played. One day, she had it moved to my house. I doubt my father really liked this new development, but at any rate, it went into the basement of my house at 45 Dahlia Street in Denver.
I will never forget the joy that I felt when this great instrument arrived. Immediately, I started trying to play it. I did not know enough to really begin. Dr. Brico had not taken me very far, as I had been so young.
At the time, my parents had a live-in maid. She knew a tiny bit of piano and helped me a little bit, showing me how to play the first few bars of a very simple piece called Minuet in G.
I begged my mom to let me return to Dr. Brico. Finally after a long period, she told me I could take piano lessons again, but not with Antonia Brico; it would have to be with someone else, and she found someone for me to study with. It would be "Mrs. Nogastein."
Mrs. Nogastein turned out to be a young lady who was married to a short, dark, brooding fellow from the Middle East. She gave me boring little piano pieces that I was supposed to learn. I was to practice them every night, but I hated these atrocities and avoided them at all cost. Instead, I wrote my own pieces, hunting out the notes on my grandmother's piano, carefully writing them in little spiral-bound music manuscript books.
I would go to my lesson and sit next to Mrs. Nogastein at her piano. She always looked ahead seriously, avoiding any real exchange with me, and asked me to play my assignment. When I told her I couldn't, her face would become long and disappointed.
"You have not practiced; you are not learning your assignments. You will not get anywhere if you do not practice."
Her house was cold and dark, not bright and alive like Dr. Bricoís home. Sometimes Mrs. Nagasteinís husband would come home from wherever he worked while I sat at the piano looking down at my shoes as Mrs. Nagastein scolded me. He would slide furtively across the hallway headed for somewhere in the back of the house, dark, like some Aladdin-like creature spiriting away a magic lamp or some wonder from Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.
Soon after my lessons began, I spotted an album of 78rpm records on the top shelf of the bookcase next to Mrs. Nagastein's piano. It was Toscanini conducting Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. The only Beethoven symphony that I knew was the Fifth Symphony. I was so happy to discover these records, and I wanted more than anything to listen to them.
"Please Mrs. Nogastein, can I listen to the Ninth Symphony? Just once."
"No! You do not practice your lessons," she would scold me. It always seemed to me that her face was like a blank sheet, expressionless and cold.
But one day when I was waiting in Mrs. Nagasteinís front room for my mother to come pick me up after a lesson, she let me listen to another one of her treasures that I had found in her record cabinet in the ajoining room. I guess she figured it would keep me distracted while she was with another student. The records that I had discovered were called the "Seashore tests." These were used for determining someoneís ability to distinguish the various pitches.
"OK, you can listen to them," she gave in.
On the records, a pitch was played, followed by another pitch that was very slightly higher or lower than the previous one, or perhaps the same. You were to distinguish between these pitches, to determine if they were the same and if not, which was the higher of the two. There were a number of examples on each record. I discovered that I could easily tell the differences in pitches, and this caused me to realize that since tests had been made to determine such an ability in a person, that probably not everyone could easily differentiate these slight differences in pitches. This knowledge gave me confidence. I knew that music was my life, even though it wasnít happening with Mrs. Nagastein.
Because I didnít practice, my lessons with Mrs. Nagastein soon came to an end. I continued on with my life, the only music in it being my cherished records and my radio.
During my grammar school years, I spent my evenings listening to music. I didn't care about school at all. This continued for several years. In the third grade, my teacher was a woman named Mrs. Miller. I didn't like her. I thought she was mean. One day she told us that you should never start a sentence with the word and. That night, I went through some of my mother's books and I found a famous book that contained a sentence that began with and. I took the book to school the following day and pointed out the sentence to Mrs. Miller in front of the whole class. That was all she could take from me. She then came to visit my parents. She was the first of a great stream of teachers, priests, policemen, and neighbors who would come to visit my home to discuss my various acts of misconduct and my lack of interest in school and sports.
Mrs. Miller's face was taught as she related to mother my various shortcomings: daydreamer, loner, can't concentrate. She told them that they must punish me, because I refused to do my schoolwork. "Make him study!"
I stood furtively at the top of the stairs, watching and listening.
Mrs. Miller's face was twisted as she spoke. "And he hasnít learned his multiplications tables. He is the only one in the class who has not."
After she had gone, my parents walked slowly and seriously up the flight of stairs to my bedroom where I had scurried, shutting the door to not let on that I had been party to the conversation. I was spoken to gravely. My infractions were fatal. My radio and record player would be taken away until I straightened up.
It was a tremendous shock! I had never conceived of life without music! How could I endure such a thing? I resolved never to study anything again. I was not going to give in. I hated third grade. I would not let that horrible teacher win!
