London Letters #6: A Tale of Two Pianos

By Adam Katz

Playing piano is one of the main reasons I am surviving the pandemic. If we recognize (and if you don’t, I have some news for you) that the mind is part of the body, and so emotional health is physical health, then it shouldn’t be surprising that within a few weeks of the lockdown (so… we’re talking April 2020) I started practicing every day. The last time I had given the piano such regular attention was the first year of grad school, a decade earlier. The first thing I started to do was to relearn the very same piece I had committed to memory in 2010-2011, Mendelssohn’s “Albumblatt,” Op. 117. It’s a gorgeous piece of music and a lot of fun when I want to sit down at the piano and let the fingers fly faster than the mind can follow, so that in an odd way I feel like a spectator at my own performance. I don’t have a recording of myself playing it because when I turn the camera on, I start making mistakes like crazy. C’est la vie.

You’ve seen this photo before. It’s me in front of the reconstructed Globe Theater. Part of this story takes place on the same day.

In May or June of 2020, I decided to start learning Chopin’s Ballade in g minor, Op. 21. It’s a beast of a piece, far-and-away harder than anything I’ve ever played; harder than anything I’ve even attempted. Did I know I could do it? I would be lying if I said I did. I’m still not sure, a year and a half later, that I can do it. It was such an undertaking that I talked it over with people before embarking, including, of course, Anuja. Anuja was, at the time, safely in India, having seen the writing on the wall and made hasty preparations to fly from England to India and spend the duration of the pandemic with her family. We did not know in those naive early days just how long the duration would prove to be. I guess we still don’t. Her flight left only a few days before Modi’s government put out an almost-universal travel ban that would have kept even her, an Indian citizen, from returning home, at least temporarily. Or so she feared. 

At least for the purposes of spending time with her on the phone, I prefer her in India to England. India’s time difference is 9-1/2 or 10-1/2 hours ahead of New York; England’s is 4 or 5. So when she’s in India, her evening is my morning and vice versa, so we can easily check in twice a day, once when we’re making preparations to start our day and once when we’re making preparations for sleep. I feel closer to her when she is in India than when she is in Europe, despite the fact that the latter is half the distance away. It was during one of these crepuscular chats that I broached the topic to her. Her response was the expected combination of practicality and emotional sensitivity: it’s good to dedicate yourself to something. Even if you can’t do it. You’re going to learn so much just by trying. I don’t remember the exact words but it was something like that. Concise, illuminating. She wasn’t telling me anything I hadn’t known already, but sometimes we need that little bit of reinforcement; I do, at any rate. I had started learning the piece a day or two earlier but with that conversation I kept at it, newly determined.

At some point during that first pandemic summer, I was listening to different versions of the Ballade at least once a day and practicing for about half an hour. I was listening to it while writing, while trying to sleep, while eating or going for a walk… apologies for dusting off a cliche, but I lived and breathed that piece. And of course as my fingers trod the same pathways over and over and over, seemingly ad infinitum, a curious change happened. They got faster. They got more precise. And the same sorts of things I imagine a runner tells themselves–you can do it, just a little bit more, just adjust a little bit and you’ve got it–I was telling myself while I tried, a little bit further every day, to scale this mountain of a piece.

The next bit gets a bit repetitive, but it follows approximately the following pattern. The piece is 12 pages long. On average, I was able to learn one page per month. Some pages took longer, especially ones with difficult rhythms and big leaps in the left hand. Finally, I got to the coda, or as I call it, the polka of death. There’s no way, I thought, that I’m going to get to the end of this. But I did. And when I thought to myself: this is starting to sound good, not just note-accurate, but with the beginnings of expression and a sense of the overall narrative of the piece, it was August of 2021 and I was a month away from going to London and seeing Anuja for the first time since the pandemic started. I had become so dedicated by this point, playing at least half an hour a day and listening to all sorts of things for inspiration—Beethoven, Chopin, but especially Bach—that my mom made a joke-that-wasn’t-a-joke about taking my electric piano with me, all 88 keys, to England. I said that not only would the cost be sufficiently ruinous as to make it easier to rent when I got there, but I didn’t know where I was going to be living and it would just make more sense to do without. Besides, Anuja’s best friend in London had a piano so it wouldn’t be like I was going a whole month without playing.

A few days later, I over-did it on practicing the polka of death and my wrists started hurting. Badly. I had to take a few days off practicing and then ease myself back into the discipline. Suddenly, a month’s respite from the instrument didn’t sound like such a bad idea, loath as I was to admit it.

I arrived in England at the end of September 2021. The very first weekend we were supposed to go over to Anuja’s friend’s house and I was supposed to help him test out his new piano. But that meeting ended up getting postponed to the following weekend. So I was piano-less for a week, nursing the pain in my wrists as it grew less and less. I’m sure lugging my suitcase didn’t help.

