Each Measure an Echo
BY SUZANNE FARRELL SMITH
Agitato. Hurried. In a restless manner.
It’s my wedding present. That’s why my mother is shipping the piano to New York. “From both of us,” she says.
“Daddy and I both want you to have it,” she says. My mother has communed with my dead father and they’ve selected a gift.
At first, the man at the local moving company, “Father & Son,” tells my mother they don’t typically travel to New York. He calls back to say he will make a special move, but it proves far too expensive. My sister and brother-in-law offer to try to fit it in their minivan, but my mother doesn’t want it to lie on its back. The mover calls again: a customer is heading to Westchester, and “Father & Son” will fit the piano into their already-loaded truck and take it a bit farther, into Manhattan.
Terribly nervous about the move, my mother uses a Sharpie marker to fill in the piano’s scratches, then takes pictures. “Check for new marks and compare its condition,” she tells me. She writes her own “citizen’s waiver” and makes the movers sign it.
At the hour the piano is supposed to arrive, I remove the screen from our apartment window and stick my head out to read truck tops: groceries, UPS, knife sharpening. At last, “Father & Son” slide up the block, and I wait for our superintendent to buzz. Jack knows how excited I am about the piano, but when the call comes ten minutes later, his voice sounds flat. “It doesn’t fit in the elevator.”
“What about the service elevator?”
“It doesn’t fit in the passenger elevator or the service elevator.”
I’d carefully measured the space in the apartment. Opposite our front door is a wall that encloses our next-door neighbor’s closet; the opening to our main room is diagonal from the door, creating a small square entryway. Using my mother’s report of the piano’s dimensions, I’d created a model piano with cardboard boxes and our building’s luggage cart, and figured out the exact amount of room the piano would have to slide diagonally into the apartment: twenty-four and a half inches. The piano is twenty-four and a quarter inches deep. A quarter-inch between having a piano and not having one.
But I hadn’t thought to measure the elevators. While the movers puzzle on the first floor, I troubleshoot on the tenth. Our stairwell is too tight, with return stairs, so the piano won’t bend around its corners, even if the movers are willing to heave it up all those flights. I remember Mets star David Wright jamming traffic on Broadway when he hired a crane to hoist a hot tub into his apartment. I spring at the windows with a tape measure, but they are far too narrow. The super buzzes again—the movers can turn the piano on one end and roll it on a dolly into the service elevator.
“Sure,” I say quickly. “Do anything you need to do. Just get it upstairs.”
The old elevator chains rattle, and the piano, on one end, arrives. Jack helps the movers turn it upright and wheel it in the front door. It slides cleanly through the space, a quarter-inch to spare. The piano is pushed into the bedroom, placed against our north wall, and released from its protective quilts.
Without waiting for the stool, I lift the fallboard and play a few notes. Jack encourages me to play a song. On the spot, I can’t remember a thing, except the first two measures of Mozart’s “Sonata No. 11.” I play them. The movers smile. The younger one asks if know “La Cucaracha.” He must think all New Yorkers know the cockroach.
After they leave, I call my mother. “I’m so glad it’s there safely,” she breathes into the phone. I put her on speaker so I can play what I remember of a Chopin Polonaise, always her favorite. “I was so worried. Are there any scratches?”
“No, not a scratch. It’s perfect,” I tell her, though I haven’t checked.
“Did it fit in the elevator?”
“Yes, it fit just fine.” How can I tell her about the tipping?
I play a few more measures.
“How does it sound? I had it tuned for you. Is it still in tune?”
It is, mostly. For having journeyed from its home, and for having been stood on end, it is tuned enough to be pleasing. Hammers are still in place, strings are still taut. In our small apartment, its velvet tones drape the walls. The piano plays, to me, like a dream.
“Play for Daddy,” says my mother. “I hope you know he can hear you.”
