By Gershon Ben-Avraham
He looks so slender and shy and so modest that people think he's there just to do what he's told. —Gerald Moore (The Unashamed Accompanist)
A person may take something from someone, without permission, and not be aware of having done so. Even the person from whom the thing is taken may not be aware of its loss, at least not at first. This kind of inadvertent, accidental form of theft occurs not only between strangers, or even typically between strangers. It takes place most often between acquaintances, between friends or lovers, for instance, or between a husband and wife, or a parent and child. The more intimate the relationship, the more difficult it is for either the thief or the victim to acknowledge that an injustice has occurred, both of them preferring to believe, for different reasons, that the victim willingly surrendered that which was taken surreptitiously.
Richard Blackburn began teaching his son Thomas how to play piano when the boy was twelve years old. Those with knowledge about such things will understand that twelve was late if the musical goals for the boy were serious. Then it would have been better to have started him on piano at nine or, even better yet, at six. The musical goals for Thomas, however, were not especially serious. The lessons began not because Richard had suddenly detected hidden musical ability in his son that he felt the need to foster, nor because Thomas had come to him of his own accord and confessed a burning desire to learn the piano. The fact of the matter was that Richard Blackburn needed an accompanist, and that Thomas, his chosen candidate for the position, was twelve years old when the need arose.
Richard was not a trained pianist, nor was he well-versed in piano pedagogy. He knew only the rudiments of the instrument. He was, however, a talented musician, an accomplished and gifted guitarist, blessed with a rich baritone singing voice. As a young man in his twenties, he had made his living as a musician in New York. Two wives, two divorces, and five children later, he had created enough emotional wreckage for two lifetimes. It was at this point that the Second World War interrupted Richard’s life. It changed him, as it did so many of his generation, in fundamental ways. Returning home after the war, Richard craved stability, security and, above all else, peace. He started over, took another wife, and produced two more children, the oldest one his son Thomas. He learned a new way to make a living, using the GI Bill to earn a degree in accounting. He was good at it. Working with numbers appealed to him; there was something satisfying in their preciseness, their lack of ambiguity. Accounting provided Richard with steady employment and a decent income, things that music had never done. The once seemingly all-powerful demons of his youth, though not vanquished entirely, were well-chained now, and tended to make more noise than cause deep wounds. They escaped only rarely, and then always behind closed doors, in the privacy of his home, or the seclusion of his bedroom.
Although Richard found stability and security in working as an accountant, he still possessed the heart and soul of a musician, a need to make music, to be appreciated, a need for applause. So it was that in middle age, he engaged with some local hotels and restaurants to provide live music during their dinner hours in the evenings and on weekends. The owners, prudent and pragmatic men all, had taken some convincing, given the ubiquity and economy of recorded music. Richard, however, could be extraordinarily charming when he wanted or needed to be. As a result, he found himself looking for an accompanist. At the beginning, he used already trained pianists, but a couple of unsettling episodes with them convinced him that it would be far better to create an accompanist than to use one ready-made, to mold one without the idiosyncrasies, bad habits, and boundless egos that he found so irritating in the ones he had used. What he wanted was someone obedient, compliant, malleable, and, of course, with at least the requisite modicum of musical talent. So, at the age of twelve, Thomas Blackburn found himself learning to play the piano.
Thomas was bright, a fast learner, blessed with a good sense of rhythm, and he possessed the required amount of musical talent. It did not take him long to master the basics of what he needed to know: simple chord structures, various styles of accompaniment, and how to read a lead sheet. He also learned to play without printed music. His father would call out a song’s chord changes as they played the piece, and Thomas quickly learned its structure, picking out the melody bit by bit over time. Though his ear did not always tell him the right notes to hit beforehand, it told him immediately when he had selected the wrong ones. He would make the necessary corrections. This method of learning lent an air of tentativeness to Thomas’ playing initially, but as his experience accompanying his father grew, his ear became more reliable, his playing more confident. He found himself enjoying the occasional compliments of listeners, surprised at hearing what they considered to be such a young boy playing piano so well. He liked being complimented.
