Friday, June 27, 2014

Abortive Saga of the Yamaha

Abortive Saga of the Yamaha
(How Civilization Got Deprived of A Piano Virtuoso)
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.

--Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice

Admittedly, I was not thinking of this passage, or of the bard himself, when one Sunday morning in early Spring 1989 I was convinced that the need to embark on a new project was too compelling to even bother to think twice about, let alone dismiss it out of hand.  I had been in the grip of an “irresistible impulse” to learn how to play the piano.

I had earlier confessed being awestruck by those rare privileged souls who are able to create a melody.  It’s a testimony that bears repeating, if nothing else but for its unbridled sincerity:
In this ever more frequently occurring journey to what I tagged my inner universe, I wish I would discover within me the faculty to create or compose a melody, a musical tune out of whatever it is melodies emerge from, perhaps the nothingness of being.  I know I appreciate the melody I like when I hear one.  But to create one out of nowhere and out of nothing, I cannot help but wonder what the experience is like.  And to be able to communicate it to another sentient being, must constitute the consummation of total nirvana.
If nothing else, this saga of the Yamaha illustrates once and for all that I was proactively task-oriented in dealing with the fire of anguish that was consuming my soul.  For like any impulsive professional in the throes of his umpteenth midlife crisis, I fastidiously scoured the Sunday Times for piano tutors within a reasonable driving distance from my residence.  One lady, claiming her bona fides from the famously prestigious Julliard School of Music, promised in a brief column ad that she employed “a revolutionary approach” to piano tutoring.  I finagled a preliminary “screening” interview with her before the day was over.

In the 1956 Alfred Hitchcock movie “The Wrong Man,” there is a line by Henry Fonda who played the bass player Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero (Manny) to the effect that [paraphrasing] “professional musicians are always fascinated with mathematics but can never make a living out of it.”  For me the delicious irony in this statement lurked in the reality that unlike Manny, I had managed to make a living neither with music nor with mathematics, yet I have been thoroughly fascinated with both.

My earliest exposure to music came in the form of the dulcet melodies that my mother used to hum or sing to lull me to sleep in a hammock when I was still the baby in the family, i.e., before my younger sister was born.  This was soon to be followed by the ritual of the Novena when I was told in no uncertain terms that my singing along was out of tune.  This was a verdict that stifled my inclination to sing throughout my boyhood days.  To avoid making an embarrassing spectacle of myself, for the duration of grammar school, I refrained from participating in any activity that involved singing.

It was not until the hormonal awakenings of adolescence kicked in that I got emancipated from this inhibition.  As soon as I started courting a girl of my own, I became an avid enthusiast of the serenading art of the Harana.  At the beginning, I engaged in its practice because it was expected of me as a suitor.  Shortly thereafter, however, I indulged in the practice because it afforded a venue for emotional expression and relief at the same time as I found it enjoyable and rewarding.

In a piece entitled “The Mathematics of Music,” Jack H. David, Jr. aptly pointed out, “. . . it could be argued that mathematics is involved in some way in everything that exists everywhere, or even everything that is imagined to exist in any conceivable reality.”  While I find it difficult to argue with this assertion, I contend it a definite lapse into the hyperbolic.

When for instance I enjoy a snifter of brandy with a good cigar, I don’t delve into an harmonic convergence analysis between the bouquet of Napoleon brandy and the aroma of Manila coronas.  Nevertheless, I concede that my fascination with music deepened several manifolds after I was exposed as an Electrical Engineering junior to Fourier Analysis of Harmonic Functions.

It was unfortunate that I did not see the Hitchcock-Fonda movie before the interview with the prospective piano tutor.  It would have made me better able to handle the barrage of questions from her because it was the mathematical aspects of music which convinced me I had the potential to learn the necessary skills.  To the best of my recollection, this was how the interview went in a nutshell: 
Ø  She:  Why do you want to learn to play the piano?
Ø  Me:   I want a rewarding viable emotional outlet at my disposal.
Ø  She:  Do you read musical notations?
Ø  Me:   I am a complete ignoramus when it comes to music.  But it is my understanding that music is susceptible to mathematical analysis and I consider myself proficiently schooled on the latter.
Ø  She:  To be effective, my method requires, on average, six hours of practice for each hour of instruction.  I can only see you once a week.  Do you have both the time and instrument to meet this need?
Ø  Me:   Yes to the time.  No to the instrument.  I can arrange to get a piano at some point.
Ø  She:  That point needs to be before our first session.  Here’s a business card of a reliable demonstration store.  They’ll be delighted to help you pick a good piano.  Get back to me when you are ready.
Ø  Me:   Thank you for your time and advice.  I’ll speak to you later.