I don’t think he can hear me. It’s too much for me to stomach, imagining he can hear but not see or touch. Then again, if all he can sense is music, perhaps that’s what heaven is. My mother seems to know where he is. I don’t.
My father bought the piano on April 21, 1982, for about fifteen hundred dollars. I know this not because I remember it, but because my mother saved his canceled check and sent it to me. She loves to tell me the story of how we all shopped together, piling into the station wagon with its extra-long body and rear-facing seat—the “wayinback,” my sisters and I called it—for the fifteen-mile trip to A. Michael’s Piano. The salesman was generous and patient: “Sure! Let them all play.” We banged on showroom models in exuberant test runs. What a sound we must have made, little girls hammering on four different pianos at once, the dissonant tones and our sharp voices filling the air.
Somehow two parents and four daughters settled on a favorite. My mother checked the price tag to make sure it was affordable; my father checked the integrity of the working parts, plucking the strings inside with his thumbnail; we girls checked how loud it could get. Our choice was perfect: a small maple Kohler & Campbell upright, two spindle legs in the front that screw on and off. Ideal for young children just learning to play.
The piano sat in the largest room of the basement, near my father’s model trains. No doubt the clickclack clickclack of a locomotive on the fast track was timed at a perfect 2:1 ratio with the hush hush of a freight train on the slow track. I’m told that’s just the kind of mathematician my father was. The piano played treble melodies while the whistle blew next door.
My father’s workshop sat on the other side of the wall. Lit by bare bulbs, its cement floor partially hidden under carpet scraps and its ceiling lined with mason jars, the workshop was as dark and drafty as a garage. My father placed a mini-fridge in the corner near the sump pump and loaded it with Budweiser. For an electrical engineer, amateur woodworker, and model train enthusiast, I’m sure this was heaven.
In her tiny sewing room, my mother’s foot pumped the machine in 4/4 time while the laundry progressed. The washer constantly cycled with the dirty clothes produced by a family of six. But not the dryer—my mother loaded wet clothes into laundry baskets and clipped them to the clothesline to save electricity.
The basement—cool, musty, and dimly lit—was a place of practice, chores, creation, all on repeat.
Mancando. Fading away.
Nine months after he bought the piano, my father was killed instantly in a highway-speed head-on collision with a drunk driver, not far from A. Michael’s. I was six. No piece of that time, before or after my father’s death, remains in my memory. Most of us have childhood amnesia for the first three or four years of life. Mine lasts twelve years.
After my father died, my mother put the four of us into formal lessons with a local teacher. But one by one, my sisters dropped out. Beth quit first. She never got the hang of piano, choosing craft projects like sewing and macramé instead. She would grow up to start her own quilting business. Tammy, who hated practicing, preferred to curl around a cat and read. She is now a program manager. And Debbie’s big personality was far too contained on a piano bench. She wanted to play dress-up and talk on the phone, and would become a musical theater star and a headhunter. I stuck with the piano, partly by default—I was stuck with the piano. An unplayed piano is just a table for photographs, a cat perch, a symbol of creative potential. It’s not a piano anymore, and we had to have this piano, this relic from a time when my father was still alive and making big purchases. We’d already lost the train board and three workbenches to meaninglessness.
As each sister dropped out, I stayed in lessons, even graduating to a new teacher, Mrs. Norman, who lived a bit farther away and carried many more students on her roster. Though I can’t remember the piano in those years, I think I loved it. I feel it now, a relationship between the piano and me. A kind of interdependence. At the piano, I imagine, I could release the weight of need I felt for my absent father. And perhaps I could release, too, some of the tension of the house and my mother’s authority over my family’s story. An object as heavy as a piano could transform the house atmosphere into something light, something free.
At eighteen, I moved out of the house to attend college in Hartford, an hour away, and I stayed to work campus jobs during the summers. I never moved back in with my mother, and I would not play piano again until now, fourteen years later. The piano from the basement has come back to me.
Ritardando. Slow down immediately.