School droned on, and I was bored. I spent my spare time at school in the library looking through the books. One day I looked up at the top shelf and spotted one of the largest books I had ever seen. As I squinted, I made out the title: The Oxford Dictionary of Music. I was amazed! I didnít know such a book existed! I asked Mrs. Davlin, the librarian, to take it down for me, so I could look at it. Ah, but she had been talking with Mrs. Miller and knew what that I was being grounded from music until I showed some results in school. Mrs. Davlin had a warm, round face with little, puckered lips. She was very friendly and affectionate and I liked her very much.
She looked at me and spoke sweetly. "I will get that book down from the top shelf for you as soon as you have learned your multiplication tables."
This was Mrs. Millerís bÍte noire. I could not multiply one number by another. In fact I hadnít learned addition and subtraction either, using my fingers instead. Thankfully, I donít think Mrs. Miller knew that, however. That night, I went home and started learning my multiplication tables. Soon, I not only had access to the Oxford Dictionary of Music, but my radio and record player were returned to me as well.
The music dictionary proved to be an immense realization for me. It was filled with pictures of all the instruments of the orchestra, and I wanted to know about each one. So in my art class, I began a big, intricate drawing of four instruments, based on the drawings in the dictionary: a violin, a cello, a clarinet, and an oboe. Art class, before, had been a source of infinite boredom, but now it took on new meaning. Each day, I counted the minutes until it began, then when it finally did, I dashed to the classroom to work on my picture.
One day I ran in, lifted my picture from the shelf, and in horror I saw that someone had written across it, with big letters: "MARS ORCHESTRA." With the entire class watching in astonishment, I ran from the room sobbing. Dick English had done this. But naturally, I deserved it. My friend Rob Wilfley and I had been picking on Dick English mercilessly and piteously every day. Dick English came into the boy's room where I had taken refuge and apologized to me.
The following year, in the fourth grade, Mom signed me up for "Cub Scouts." Perhaps this was an effort to make me more normal. I would be doing normal things with normal boys. We went to the Gano-Downs mens clothing store in downtown Denver to buy my uniform. There was a scouting section there, where you could buy the various "badge" patches after you had earned them, along with the books that were needed to study for them. Through the corner window at Gano-Downs, from the scouting section on the second floor, I could look down and see the big yellow streetcars that stopped alongside the building, to discharge their load of passengers. We made a number of trips to Gano-Downs, and I always would go over to the window to watch the streetcars. Sometimes the streets were wet with rain, and other times, when the streetcar started up, it made a loud, grinding noise, the trolley-pole sometimes sparking on the overhead wire.
Cub Scout meetings were held at my schoolmate Jim Hart's house. Jim Hart was a nice guy, but he must have thought I was pretty strange. I had been his partner in gym class, and when we had to learn how to box, I wouldn't box back. Boxing made no sense to me, so I just let him pound on me. During our Cub Scout meetings, we all went down to Jim's basement, and Jim's mother gave us things to do. We made leather things mostly. I hated leather things. Upstairs, Jim's mom and dad had a piano, so when no one was looking, I slipped up there and worked on my little music compositions. Upstairs I could enter that magic world that I loved: the world of music. There were lots of record albums in the Hart's front room and I liked looking through them and playing them softly, so that they wouldn't be heard downstairs. After a while, Mrs. Hart would notice that I was gone, and would come upstairs to get me.
When I was young, I used to compose orchestral music in my head and hum it. I was able hum in a way that my humming sounded to me like an orchestra. I made up operas and symphonies, humming them as I composed them in my head. I knew that this was considered to be pretty strange behavior, and I was very careful to avoid anyone noticing what I was doing. One time, however, I was at my grandmother's house, sitting on the potty in her bathroom, humming away, making my orchestral sounds: thick sounds for the brass, the sweet high soaring of the flutes, the crash of the cymbals, and the full orchestral tutti. Suddenly I looked up and discovered my grandmother standing in the doorway, watching me, wondering what in the world I was doing.
"You had better stop making noises like that or you won't be able to sing like Perry Como when you grow up," she said.
The Cub Scouts made excursions, and when I went with them, I always remained back fifty-or-so feet from the rest of the boys, straggling behind, so they couldn't hear me humming and making the noises. This way I could work away on my music. At home, I tried composing on my old piano in my basement for years. I still had little staff-ruled notebooks in which I wrote the compositions that I tried to compose.
When I reached puberty, I became really confused. I tried changing from an extremely introverted and insecure boy, to someone who was worldly and popular with the girls. Kids made fun of classical music, and so I denied that I knew anything about it. In the ninth grade, I saved my money and bought a Silvertone electric guitar from Sears & Roebuck. I was going to be like my new idol, Elvis Presley.
After years of disciplinary problems and being shuffled from one school to another, I somehow graduated from high school in 1960. My parents tried to get me admitted to a college, but that didnít interest me at all. Since my chances for college acceptance were minimal anyway because of my history of bad report cards, my father, not knowing what else to do with me, took me to a Navy recruiter and signed me up.