It was difficult for Thomas not to begin to think of himself as a musician, not a great one, of course, at least not yet, nor even an especially good one, but rather as a beginning one, one on the right road, so to speak, headed in the right direction, though the precise destination was not particularly clear to him. This feeling affected his entire view of himself. He began to dress more carefully, to spend more time combing his hair, and polishing his shoes. He kept his hands clean and paid attention to his nails. It affected the selection of books he read in his spare time. He put aside all of the boy detective stories and science fiction novels he had been reading, and began to read books about great musicians, composers, especially pianists. He read biographies of Bach, and Beethoven, and Brahms, Schubert, Schumann, and Debussy. In spite of all of this reading, however, he played none of their music, nor listened to it, nor went to classical music concerts. Although he did not realize it, a kind of cognitive dissonance arose between what he was doing, and what he thought he was doing, between who he was, and who he thought he was, between the talent he longed for, and the talent he had. By the age of fourteen, the gulf had become too broad to bridge easily; the gap had turned into a chasm.
Ruth Vanhoyvehn was a classic Nordic type: blonde hair, blue eyes, rather tall, angular, a somewhat squarish jaw, and light skin, which tended to turn red in the sun rather than tan. Her parents, both professionals, and both amateur musicians, started Ruth, their only child, on viola when she was young. She had a talent for it. Following her graduation from high school, Ruth’s parents sent her to a women’s liberal arts college in the Midwest with an excellent music department. She did well there, worked hard, earned a Bachelor of Music degree in performance, and graduated with honors. Her pleased parents made the additional investment in their daughter required for her to obtain an advanced degree in music education, which they felt would secure for her the ability to support herself. They were right. After completing her graduate degree, Ruth was offered a position as an instructor on the faculty of a small women’s college in the South.
As a teacher, Ruth produced well-rounded, solidly grounded, music students. She worked untiringly. Slowly, but steadily, she rose through the academic ranks. Not long after being promoted to full professor, Ruth was appointed Music Department Chair. By then, the college had become coeducational, and its enrollment had more than doubled from the time when Ruth had started as an instructor. Its music program had become one of the college’s major attractions and Ruth, as a result, one of its most important faculty members.
Her passionate focus on her work left Ruth little time to invest in romance. Over the years, she had had serious relationships with only two men; neither turned out to be lasting. Following the acutely painful termination of her engagement to the second man, Ruth turned ever more inward, devoting herself unsparingly to her work, and adjusting to what she began to see, and philosophically accept, as the constraints of her professional life. She embraced them. She was a founding member of the city’s amateur symphony orchestra, a charter member, and principal, of its viola section, an officer in the local branch of an international women’s music club, and knew enough about liturgical music to become the organist and choir director of her church. All of these things were in addition to her college administrative and teaching responsibilities. She took to carrying a pocket calendar in which she meticulously listed all of her appointments, meetings, rehearsal dates and times, and would proudly display the calendar to anyone who happened to ask her how she had time for all of the things she did. “Organization,” she would reply, showing them her calendar. “One must be organized.”
On Sundays, after church services, Ruth would often treat herself to lunch at the Iphigenia, an elegant Greek restaurant in one of the city’s best hotels. Usually she came alone, though from time to time she would be accompanied by one or two female friends whose lives, like hers, were similarly circumscribed. The women enjoyed Ruth’s company, found her passion for life inspiring, and her energy and work ethic a constant source of admiration. They looked upon her as a kind of informal leader.
Iphigenia was one of the restaurants where Richard Blackburn provided music. Ruth found Richard’s singing stimulating, stirring up feelings in her that she enjoyed enormously, and the skill with which he played the guitar was something that, as a fellow string player, she respected. As is frequently the case with accompanists, Thomas was hardly noticed. Certainly Ruth took little notice of him. There is a sense in which one can say that meant he was doing his job well, exactly as his father had taught him. He didn’t stand out, and he didn’t mind not standing out. To sit in the musical shadow of his father was sufficient for him.