I play long into the evening of my reunion with the piano. Simple bass rhythms, improvised measures, show tunes. After a few hours, I realize that I am not in the basement of a small-town house but surrounded by people watching late-night television and drifting into sleep.
My mother sends me yet another object that’s been hidden somewhere in her home: an old music case. It’s a flat, brown, zippered bag decorated with notes and clef signs. I recognize her handwriting. In Sharpie marker, she’d written Suzanne Marie Farrell, as if other Suzanne Farrells were taking lessons with Mrs. Norman. I notice, too, the smell. Every vessel that journeys from my mother’s house to my apartment carries with it the perfumed blend of lavender, cat, dust, cinnamon apple turnovers, cement, and cold.
Flipping through the music, I’m not surprised that classical pieces make up most of the pile. Some ragtime, some jazz. Christmas carols, contemporary songs, polkas. But I’ve always been a classical pianist. From the bag, I pull out Grieg, Bach, Beethoven, and invent for myself a childhood as a prodigy. The tenant above us is renovating his apartment. I play loudly to cover the hammers, scrapes, and drills.
The case also includes a lesson notebook: spiral steno pad, its cover almost completely detached. On the front, Name: Suzanne Farrell. Subject: Piano. Again in my mother’s handwriting, in Sharpie. She must have used Sharpie for everything. The notebook traces my weekly lessons from September 1986 through June 1992, fourth grade through ninth. By the time of this notebook, I was practicing at least an hour a day, over and over, the same notes. Mrs. Norman consistently instructed me to play more dynamically, to worry a little less about the notes. But I must have wanted to get all the notes, in time, locked into a metronomic tick tick tick tick. Getting the right notes, fitting them all in—that’s what worried me most.
Vivo. Very lively and fast.
I’ve had the piano for fewer than twenty-four hours, but I’m already itching to start lessons. Not new ones. I want to retake the lessons I took as a child. Along with my classical music, I find Alfred’s Basic Piano Library books, levels four and five, which corresponded with my grades in school. I regret that the case is missing levels one, two, and three. We must have sold them at a yard sale. Still, level four, my fourth-grade year, is a relic from within the memory gap. I begin.
Each lesson starts in the Theory Book. How Many Eighth Notes? I know from the school papers my mother saved that I excelled in math. Besides, my math teacher mother and engineer father must have trained me to think in numbers. My pencil marks, still dark enough to read, indicate that I knew the number of eighth notes allowed per time signature. A purple sticker on the page reads, “Berry Good!” On to the Lesson Book, now that the theory is in place. It’s the “Tarantella,” a quick, light song, meant for dancers. Easy and rhythmic. Allegro, 6/8 time, in F-major. Cross the fingers to go up and down, buh-duh-duh, buh-duh-duh, bummmm-buh-duh. The Recital Book is last, full of what Alfred considers showpieces, like the “Irish Wedding Dance.” I plow through level four in just a few days. But, hesitant to move on, I repeat the lessons, naively hoping that they’ll come back to me as memories. They don’t.
I move on to level five, just as I did when I entered the fifth grade. It starts with scale degrees: tonic, dominant, subdominant. The tonic is the key-note. C for a C-scale, F for an F-scale. So simple. I plunk my forefinger on middle C. Then, the dominant tone—a fifth above the key-note. G for a C-scale. It’s agreeable to the human ear, these notes a fifth apart. C and a G intertwine in the air and elicit the acoustic equivalent of placing a shaped block in the correct hole. The theory of tonics leads the Lesson Book’s “Brazilian Holiday.” (It seems a fitting leap.) The song was due for Mrs. Norman in November, six days before my eleventh birthday. Staccato on the left hand, fingered three, one, five, one, repeat. Clipped but rhythmic. Topping this page is a sketch of a toucan with an old-fashioned camera strung around his neck, a guidebook to Brazil tucked under his arm. As I play, I hear the toucan saying, “Let’s go to Brazil.” Practice, practice, practice.
