Monday, May 27, 2013

Playing Uncle George's piano

A routine family visit to my uncle's house in Teaneck, NJ in the mid-70s. A teenage boy is banging out blues on a yellow spinet piano in the living room. This upsets his uncle in the kitchen just behind the wall, who can't hear any of the conversation through his hearing aid with the music in the background. After a time (not long enough in the boy's estimation, he needs at least half an hour before his playing runs its course) the uncle comes out and tells the boy to stop. Not without resentment (though there is much love between uncle and nephew), he does.

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I've played music in one form or another since taking clarinet and piano lessons in elementary school. I was in school bands from 4th to 9th grade, switching to bassoon towards the end but never actually practicing it. I quit piano lessons after 6th grade. I never liked reading music much, or more accurately didn't like spending the hours it took to learn a song by reading the notes and picking them out on an instrument. I also didn't much like the avenging-angel style of our piano teacher, who regularly made us cry if we were not well prepared for our weekly lessons.

When I was 14, a few of the kids in my neighborhood started teaching ourselves guitar, picking out chords from songbooks. I had stopped playing piano, but then a friend showed me a blues scale in C, with no written music, and that launched an explosion of piano improvisation for the rest of my high school years, spending hours pounding out chords and runs, mostly playing Allman Brothers songs and the like.

Playing piano like this became something of a lifeline. I was a shy, insecure kid, uncomfortable in social situations. But hammering at top volume on our Yamaha baby grand, or on any piano that would have me, made me feel like I was doing something worthwhile. Low on technique but high on passion, I would go round and round the same 12 bar progressions for hours, barely varying my dynamics because to play as hard as I could felt like I was actually expressing something.

Uncle George, my father's brother, was a complicated man. He was always kind to me and told me many times that I was his "favorite nephew" (I may have been his only nephew), giving me special gifts and generally being nice whenever we'd visit (much nicer, I realized as I got older, than he often was to his wife and son). He was mostly deaf and wore a large, problematic 1960s hearing aid, the size of a cigarette pack, that often would emit squealing feedback. Using it he could hear, within fairly narrow limits, often needing to move it around to different positions in the middle of a conversation.

After I started playing piano in my mid-teens, I would crave playing wherever we were. This was compounded in any sort of social situation, even -- or especially -- when visiting any of my relatives. I wasn't happy sitting around and talking. If there was a piano in the house I would feel magnetically pulled to it. Not only because I wanted to play, but because I also felt that it would allow me to actually say something worthwhile and be heard, rather than sitting silent and invisible in the midst of chattering family members.

I remember the incident described above clearly. It may not have been the only time it happened, but one stands for all in my memory. I never wanted to be interrupted when playing. This is still the case actually, though I've learned to resist the magnetic pull to play (and bang) somewhat.

This situation is an example of the principle that aesthetic choices, when they directly affect other people in whatever ways -- like playing the piano so loud that it prevented my uncle from hearing -- have ethical dimensions. Those dimensions, properly understood, are multi-faceted. What I'm interested in is the complex of feelings and experiences behind the scenes of a situation involving aesthetic actions. There is no question that playing music loudly in the presence of someone struggling to hear people talking was wrong on the face of it. But I want to try to get beneath the surface, to see how the choice to play or not play in that setting had its own history and dynamics, different for the different people involved.

In this case, the way I was playing -- its loudness and unremittingness -- was a choice. Possibly if I could have played with more restraint it would have been more tolerable for my uncle. But then it would not have been the kind of playing that was about the only way for me to connect to other people from inside, since I found it so difficult to do by just talking. It was saying "this is who I am" to my family. Being interrupted, or even told to play quietly, felt like the only voice I could speak with was being silenced. 

This situation shows how an ostensibly "aesthetic" action, taken in a given moment, has a past, present, and future, and how the meaning of that action can vary for the different people involved. An action can have direct and indirect effects on people, including the people making the aesthetic choice themselves. The ethics of shaping are not limited to the their meaning for the aesthetic object (e.g. music) itself, but also in a situation like this, the effect of not shaping (i.e., not playing the piano) had its own consequences. What I'm interested in is revealing and understanding these kinds of dynamics, even in professional situations. 

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