Sometimes Ruth would send one of the restaurant’s waiters up with a song request for Richard. Her choices tended to be romantic songs from movies: Three Coins in the Fountain, Love is a Many Splendored Thing, As Time Goes By, Mona Lisa, that sort of thing. Once he became aware of her tastes, whenever Richard would see Ruth enter the restaurant, he would gracefully end whatever song he was playing at the time, and then through a series of artful chord changes, transition into playing one of Ruth’s favorites. When he did so, Ruth always smiled, giving Richard a little wave of her hand, blushing lightly, as the maître d'hôtel led her to her table. She enjoyed these episodes. It felt good to be noticed.
Now and then, when Richard would take one of his breaks, he would stop by Ruth’s table to say hello, and to ask how things were going. Over time he learned more about her, who she was, and what she did. It was then that he began to speak to her about Thomas, and Thomas’ playing, asking her what she thought of it, carefully phrasing the question in such a way as to leave her room to finesse her answer in case she felt the need to do so. He asked her if she had any suggestions concerning how the boy might improve. One Sunday, he asked her if she knew a teacher that she could recommend for his son. Ruth was flattered.
“There is a young man, Andrew DeVere, who recently joined the faculty at the college,” Ruth said. “I can highly recommend him. He studied with one of today’s giants of the keyboard, and is himself very talented. We are lucky to have him at the college. I will speak to him about your son. No guarantees, of course. Your boy will need to audition for him. Andrew doesn’t take everyone, if you know what I mean.”
Richard knew what Ruth meant. He was impressed. Here, he thought, was a good opportunity for his son, one that he, Richard, had the power to set in motion. Ruth wrote down Andrew DeVere’s phone number and gave it to Richard.
“Please give me a couple of days to speak with him before you call,” she said, “to lay some groundwork so to speak.”
“Of course, Miss Vanhoyvehn. I understand. I am extremely grateful.”
Thomas bent forward at the waist, bringing his face closer to the mirror. The two red blotches were still there beside his nose. He hated acne. He applied some lotion to the spots, hoping to mask them, at least a little. He stood straight and combed his hair again, paying special attention to the part, making sure it was even, and to the front wave, which he had been working on for several weeks.
“Thomas, come on,” his father called from the kitchen. “We have to go. And don’t forget your music book.”
Thomas made a detour through the living room to pick up his music book. He and his father walked down the back steps of the house and got in the car. Thomas placed the music book on the seat between his father and himself.
“Is it far?” he asked, as his father was backing the car out of the driveway.
“No, not too far. Should take us about fifteen or twenty minutes,” his father replied. “Are you nervous?”
Thomas habitually found this to be a tricky question, not because of how he felt, but because of what he thought others might think about how he felt. Over time he had developed different answers to it depending upon who was asking it. If it was his mother, for example, he often said yes, regardless of his level of anxiety. He found her hug, kiss, and reassurance deeply comforting, no matter what the circumstances. If it was his little sister, or a friend at school, who asked him, he usually said no. With his father, his answer was more nuanced: “Maybe, a little. I’m not sure.” This he had found to be a fairly safe answer with his father.
“Well, I wouldn’t worry too much if I were you,” his father said. “I’ve heard you practicing. The piece sounds really good.”
Thomas did not always trust his father’s evaluations. At times he got the impression that his father was saying something only to make him feel better, to boost his confidence, as it were. At other times he suspected that his father might not really know what he was talking about, might not, in the present case, for instance, know what the piece he had been practicing should sound like. Either way, the level of comfort garnered from his father’s positive evaluations rarely achieved its purpose.
Thomas looked out the car’s window. He noticed that they had entered a different part of town. The yards were larger. The houses sat farther back from the street, beneath tall, old pine trees. His father handed him a crumpled sheet of paper.
“What’s it say the street number is?” he asked.
Thomas straightened out the paper and looked at it.
“1107.” “1107. OK. 1097...1101...1103...1105. Ah! Here we go.”
His father pulled the car off the road and parked it in the shade beneath several large trees. He looked at the house for a moment, then turned to Thomas.
“Nice house, huh?”
“Yeah. Really nice.”
“Well! You ready champ?”
They walked up the sidewalk to the front door and rang the bell. A tall, slender, well-groomed young man wearing gray slacks and a long-sleeved black sweater, answered the door.
“Hello. Mister DeVere?”
“Yes. Mister Blackburn? Thomas?”
The boy and his father nodded.
“Please. Come in.”