I open the Recital Book. It’s around dinnertime, but I want to relearn “Come Back to Sorrento,” often sung by the likes of Pavarotti and Domingo. In D-minor, it’s so sad. I play it more grave than it should be played, and sing cleanly through a rigid lip circle—dooo, dooo, dooooo. Mournful, like a funeral. Come back to Sorrento, please, come back to me.
Construction above is finished for today. Dinner is being served in the apartment behind ours—I can hear the two restless little boys fussing in the kitchen. My downstairs neighbor smokes another cigarette.
Grandioso. In a noble style.
Halfway through my fifth-grade year, my lesson notebook tells me, I reached Mozart. Alfred disappeared altogether, and I was possessed by the composer’s “Fantasia I.” Mozart died before he finished the piece, and no one really knows who composed the last few bars. It’s a short piece—just over 100 measures broken into fifteen sections—and popular with beginning classical pianists.
I remember it. Not because I remember fifth grade or practicing the piece, but because the notebook tells me I played it for my recital, so I must have practiced so much that even now my heart recognizes the melody and my fingers quickly locate their starting position.
The first measure is loud. It begins with a hard spill on D2, damper pedal employed. After the initial whollup, a deliberate, fluid spread up the keyboard in triplets: Each measure/repeated/an echo/no pedal/and softly/piano/nearly in/audible.
No pedal! says the sheet music in the echoed measures. The order is underlined and circled twice: once in pencil, once in red ink. But I feel my foot on the pedal anyway. I want to fill in the soft parts, to barely hear the notes running together in tiny tones, even during the echoed measures. Once I am playing the piano again, I don’t want the music to stop. Besides, this is an old piano. Without pressing the damper pedal, each note dies too early. That won’t do.
The first eleven measures breeze by. Wait! says the music. I stop and repeat. It’s harder the second time. My fingers know it well, but the moment I am conscious of the thrill of sense memory, my fingers get stage fright, worried they won’t deliver for me what I need most, and they freeze. The third time through I check each note, each triplet, and old mistakes come back to me as new mistakes. I’m frustrated. I don’t have much time to get it right. I am tuned to a recital schedule, as if I must play for a reason, with meaning, not just to enjoy the aimless wanderings as an afternoon amateur. In the final two measures before the Adagio section, my fingers find their way. I reduce the volume, pianissimo possibile, to silence.
My husband listens to Mozart and me when he arrives home from work in the evenings. “It sounds like all different songs,” he says one night, stretching out long on the bed.
“They’re movements,” I tell him, and turn back to the keyboard to play a few measures of each. “Andante is fluid, fast. An onslaught. Adagio plods along. Then—Presto! It catches you off guard. Suddenly you’re in it. What’s so great, though, is that you can see it coming. It’s not so scary that way.” I’m lecturing now, as I play. “Each movement is the same basic melody, but changed. Squeezed or stretched, enlarged or reduced. Distorted. That’s why it seems like different songs. See what I mean?”
I turn to my student, but he has dozed off.
Rallentando. Slow down gradually before the stop.
At college, I made half-hearted attempts to continue working a keyboard. I brought my electric Casio with me, but sold it for spending money. I took lessons on the chapel’s magnificent pipe organ, but gave them up in favor of sleeping in on the weekends. Once or twice I used the pianos in the music building’s practice rooms, but hated the cross-campus walks during freezing winter evenings.
After a while, I just stopped. If I saw a piano, I would stand very near it, sometimes sweeping my fingernails along the key tops. But I didn’t play. I chalked it up to lack of practice. Something just wasn’t right.
Con Bravura. With skill.
I am working hard on the long runs of sixteenth notes in the Fantasia. Thank goodness for Giuseppe Buonamici who wrote the fingering. The pacing, the emphasis, and the flats fall into place. I still can’t play the measures presto. And I certainly can’t bring them to forte or the neighbors will finally put an end to these piano lessons. When the upstairs tenant lets his terriers run wild, however, I play fff.