I somehow survived boot camp, returning to Colorado on leave, proudly wearing my new "sailor suit." But when I returned to California for my first Naval assignment aboard the USS Los Angeles, the reality of life came crushing in on me. It was another anvil.
I realized that I was stuck in the US Navy: a "swabie" for the next four years! I could not go where I wanted to go, and I could not do what I wanted to do! This realization was one of the most depressing moments in my life. To this day, I can remember the exact scene where this realization instantly struct me. I was standing in my division's bunkroom on the ship, grasping for the first time this awful certainty. I didnít want to be on that ship. I didnít want to be in the Navy. I didnít want to be a sailor. I hated it, and yet I had signed up, and here I was, stuck for four, very long years.
It was then that I came to my senses. Within months, I was listening to classical music again. I started making trips to the Long Beach, California Public Library during my time off to check out records that I wanted to listen to. I also started reading. I had never read in my life, being considered a problem reader, with a complete lack of concentration. But now I had discovered books, and I started reading voraciously. It began with Hemingway and Fitzgerald, then I discovered Thomas Wolfe and James Joyce. The music, the books, they became my real life amidst a life I that I hated participating in.
I had already begun playing my Silvertone guitar seriously before I joined the Navy. I had books that taught me technique and chords. I listened to jazz as well as classical music, especially jazz guitar, and to the great French gypsy guitarist Django Rheinhardt. I became a serious student of music, teaching myself chords, progressions, solos, and I began learning how to sight read music. I continued with my self-studies. Within a year, I was studying books on music composition, counterpoint, theory, checking out hundreds of classical music scores from the Long Beach Public Library. I also began writing music again, and I used my guitar to work out my compositions. In 1963, I began composing a full-scale symphonic work in four movements, but soon I realized that this was going to be a difficult task using the guitar. The instrument was very limited in its ability to recreate the chords that I needed for symphonic music. It was during this period that I decided that I would have to learn the piano in earnest.
There were no pianos aboard ship, but there was a harmonium in the shipís chapel, and the chaplain agreed to let me use it. Also, I had a friend who lived ashore, and she had an old upright that I could sound my music out on once in a while, but I really knew next to nothing about playing the piano or the harmonium, and I felt creepy in the ship's chapel.
I finished my symphonic work in late 1963. A fellow that I had met knew the conductor of the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, and he told the conductor about me. The conductor agreed to perform the work for me in rehearsal. I prepared all of the parts, and the great night soon arrived. My aunt and my mother and father all flew out for the occasion. I will never forget the experience of hearing my music played by that orchestra!
In early 1964, I began writing my little Prelude for piano that I later will perform on my album Keys. Somehow, the music just came to me, almost like an aural vision. I could hear the music, as I always had been able to do even as a small child, and I felt that this music was powerful and wonderful. I remember working on this little piece that spring. My parents had scheduled a week-long vacation at the posh Garden of the Gods Country Club in Colorado Springs during my vacation leave from the Navy. Walt Disney was also visiting there with his family, and it was uplifting to actually see and talk with this great man. When the occasion presented itself during this vacation, I would slip away into one of the rooms of the club, where a piano was located. During the day, the room was unused, and there I could work on my little Prelude.
It wasnít until I was finally released from the Navy in early summer of 1964 that I was able to really begin working at the piano in earnest. My parents still had the old upright that my grandmother had given me in their basement, and that summer I stayed in their home while attending classes at the University of Colorado Extension Division in Denver, studying Italian and French.
In the fall, I moved to Boulder, Colorado to begin studies at the University of Colorado. In addition to my studies, I formed a rock band and continued to develop both my guitar and piano technique. During the first semester, I enrolled in private piano studies. One day, I brought in my little prelude and showed it to my teacher, a graduate student. She looked at it, played a little of it, and then dismissed it. "It sounds too Gerswhiny" she said. I was disappointed and figured that I had overestimated what I had written, and decided not to bother anyone with it again.
My studies at the University soon proved to be largely disappointing and unfulfilling. The professors that I had in the music department seemed uninspired to me. During my second semester, I dropped out, and with my band, the Contrasts, I went to Las Vegas, where we played in the Silver Nugget Casino.
It wasn't long, however, before I became completely disenchanted with casino life in Las Vegas, and I left the band and moved to Los Angeles, where I began studies in earnest, attending classes at the Institute of Ethnomusicology at UCLA. My girlfriend, Suzy Barr, moved from Boulder and we rented a small walk-through apartment on Venice Beach. There I practiced with a small rented piano. In the fall of that year, 1966, Suzy and I were married, and we moved to New York, where I enrolled in the extension division of the Julliard School of Music.
I never took more piano lessons, just learning by myself on rented pianos, and I never really developed the classical technique that I would have liked to have had, and I probably would have had, had I continued with Dr. Brico, but a concert pianist, I was not destined to be.