They entered a large room with dark hardwood floors and a high ceiling. Bookcases with glass doors were neatly spaced along two of the walls. In a small niche between two of the bookcases sat a marble bust of Chopin. Several windows let in an abundance of sunlight through white lace curtains. Two baby grand pianos sat facing each other in the middle of the room. A small sofa and a coffee table displaying several music magazines were on the immediate left of the entryway.
“Please, have a seat,” the teacher said, then looking at Thomas, “I have heard good things about you from Professor Vanhoyvehn. She is impressed with your touch at the keyboard, and the feeling with which you play.”
Thomas smiled and lowered his eyes, but said nothing.
“Thank you, Mr. DeVere,” Thomas’ father replied, looking at his son.
“Please, don’t be nervous,” the teacher said. “I just need to get an idea of where you are in your playing. I don’t expect you to be Van Cliburn, not yet anyway,” he said smiling.
Thomas relaxed a little.
The teacher walked over and sat down at the closest piano.
“Please, come stand near the piano, there in its bend. I am going to play some things and ask you a few questions.”
He played a single note.
“Thomas, can you tell me the note I just played? Was it an A, a B, a C...? Do you know?”
Thomas, not sure if he was supposed to guess if he didn’t know the answer, or to say that he didn’t know it, said, “E?”
“No, it was an A. Let’s try again. How about this one?”
He played another note.
“I’m sorry. I don’t know.”
“There is no need to be sorry. It’s not a problem.”
The teacher played a third note.
“Can you tell me if the note I just played is higher, or lower, than the last one I played? Here, I’ll play the last one for you again.”
Thomas felt he was on safer ground now.
“Higher,” he replied.
“Good! Now, can you tell me how much higher, a half-step, whole-step, one-and-a-half steps, two...?”
Thomas closed his eyes and tried to see the keyboard with his mind’s eye, and to sound out the interval.
“Two steps?” “Close. One-and-a-half.”
The teacher got up from the piano, adjusted the bench for Thomas, and invited him to sit down. He placed some music on the piano’s music rack.
“Can you play this piece for me?” he asked. “I don’t expect you to know it. Take it as slowly as you need to.”
Thomas stared at the music. There seemed to be notes everywhere. His stomach began to hurt. His mouth was dry. He felt hot. He kept blinking his eyes to make sure he could see clearly. He began slowly, made several mistakes, attempted corrections, began again, and after a few moments, stopped.
“Sight reading is difficult,” the teacher said. “It is a skill that can be learned though. I struggled with it myself when I was young. So, now I would like you to play something for me.”
Richard handed his son the music book they had brought.
“Excuse me, may I see your book, please?” the teacher asked. He looked at it briefly, and held on to it.
“I think I would prefer you to play something you play with your father, something from memory. Would that be all right?”
“And you can play anything you like, as long as it is something you enjoy playing.”
Thomas thought a moment.
“I like ‘Danny Boy.’ Would that be all right?”
“Perfect! Start whenever you are ready.”
Thomas took a deep breath, rubbed his palms against his pant legs, and then began playing. The keyboard’s touch was firmer than on his piano at home. At the beginning, his fingers felt weak, as though they were made of soft rubber. Some of the notes sounded louder than he wanted them to, others softer, or not at all. His rhythm was uneven. But as he continued playing, he began to hear himself, and to make adjustments. Gradually, he relaxed. When he finished, the teacher thanked him.
“Very nice,” he said. “There is a small fountain in my backyard garden with goldfish in it. Why don’t you go and have a look at them while I speak with your father? We won’t be long. Just go straight, there, through the kitchen,” he said, pointing the way, “and down the back steps.”
When Thomas had left, the teacher turned to Richard.
“Mr. Blackburn,” he said, “there are many skills, as you know, involved in playing a musical instrument. One of them, a debatable one, is absolute pitch. Thomas does not have absolute pitch, nor do I for that matter. For those musicians who do, it is not always seen as a blessing. Relative pitch, on the other hand, is important to a musician. Thomas does have the beginnings of relative pitch. It is a skill that can be developed. Sight reading is another skill that can be developed and that Thomas needs to work on. He also needs to work on his technique. He has developed a few bad habits already.”