I note my right fingers. Two, four, three, two, one, three, two, four. It occurs to me that I’m observing my fingers, not the notes on the page. My fingers know when to hit harder, when to jump, when to dance, to smooth out, to chop. My right fingers meet my left, down the keyboard at C2, and work together back up to a beautiful sustained sixth-octave E-flat. Mozart did that. Buonamici did that. I did that. Play for Daddy, my mother says. Come back to me. But I am not a snake charmer, and he doesn’t float out of the sheet music’s fold.
Saltando. Jumpy. Short and fast.
Since the piano arrived, or so it seems, my asthma has been plaguing me. I suspect it’s the smoke from downstairs, which has increased since the tenant’s father died and she returned from a month of mourning with her family, all heavy smokers. More than usual, I can’t breathe. Worried about a blood clot, I head to my doctor, and on to a pulmonologist, who starts with an EKG before investigating my lungs.
“This is weird,” she says about the printout, pointing to a section of the line that dips down rather than up. “Non-specific T-wave changes. Have you had an EKG before?”
“I don’t think so,” I tell her, trying not to grab at the word “weird.”
“Don’t worry. We’ll run it again and compare. I want to make sure the pads weren’t too high.”
I study the printout. Spiked waves are spaced evenly until the irregularity, the moment when my heart apparently leapt a little, pushed blood just a touch more forcefully. Or perhaps when electricity ceased for a split second, muted as the soft pedal, una corda, was pushed. A development, then a recapitulation. The exquisiteness of the heart—of music, of math—is in this regularity. In most cases, a slip doesn’t last forever, doesn’t leave things different from the way they were before. Things always return to normal.
The doctor retests and shows me a perfect printout. “The first one was a fluke. Your heart is absolutely fine.”
“My heart is fine,” I echo. “That’s great news.”
“So what has changed in your environment?” she asks. Construction. Smoke. And—of course—a dusty piano.
Mysterioso. In a manner suggesting mystery.
I can’t remember ever looking inside the piano before. Unlike my father, I’ve never had any interest in the way it’s put together, in the separate parts that make it a whole. An engineer, he probably loved its insides. Cast iron plate, wood and felt hammers, shanks, strings, wires, and pins. I wonder if he ever dreamt of building a piano from scratch.
I vacuum the dust. My flashlight reveals ancient goodies: several squares of plain white paper, about the size of postage stamps. They’re too far down for me to grab with my fingers, so I stick tape to the end of a chopstick and poke at them. Thick and smooth and familiar: sticker backs. Was I putting my own stickers on my lesson book pages? I fish out the rest: some paperclips, brittle rubber bands, the silver wrapper from a Hershey’s kiss.
Screw Mozart. How did he come up with this stuff? My fingers fail me completely.
Mozart’s father knew his son had a gift. He bought him a harpsichord on which the child composed little ditties to play at public concerts in Munich and Linz and Vienna. Little ditties. At six years old. How many tunes did Mozart carry with him into adulthood?
I need a break. I want to play something I don’t know, something I’ve never played before. In my music case, there’s a Schumann I don’t remember ever learning. “Widmung” or “Dedication.” It looks challenging, in A-flat major, 3/2 time. I begin slowly, until the fourth measure when I notice there are words. “Thou art my soul, thou art my heart.” It’s a love song. My hands are trying to learn two parts each, but it’s too complicated. I pull out one part, the highest, with the right hand only. “Thou art my world, where I am mover, my heav’n art thou, wherein I hover.” My right hand is wrong. I’m utterly stuck. “Thou art my grave, wherein I cast forever all my sorrow past!”