The following day I made an appointment with the store and visited the premises mid to late afternoon.  I was between contract engagements so I had all the time to burn.  The only other project I had at hand was to play every course in Long Island which admitted non-member golfers.

I was treated to a very accommodating reception at the store, listening to every conceivable option for a piano purchase.  I had to choose between two Mini Grands, a Kawai and a Yamaha.  Ultimately the choice rested on a sophomore course in Mathematical Statistics I barely passed, taught by a most affable Prof. Kawai.  I left the store after making a full payment on the Yamaha with scheduled delivery in five days, presumably enough time for my business check to clear.

It suffices to mention that, including even today, the Yamaha had been my most expensive property acquisition.  I propose not to disclose the actual amount on the check for fear that my relations might subject me to the traditional condign wages for extravagance.  It consists of hanging me by the toenails over a tub of freshly sliced Korean scallions, in a half tunnel ventilated with ever so slowly-burning file of wet coconut husks at the upwind tunnel entrance.  The ritual would only be excruciatingly painful for me.  It would however be decidedly most arduously toilsome for them.

I called the piano tutor to update her on my exploits being a proud owner of a Yamaha Mini Grand.  I got an answering message to the effect that she was away for the rest of the week.  The Monday after the Yamaha was delivered, I got a voice mail to the effect that the tutor had closed shop and moved to Florida to spend her retirement years.

I concluded much later that the Piano Tutoring ad which led me to the interview with the tutor was just a ploy to lure potential piano buying customers.  Over a decade earlier, I had a similar experience with an outcall house cleaner who turned out to be the mother of a vacuum cleaner sales man.  She quit the job before her third visit, promptly after I bought a top-of-the-line Electrolux machine from her son.

Fast forward several months into mid/late-summer 1990.  With a sparkling Yamaha Mini Grand sitting pretty in my study, I did not want it to be collecting dust, forever unmolested.  I shortly embarked on a search for a tutor who was willing to give the lessons in my study, with two additional caveats: The tutor must be a she.  She must be as far away from retirement age as I can get.  The second caveat followed from lessons taught by most recent experience with would-be piano tutors.

The first of these qualifiers stemmed from the personal verity that I find it more pleasant and preferable to spend any hour of any day with a female member of the species, especially if I’m paying for that hour.  You may label me as the pioneering quintessential philogynist, i.e., the exact opposite of a misogynist, or a “woman hater,” in common parlance.

You may call it a definitely strong proclivity.  While I don’t flaunt it, I never disguise my preference for feminine humanity, given any choice, whenever and wherever the prospect of a one-on-one interfacing is involved.  I am biased towards a female doctor, a female dentist, a lady barber, masseuse over masseur, nurses, female company, etc.  I assure you, I don’t have anything against masculine humanity.  Let the reader impute whatever.  Beyond owning up to possible unsavory epithets, I deny absolutely nothing prejudicial that may incriminate my character in the slightest.

After two weeks or so of scouring though the ads in both the Yankee Traders and Penny Savers, I finally encountered one which seemed to meet my stipulations for the job.  Her bill of particulars were: a single female less than fifteen years younger than me with more than seven years track record tutoring beginners; had the wheels to drive to my place and adaptive to schedule flexibility with a two-week advanced scheduling lead time.  She needed three weeks to start with me.  Hereafter I call her “Gladys” for convenience since I honestly cannot remember her name.

Eager to show off my brand new Yamaha, I invited her over for a first-hand look at both pupil and instrument.  I explained my goals for the project, namely, to be able to play, among others, the “Tristesse” Etude of Chopin (op 10, no.3), the “Moonlight” and “Appassionata” sonatas of Beethoven, and learn enough chords to accompany myself on the piano when I want to belt out a tune outside of the shower.

Gladys opined that if I were willing to invest the time and energy, she did not see any reason for my goals to be deemed on the “overkill” side of ambitious.  We fixed the schedule for the first five weeks.  We exchanged the usual contact coordinates.  She promised to scour through her collection of beginners’ materials and touch base with me long before the first lesson.

One week later I got a call from her advising me she had some sheet music for beginners that might be useful for our project.  I asked her to bring it over and I was not home just leave it by the mailbox since I had to be at the golf course clubhouse for a 12:30 hrs reserved tee-time.
She also asked if I could pay for three sessions in advance to bail her out of an emergency.  Though somewhat irregular, I saw no problems to the proposition.  I told her I would paste the envelope containing a signed check with her name on it on the door in case she did not get there before I needed to leave.