He paused before continuing.
“But above all of these things, these mechanical things, the most important ability for a musician is to be able to bring music to life, to feel it, and to share that feeling with others, to make music with the heart, not the head. Even though Thomas was nervous while playing, I could tell that he felt the music as he played it, felt it very deeply.”
“What I would like to suggest is that Thomas study with me this summer on a trial basis. We’ll see how it goes. If he makes good progress, we can talk about a longer commitment in the fall. If not, we can stop,” the teacher smiled, “saving you money, me time, and Thomas frustration.”
“Mr. DeVere, thank you. I am pleased that Thomas will be studying with you. It is an honor. I know my son will work hard.”
In the car, Richard told Thomas part of what Mr. DeVere had said. He decided not to mention the “trial” nature of the summer’s lessons.
“I am proud of you, son. Mr. DeVere is a gifted musician, a professor of piano at the college. You should be pleased.”
Thomas smiled. He was always happy when his father was happy.
“We’ll swing by Chadwick’s Music Store on the way home and pick up the books Mr. DeVere said you will need.”
When Richard and Thomas left the house, a figure stepped out of the shadows of a side room.
“Andrew, I don’t know why you do it.”
“Waste your time teaching such untalented students. You must find it tremendously boring. I don’t know how you bear it.”
“Oh, it’s not that difficult to understand, really. It’s spelled M-O-N-E-Y. That’s it, in a nutshell.”
No sooner had he said these words, though, than he regretted them, felt the need to soften them, felt that perhaps they were not entirely true.
“Anyway, who knows? Perhaps the boy will enjoy his lessons. He’s not so terrible, you know.”
Richard parked the car in front of Chadwick’s. He gave the list of books that the teacher had given him to Mr. Chadwick.
“Thomas has just been accepted as a student by Mr. DeVere. He’s a professor of piano at the college.”
“I am very aware of Mr. DeVere,” he said, “and impressed that your boy has become one of his students. He’s quite the taskmaster from what I hear, sets high standards for his students. You must be proud of Thomas.”
Mr. Chadwick called for his sheet music manager.
“Edith, please pull these books for Master Blackburn. He’s just become a student of Andrew DeVere.”
Thomas wandered into a part of the store where instruments, accessories, metronomes and the like were on display. He noticed several sculptures of famous musicians on one of the counters. Most of them were plastic, but a few of them were made of stone. He was especially drawn to a bust of Beethoven. He thought it wonderful. As he reached for it, one of the clerks said, “Don’t touch, please. It’s made of stone and can break.” Thomas drew his hand back, then went to get his father.
“Can I show you something?” he asked.
He took his father to the sculpture.
“Can we get this?”
His father picked up the bust carefully and turned it upside down to see the price.
“It’s heavy,” he said, “made of stone. It’s kind of expensive.”
Thomas didn’t say anything.
His father looked at him.
“Well, why not?” he said. “Today is a special day, the first step in a long journey for you. Let’s get it.”
As Mr. Chadwick was writing up the bill, Richard asked about the possibility of paying half of the bill now, and the other half in two weeks.
“Of course,” Chadwick said. “It’s not every day I have such a talented boy in my store.”
Richard pulled the car into the driveway. As Thomas was getting out, he saw his best friend Ted and Ted’s sister Peggy walking up.
“Hi, Tom. We’re going up to Dee’s on the Ridge to get some ice cream. You want to come with us? Our treat.”
Thomas did want to go. He very much wanted to go. He looked at his father.
“Don’t forget your music in the car,” his father said, turning around, and walking to the house.
Thomas looked at Ted and Peggy.
“I can’t come,” he said. “I need to practice. I’ve just been accepted as a piano student by a professor at the college.”
“Suit yourself,” Ted said.
“We won’t be gone that long,” Peggy added. “Sure you can’t come?”
“Yeah, I’m sure. Thanks anyway.”
He watched Ted and Peggy walk away. He went to the car and took out the bag from Chadwick’s. He was surprised at how heavy it felt. He mounted the back steps of the house, moving, as his father would have put it, as slow as molasses in January. One step from the top, the bottom of the bag struck against the step. He heard something break. He decided not to tell his father.