I give up. Inevitably, I revert to familiar tunes, playing the melody to “Twinkle, Twinkle.” Slow, then double time, then slow again. I add a blues bass line with my left hand, finish with some extra trills, and play other tunes that I must have known at six years old, songs I repeated when my father was still alive and working on his trains, when my mother sewed wool pants for him and cotton dresses for us. “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and “Old MacDonald.” Both parts of “Heart and Soul.” Finally, I close the fallboard and lean into the smooth maple.
Ritenuto, deciso. Slow down, slightly holding back, then play decisively.
Finally, I’ve learned the Mozart. I’m nearly recital-ready. Other pieces begin to appear in my lesson notebook—Beethoven, Gershwin, Grieg. Joplin introduces a short ragtime phase. But the Mozart reappears, in anticipation of the recital in June. “Slow down,” says a note from Mrs. Norman. “More dynamic contrast in the beginning. More dramatic.” I decide the only way to finish is to hold another recital—not for anyone else, just for the piano and me. I’ll play all the songs I can’t remember learning, then I’ll play the Mozart.
I take a deep breath. Lift my shoulders up and toward my ears. Hold for a few seconds before bringing them down again while exhaling. Clasp my fingers, stretching the palms outward. Unclasp and wiggle each, cracking some knuckles, and place them on the keys. Pet—gently slide the fingertips toward the front edges of the cool ivory rectangles. (This must be why they call it tickling. The piano would shiver if it could.) Lift my wrists to the proper height and pause.
I look at the keys, at the brass piano lamp that hangs low over the music stand. Fourteen years. As I study the elegant Kohler & Campbell lettering, I realize it wasn’t avoidance or stage fright or cold winter nights that kept me from continuing. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to play piano. It’s that I wanted to play only this piano.
The rendering of my father, of my entire childhood, in music, is something that can only be done on this particular piano. Each time my father hammered at a project, or nailed down a train track, or electrified the locomotive, or shaved wood down into a table leg, each time he popped a can of Budweiser even, the vibrations he set off made the strings in the piano quiver. The piano is one big context clue, but rather than bringing me memories, it brings me a creature comfort. The stimuli—train whistles and the squeak of vice jaws and my father too—are gone. But I can hear them echo through the maple case. I commune with this piano and the sense memory it gives me.
Perhaps memory is not always a noun, some thing that floats to consciousness, like a bubble rising, or some thing that disappears, like a bubble popped. It can also be a process. Memory: a verb, used without object, like swim or run or play piano. When you swim or run or play, you do so just for the muscle strength, heart health, and increased stamina. For the enjoyment of activity. There’s no tangible other side. There might be an artificial finish line or recital, but that just signals that the running or playing is over for now. Maybe it’s the same with memory. For someone like me, without childhood memory, there’s no tangible creation. No object. Memory is the effort.
Still, a good student, I will memory hard and I will memory long. And I will never stop memorying. I won’t let my neurons rest. I’ll constantly supply power to them just in case one day, many months or even years from now, notes float into just the right arrangement, an electrical bridge is built across the chasm, and wham: a memory hits.
But I know now that I don’t play to regain memory, to remember my father. And I don’t play for my father because I believe he is somewhere, listening. Rather, to bring him out of the piano, to free him, to free myself of the need to find him—this, I suspect, is the most generous reason to play. Sense memory is enough. It has to be.
The piano swells, and my father escapes me. I play through to the final bars, added to Mozart’s piece by a mysterious composer who couldn’t bear to leave it unfinished. I close Fantasia and place it on the top board.
My memory will not come back.
I open a new piece of music and begin to play.
SUZANNE FARRELL SMITH’s work explores memory, trauma, health, education, and parenthood and has been published in numerous literary and academic journals. Recent work appears in Copper Nickel, River Teeth’s Beautiful Things column, and Under the Gum Tree. Essays have been listed as Special Mention by Pushcart and Notable in Best American. With an MA from The New School and an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, Suzanne teaches writing and education courses at Manhattanville College. She lives with her husband and three sons in Connecticut. Learn more here.