This is an account of how, at the age of 61, I found myself whining with frustration, afraid of humiliating myself, and then fired by my piano teacher—all part of a journey that’s nevertheless been a highlight of these twilight years.
After traipsing around the Dobbs Ferry High School orchestra playing a hodgepodge of instruments, and dabbling on the recorder and piano in college, my instruments lay fallow for three decades while I was consumed by a legal career and kids. Returning to the piano at the age of 61, I was slowly making some headway against the stiff winds of my limitations. But I was high maintenance. Every few months my frustration would burst out and I’d ask my teacher Rebecca, pining for reassurance: “Do you think I’m making any progress?” Or grouse that “I don’t know how to practice.”
High on my list of frustrations was that although I’d learned to crudely play a fair number of songs, I couldn’t seem to play anything without at least a few glaring missteps. Rebecca had a suggestion: “Why don’t we have a recital? We can work on a few songs, which will help you master them, and then we’ll have the recital.” Ever naive, I said ok.
I’d resumed my “musical career” in October of 2013, a few weeks after being discharged from Boston’s Dana Farber Cancer Institute following a bone marrow transplant. With my compromised immune system akin to a newborn’s, Melissa and I planned to live quarantined in Boston for a few months making the frequent follow-up visits to Dana Farber before returning to New York. Melissa scoured the city for a furnished apartment that would make isolation life more palatable. She found a place just a few blocks from the Boston Commons and Public Gardens, where I was allowed to walk so long as I kept my distance from others and wore a mask–valuable training for today’s pandemic.
The other main attraction of the apartment was the baby grand piano that would launch me on a journey into jazz piano that’s been one of my cancer’s silver linings: an enriching but humbling concoction, at times uplifting and rewarding, at others frustrating; punctuated by spurts of progress and anxious periods of perceived stagnation.
Rebecca is a professor at Boston’s Berklee School of Music and, until Covid shuttered jazz clubs and concert halls everywhere, she was playing gigs all over Boston. Then in her mid-thirties, Rebecca rode her bike to our first lesson. Upon entering the apartment she removed her helmet, revealing a head of short-cropped auburn hair, and immediately donned a mask and gloves. She sat in a chair next to the piano bench from which I briefly explained my checkered musical past. “My goal,” I told her, “is just to learn to improvise better than I can now so that not everything I play sounds dull and the same.” I added that “I have no desire to learn to play jazz,” which had always struck me as a monotonous display of manual dexterity that strayed too often and far from the melody.
Rebecca asked me to suggest a song I liked, and I picked Danny Boy. She played a recording by the renowned, now-deceased jazz pianist, Hank Jones. It was melodious and richly textured, flowing seamlessly from gentle to powerful–and I loved it. We began from there, pretty much at the beginning. I could still read music, knew some basic chords, and could pick out a melody by ear on the keyboard. But I quickly realized that I knew nothing about what jazz really is–including that a lot of it is based on iconic tunes and “standards,” originally written for Broadway musicals or classic movies.
My lessons were a highlight of our stay in Boston until Rebecca caught a virus and my doctor put an end to her home visits. Years before the Pandemic Zoom era, Rebecca suggested that we try doing a lesson by Skype. So I set up my iPad next to the piano, with the camera aimed at me and the keyboard. It worked, as Rebecca could spot every one of my many wrong and missing notes. And so we continued.
In late November we moved back home to New York City, where I continued to live in isolation for the next six months, though able to walk in Central Park and have rare masked visitors. And I was able to play the piano that I’d bought twenty-five years before but had received only sporadic use in my pre-transplant days. Rebecca and I continued our Skype lessons and, as we did, I started to delve into the complex menagerie of chords I’d need to learn if I ever hoped to improvise half-decently.
In one respect, learning to play jazz piano was easier than tackling classical music: rather than having to read and play exactly what the different and intricate treble and bass lines of a classical score dictate, jazz is played largely from “lead” sheets that indicate only the melody and basic chords, leaving it to the player to elaborate and improvise. For most songs, the lead sheets occupy only a single page.
But I also soon discovered the hard truth that jazz is complicated. With tension-laden chords constructed upon other chords, in an array of different musical keys, and the need to figure them out and play them quickly, I felt like I was struggling through a course in mathematics–never my strong suit, but a good workout for my aging brain. I told Rebecca that “if the onset of my Alzheimer’s is delayed by 10 years, you get the credit.”
Our lessons evolved into a free-flowing voyage through some of the endless tributaries of jazz piano–a combination of work on a growing body of tunes, scales, and drills, and a crash course on jazz harmony and music theory. I would stumble often upon something unfamiliar that sounded good, especially when Rebecca played it, and ask a question that would take us down a new path. And along the way, Rebecca introduced me to a bevy of great jazz pianists, opening my eyes to the fact that my initial conception of jazz as an exercise in physical acrobatics divorced from melody was flat wrong. Nothing could be more melodious than Bill Evans’ version of For All We know, Keith Jarret’s I Loves You Porgy, or Bill Charlap’s Somewhere.