It was really after I joined the Holy Order of MANS in 1970, and while Suzie and I were the ministers of the Christian Community of Wichita, Kansas, that I had the opportunity to really concentrate on the piano again. One of our members moved a large upright into our building for me to use.
It was here that I really started improvising. One night I had a dream. I was shown that I would begin playing an entirely new kind of music. I heard this music in the dream. I awoke with powerful feelings stirred up inside of me. I went downstairs and started improvising on the old piano, finding that I was creating music much like I had heard in the dream. I worked on my improvising a little each day. A few weeks later I had another dream where I was shown that no one around me would understand the music that I was playing, and that people would ignore my improvisations.
Both dreams came true.
From this point on, I continued improvising. I would wait until I was completely alone, then in silence, begin. Perhaps at first, I would begin with kind of a warm-up, but soon, as I continued to play, I would enter into a state of divine consciousness, and I could feel the presence of angelic beings around me.
I never considered telling this to people, especially publicly as I am now. In fact, at first, I didnít really consider it anything out of the ordinary. My teacher, Father Paul of the Holy Order of MANS, was a spiritual master, and it was in this order that spiritual reality became a part of my life. For years before, I had spent much of my time searching, trying to discover the truth of life. In this order, I found it. Angels are a reality: I am not the only person that has experienced these divine workers who live amongst us, and so I hope any of my readers who donít understand this, wonít be too skeptical.
During my first year of training in the Holy Order of MANS in San Francisco, I had a wonderful experience. One night, a magnificent angel appeared before me. This great luminesent being was standing only a foot or two before me, and was at least a foot or two taller than I was. Another order member happened to come into the room where this was occurring, and witnessed the experience with me. The aura that emanated from this being was so strong, that instantly the two of us were in a state of divine communion, praising God continually.
When I improvise, I enter into a divine state, and I just begin playing, unfolding some particular melodic pattern that I realize I am weaving in and out of the composition in many different ways. These improvisations sometimes can last an hour or more.
The difficult part of improvising like this was always my insecurity when I entered the higher state while others were in the room, so I rarely, if ever, actually performed directly for anyone. Later on, when I did perform while my wife and three children were in the house, it appeared that none of them actually noticed that I was doing anything unusual. Sometimes after playing what sounded to me like a magnificent composition, I would go into the kitchen entraced and find my wife in a completely different space, unaware of anything I had played. I was very insecure about all of this.
I felt that what I was creating was magnificent. Not that I was a magnificent musician or composer, but I loved the music that I just played spontaneously. After I put together my first recording studio and started recording my first synthesizer albums, I wanted to record these piano improvisations and release an album of them, but I was faced with difficulties. Having my recording studio in my house, it wasnít always quiet enough to record. Also, I was very particular about the tuning of the piano, and it went out of tune usually within days of being almost perfectly tuned by one of my piano-tuner friends. Additionally, I usually made a few small slip-ups during an improvisaion, hitting two keys at once for example, or an occasional wrong note, and these would be very difficult to Ďfix in the mix.í
It wasnít until 1998, when I built my second studio in Richmond, Virginia that I had the equipment that would allow me to capture my improvisations digitally. Also, now there were people around me who could relate to what I was playing, and could enter into my spiritual space with me. Several times I would improvise upstairs in the house in Richmond, playing a long beautiful composition, then as the final chord sounded, and I let the tones ring away gradually, I would get up and find several people at the foot of the stairs, entranced, resplendent with the love and joy reflected in the music.
I am telling the truth. I am explaining my piano music as best and as truthfully as I am able to do. For years, many of the people who were around me did not understand my gift. Now as I approach 60 years of age, I know that it is necessary to document my truth. I do this out of respect for what I have been given, and to make it easier for others to understand. We are at a critical point, a juncture, in the evolution of our world, and music will play an important role in our continued evolution.
One weekend in Richmond, I captured two improvisations that I included on my album Keys. That Sunday night, I recorded Midnight Solitude. The next morning, I improvised Morning Sunrise, just before heading off to work at the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles.
When I say captured, I mean that I performed the pieces, and captured them using the MIDI software running on my computer, and then stored these compositions on my hard drive in MIDI format. The beauty is that I can play back the composition that I just improvised, and then correct any small mistakes by changing the MIDI events slightly. Also, I am able to record the finished piano solo, and in the end, add any additional instrumental parts that I could conceive of, such as choir, woodwinds, timpani, etc.
I thank my fans for all of their interest and support over the years. My prayer is that I will be able to continue creating music for God for as long as I live, and that I live for as long as God intends.
© 2000 by Don Robertson. All Rights Reserved
Judy Collins writes affectionately of her own studies with Dr. Antonia Brico in her autobiography "Trust Your Heart"