As it turned out, she came early enough for me to offer her a cup of coffee while we mutually exchanged the goods we had prepared for each other.  I was really in a golfing frame of mind more than being attuned to piano playing.  On the other hand, I did not want to be rude and crude to one I hardly knew who might have leverage on my future emotional make up. 

It would have been uncharacteristically uncouth for me to make it obvious I would have preferred honing my skills in the driving range and the putting green to exchanging pleasantries with Gladys.  While I was squirming in the tight confines of the dilemma imposed by the protocols of civility, serendipity came to the rescue.  To my pleasant relief, Krystyna walked in unexpectedly.

Krystyna is my wife of almost twenty-four years and counting.  At that juncture, I was just in the closing stages of convincing her to move in with me before we went through the logistics towards the formalities of marriage.  She did not exactly dismiss the proposition.  However, neither did she ask me when she could move in.  We were suspended in a ticklish impasse of a precarious equilibrium.

So thanking my lucky stars for helping out, I decided to employ the classic squeeze play of baseball fame:  I convinced her that since she was shortly going to be the Lady of the House, and considering that Gladys had just been commissioned for what I saw was a long-term regular weekly visits, I suggested it a capital idea for the two of them to get acquainted.  After the usual pleasantries, I excused myself merrily off to the golf course leaving the two ladies to their own devices.

Two days later Krystyna moved in to share the residence with me.  The exciting anticipation of tutoring sessions with Gladys got buried in the shuffle of transitioning from a bachelor residence to a couple’s abode.  After the migration kerfuffle settled down some, I treated Krystyna to a sushi-sashimi dinner to bring closure to the occasion.

It was in this impending advent of a new normal in our lives that I remarked, in the manner of thinking out loud:
Me:  “I’d be starting my piano lessons soon.  I find it somewhat strange that I have not heard from Gladys all this while.”
Krystyna:  “I doubt it very much that you will ever hear from her.”
Me:  “That’s a weird thing to hear from you.  Why would you say so?”
Krystyna:  “Because I told her in no uncertain terms not to show her face in the house ever again.”
Me:  “But I made an agreement with her.”
Krystyna:  “That was part of the problem.  If I have to be the ‘Lady of the House’ it’s part of my prerogative to have a say on who becomes a regular visitor to the House.”
Me:  “Did you know that I paid her three weeks in advance?”
Krystyna:  “No.  You still have her number.  You can call her to give back the money or just stop payment on the check.
Me:  “How come you did not tell me about it before?  It would have been common courtesy.”
Krystyna:  “I just did not want to engage you in an argument you cannot possibly win.  The less said about it, the happier everybody shall be.”
Thus, vanished my prospects for a promising career as a brilliant Concert Pianist.  The dream was drowned in a bottle of hot sake over desert at a sushi-sashimi dinner.  Civilization had been summarily deprived of a piano virtuoso.  Along with it was gone the likelihood of winning any argument, whatsoever, with my wife.

Why have I wasted my breath harping upon the narrative of a Yamaha which is still dutifully collecting dust in Nikki’s living room?  The simple answer lies in the mystical power of the proverbial curse of the chance that was wasted.

For readers who have, either by choice or by inadvertence, neglected to read my last book, Nikki is my fourteen-year-old granddaughter.  The piano was handed over to her eleven summers ago.  She showed some interest then which turned out to be short-lived.  She proved not to have the patience or the disposition to go through the rigors of music lessons.  She is starting high school this September.  She is more obsessed with becoming the best lawyer in the sun, above all else.

The mathematical series of harmonic functions governing rhythm, harmony, and melody still converge towards kindred singularities for solutions.  Julliard still graduates competent piano teachers.  The dulcet strains of a rhapsody or a lullaby still tickle the soul in a most bewitching way. Rather than search the far reaches of Creation to apportion blame on anyone, why not just pick the torch up from the wayside where it was inadvertently discarded?

The torch may still be there but the fire of aspiration has long since faded into the faintest flickering ember.  Beyond the enchantment of a well-meaning muse, a major miracle of hyperbolic proportions is needed to set ablaze the flame anew.  Even the threat of wrath brought on by the advent of the impending Eighth Caliphate wields no power sufficient to recapture the promised splendor of the chance that was abandoned.

Ergo, with presumptive dignity and condign humility we succumb to the sublime resignation canonized in a quatrain of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam which proclaims:
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, 
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit 
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line, 
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.

Cautionary Postscript: For any reader who fancies verifying the factual accuracy of the above narrative by independently fact-checking it with Krystyna, I enjoin you to drop the idea.  Her version of the narrative on how she and I first met is the polar opposite to mine.  Ergo, since I am doing the writing, my version is bound to prevail.  That’s just how the cookie crumbles.