Before long, however, I ran up against a wall: my crumbling memory. Throughout my legal career my memory had been an asset. Either it had faded badly or there was a hole in whatever synapses were connected to music I was trying to learn. The concepts we discussed during my lessons evaporated from my memory by the next day. Never at a loss, Rebecca began emailing me detailed notes following each lesson, recounting the important points we’d discussed and what I was to work on.
But Rebecca couldn’t fix a related problem: I was unable to memorize the chords of the tunes I was playing—something I would have had no trouble doing in my younger days. Even when using the lead sheets, I’d play a song ten times and yet, when I turned back to it the next day, I’d make the same mistakes. Frustration took hold.
My immediate reaction when Rebecca suggested holding a recital as a way of overcoming my obstacles was to picture embarrassing myself before an audience. But ashamed to say no to her practical solution, I agreed to the recital–after negotiating a few conditions, including that Rebecca would also play so the invitees wouldn’t be subjected only to my performance; and, that we’d have a party afterwards so at least the event would be fun.
It was September of 2015. I’d been taking lessons and practicing daily for almost two years since the transplant. We picked a date: March 27, 2016. Rebecca and I selected four songs that I’d been playing for a while and would perform for the assembled victims: Blame It On My Youth; The Way You Look Tonight; Over the Rainbow; and Fly Me to the Moon. She suggested a different arrangement for each tune.
Although I had more than six months to get ready, preparing to play the songs flawlessly–or at least without irreparable screw-ups–was torture. For one thing, as an inveterate dabbler I grew bored working on the same four songs; for another, while I was making some progress, continuing to make the same mistakes was frustrating, and I wondered whether I’d ever be ready.
March 27th arrived. I felt the same nervous anxiety I’d had as a young lawyer before performing in court for the first time. I’d invited several close friends; my recently-deceased mother insisted on coming; and my son Tommy was also in attendance. I led off with Blame It On My Youth, a beautiful ballad played by many of the jazz greats, including Bill Evans, Brad Mehldau, and Keith Jarrett. It went relatively well (not great), and the applause from my hand-picked audience was, not surprisingly, enthusiastic. I was happy, not merely to have avoided a debacle but to realize that performing before an audience was fun—an exhilarating high similar to the feeling after doing well cross examining a witness in court despite having been nervous beforehand.
With my confidence high going into The Way You Look Tonight, the air quickly came out of my balloon. I lost my place early in the song and it took me a few anxious measures to stumble back on track. I knew that everyone in the room was painfully aware I’d screwed up, feeling bad for me, and praying that I’d pull out of the tailspin. My confidence, the key to so much in life, was shaken, and now the prospect of having to perform two more songs was daunting. But I plowed ahead, doing a serviceable novice job on Rainbow and finishing with a rousing version of Fly Me To The Moon. I was showered with applause and hugs, most notably from Tommy, who, never one to miss an opportunity, gave me a big embrace as he whispered, warmly but with a tweak, “Dad, you really tried your best!”
Rebecca and I moved on with our Skype lessons, wading deeper into jazz harmony theory, rhythm, ear training, and “comping,” with books for each. There were new drills and additional tunes–On A Clear Day, Misty, The Shadow of Your Smile–and Rebecca’s notes continued, often attempting to quell my anxiety about my lack of progress, lousy memory, and inability to practice effectively.
Rebecca’s Lesson Notes– 6/7/15
“Pianistic Existential Crisis – I don’t know a pianist who doesn’t go in and out of these, myself included. The concepts and skills we work on are very broad and can have thousands of applications each. Therefore, it is logical that it will take years upon years to master any one of them in a variety of contexts.”
In the midst of my whining and Rebecca’s attempts to keep me afloat, I continued to inch along, particularly as I learned to recognize some common chord progressions or “cycles” by which tunes flowed, thereby reducing how much I had to memorize. And despite my periodic outbursts, the piano, including my daily practicing, continued to be one of the highlights of my post-transplant life. And then, to my surprise, Rebecca suggested that I take lessons in person from a good friend of hers who performs and teaches in New York City.
I initially rebuffed Rebecca’s suggestion, unable to imagine taking lessons with another teacher. I also felt like Rebecca and I had become true friends over the years and that it would be disloyal to take her up on her proposal. But after procrastinating for a few months, I sheepishly told Rebecca I thought I should give it a try. So, I like to say that I was fired by my piano teacher (Rebecca jokes that she fired herself).
The Next Chapter
I began taking lessons from Nicki in March of 2019. Until Covid-19 locked us in our respective cocoons, she came to the apartment and taught me in person. Looking forward to my first lesson, I anticipated that we’d spend some time reviewing Rebecca’s notes so she could see what we’d covered. Nicki barely peaked inside the two loose-leaf binders of notes and, after listening to me play for just a few minutes, we set out on a new course–Nicki’s. I saw quickly that although she and Rebecca were pals with similar taste in music, their teaching styles couldn’t be more different.
With shoulder-length black hair and, like Rebecca, appearing to be in her mid-30’s, Nicki is warm, reassuring, and quick to laugh. Having seen her perform, I’ve noticed a serene, fun-loving streak in her. As a teacher, however, Nicki is very much in control. She began by showing me a new system for playing jazz chords–built upon a foundation of major 6th and diminished chords—championed by the legendary Barry Harris. Ninety years old, Harris teaches a weekly master class in Manhattan that’s open to all comers and was the subject of a recent New York Times article. The Barry chords added a sense of depth and richness to the music, and I began to apply them to songs I’d been playing for a while–Misty, Bewitched, and Autumn Leaves–as well as some new ones Nicki suggested.
From there, Nicki starting giving me a few small drills each lesson, designed to introduce various techniques, small building blocks that I could, over time, put together to play songs and improvise. Her focus seemed to be on the nuts and bolts of playing, with discussion of theory only when necessary to answer one of my questions as to why we were doing something. Gone were detailed typed lesson notes. And we focused almost entirely on what Nicki wanted to teach me and thought I needed to know in order to play solo piano–not on what I happened to be curious about.
She began each lesson by asking, “So, how’s piano?” For the first year, my answer most often was, “I think good, but you’ll tell me.” And, though perhaps mistaken, I believe I was having a growth spurt. For one thing, although my conscious memory hadn’t improved, quite a few of the songs I’d played with Rebecca seemed to have finally sunk “into my hands.” When I sat down to play a familiar song it seemed to flow naturally from my fingers.
There were still mistakes–plenty of them, but Nicki brushed aside my whining that I still couldn’t play anything flawlessly. “It’s a very slow process,” she’d say. Or, “Welcome to jazz. The key is to learn how to recover from the mistakes, which we all make, and find your way back.”
Mistakes aside, what I was playing often sounded good to me. And, as I worked on Nicki’s bite-sized drills–many of which entailed nuggets of standard jazz riffs–I began to recognize what some of the great jazz pianists were doing as they ambled up and down the keyboard in what had previously sounded to me like an undifferentiated mass. In a word, I was cruising. Until I wasn’t.
Nicki pushed and pulled me ahead, and as she did, new frustrations arose, especially as we delved further into harmonic improvisation in which the player in effect composes a new piece using the chords of the original tune. My frustration erupted after a miserable attempt at harmonic improv on For All We Know. I dismissed Nicki’s words of encouragement and compliments, giving her my own, accurate self-evaluation: “It sucked!” Nicki sympathized, reminding me that harmonic improvisation is difficult, but also that it’s at the heart of what jazz is about. Atypically, the lesson failed to assuage my frustration, and I suspect Nicki was none too happy with me. It seemed that I’d climbed a ways, but was stuck on a low-altitude plateau.
Our lesson the following week began as usual. “So, how’s piano?” Nicki asked, after we’d caught up on life in the pandemic. “We’ll see,” I said. “I think I may be starting to see a feint glimmer of progress.” After listening to my slow and fragmented attempt at harmonic improv on For All We Know, she exclaimed that it was “night and day from last week.”
And so it goes: Occasional growth spurts, periods of frustration and stagnation, but small steps forward against headwinds that blow harder as I get older. If I were smart I’d simply accept that this pattern is just my lot, and probably part and parcel of learning to play music, as Rebecca and Nicki have both repeatedly told me.
One might ask why I subject myself to all the frustration and feelings of failure I’ve described. Perhaps more perplexing, why do I consider the piano one of the highlights of my post-transplant life, one of cancer’s silver linings? What’s the point of practicing every day, of continuing, when I know that I’ll never be a great jazz pianist–or even a good one?
My answer: for all my whining, I enjoy playing almost every time I sit down at the piano, even on days when I have to drag myself to practice. Unlike my gym work-outs, which I enjoy only when they’re over, I like playing the piano during the doing. And looking back over the ebb and flow of satisfaction/frustration, progress/stagnation, I know I’ve come a ways from where I began in Boston, telling a masked Rebecca that I had no interest in learning jazz.
And finally, I’ve treasured my piano experience precisely because, at 68, I don’t feel pressure to be great. We spend our professional lives trying to excel, to be among the best at what we do–with this being not only a realistic goal but an expectation. Not so with my piano or tennis game–or most people’s golf game. When I listen to Keith Jarrett or watch Roger Federer play tennis, or when weekend golfers watch Tiger Woods par a whole after landing his drive in the woods, it’s obvious that they’re operating in a completely different universe that we don’t even aspire to enter. And yet, we proceed with passion in pursuit of mediocrity. There’s something liberating in not having to worry about being great.
And so I go on, “bumbling and stumbling,” to quote Walt “Clyde” Frazier, the New York Knicks’ colorful commentator, inching up the glorious mountain of music I first stepped on at the age of six, playing the Von Trapp Family Songbook on the recorder. Knowing I’ll never reach beyond the foothills.
In case you missed it, you can read Part l of my musical journey here.