It’s interesting how something that is a ubiquitous part of my life, day-in, day-out for eighteen months can drop out completely and I can be ok with that. But that’s exactly what happened. I didn’t play piano all that week; barely even thought of it. I had other things to think about. Anuja was taking me on a tour of all her favorite egg-poaching establishments. We were making snarky comments about how the British museums had managed to acquire so many beautiful Indian and African artifacts. And we were just hanging out, rejoicing in each other’s company. I was getting to cook her breakfast for the first time since forever; I was getting to curl her lip with bad jokes; we finally had each other’s shoulders to cry on for all of the grief of the last eighteen months. In a way, I didn’t need the piano anymore because the piano had been the replacement, well-meaning if not that effective, for all that I lost when Anuja took that first plane to London in early 2020, and then (after her plans changed… after all our plans changed) that subsequent plane to India.

The piano was been where I had poured my heart out. Where I had received positive feedback. “Keep trying,” it seemed to say to me when I had practiced a particular phrase for the twentieth or fortieth time that day, the two-hundredth time that week. I don’t say that if-and-when Anuja and I share an apartment once more, I will stop playing piano. I don’t think I will. The last time I gave up playing piano, it was because of a wrist injury I sustained in in 2011, and it would take something like that to make me give it up again.

Anyway, we went to the friend’s house in the eastern suburbs of London. We had lunch at a local bar. I ordered the fish-and-chips. Anuja made fun of me. In fairness, I hadn’t tasted fish-and-chips since the previous evening, and I was starting to miss it. After lunch, we went back to his home, where the piano was waiting. We talked and joked the whole way, but when I got to the room with the piano, I just sat down and started looking for how to turn it on. That done, I started warming up by playing easier pieces. I’m the type of person who’d rather ask forgiveness for playing a piano than permission. So I sat at the piano and explained a few things about what to look for in a teacher; about what constitutes good technique. I had Anuja’s friend sit at the piano and immediately noticed that his wrists were viagra-stiff. I explained to him how to correct for that. I may have harangued him a bit, but I did, after all, have a double wrist injury that ended my piano practice. It was a decade ago, but the memory is still a bit tender, and so are the ligaments.

Plenty else happened that day and we had a lovely afternoon, but this isn’t a story about that. A week or so later—the same afternoon, in fact, that featured in London Letter #2 (which was about what an electric feeling it was just to walk past the reconstructed Globe Theater) I found myself in the center of London, right near the Thames. Anuja had some business to take care of. We were to meet up late in the afternoon, walk across the Millennium Footbridge, past the Globe Theater, and on through the Southwark district to where we were meeting friends for dinner. But all that lay in the future. In the present, the Museum of the City of London was closed on whatever day of the week it was, and I needed to find a place to wait for her arrival, and I needed to do it indoors because it was raining. After a bit of searching, I found a cafe that was off the side of a church. I went inside, and immediately my senses had to take in the scene. The room was beautiful. Old wood rafters held up a high, slanted ceiling, with stained glass windows here and there letting in the afternoon light, such as there was. A bookshelf on my immediate left sold Christian devotional literature, with C. S. Lewis being the most prominently displayed. To the right was the coffee bar and around the room were tables where people sat, maskless, partaking of their coffees and pastries. In the far corner of the room was a piano. I continued to look at the bookshelf, and, below the C. S. Lewis, something darker caught my eye. Is God Anti-Gay?, read the cover. I was curious. I skimmed the book for about 10 minutes. The upshot, at least according to this shoddily argued book, was yes. I put the book back on the shelf, then picked up The Screwtape Letters, Lewis’s epistolary satire in which an elder demon advises a younger how to be the stereotypical devil-on-the-shoulder.

These are sloe-berries. They have nothing to do with the piece; I just like them. Photo by Adam Katz

I was really frustrated by what I read. A work like Is God Anti-Gay is genuinely dangerous. It contains ideas like ‘praying the gay away’ and resigning one’s self to a sexless lifestyle rather than giving into one’s supposedly sinful desires. Meanwhile churches around the world, built with the stolen treasure of imperialism, harbor pedophiles with impunity. At the very least, such a book speaks to a dangerous misalignment of priorities. If the book contained an appendix on things that are much more important than worrying about whether people’s consensual sex is sinful or not, I would relax my animus towards it, but I did not see such an appendix.

I crossed the floor to an empty table, sat down with The Screwtape Letters, and started to peruse. It really is a remarkably funny, witty, wise work—like much of Lewis’s writing, be it fictional, devotional, or scholarly (or all three, as in the case of one of my all-time favorite works, his later novel Till We Have Faces). But there was something bothering me about hiding in that place, even if it was just to get out of the rain. It’s a cheap trick putting C. S. Lewis front and center and having cheap homophobic pamphlets next to it. A person could be tricked into thinking that these books are on the same level, when they are no more on the same level than an observation-deck and a basement. I say this not knowing what Lewis’s sexual politics were. But not really caring. The purpose of Lewis’s books, as I understand it, is to open minds and hearts to love; the purpose of a book like Is God Anti-Gay is to close them. It’s hard to read when you’re constantly being distracted by such thoughts. And I kept looking over at the piano.

I wonder if I was right to keep such thoughts to myself. Civility is a subtle drug. I wonder what I would do if I’d seen a racist or antisemitic work of literature for sale on that shelf. It occurs to me now that shouting denunciations in a crowded places is exactly the kind of thing these people, with their street-corner evangelism would have understood. But I didn’t do that. Part of me wishes I had.

If I hadn’t seen that hateful book, this might be a slightly different story, but I did, so it isn’t. I stood myself up, and, calmly, quietly, without asking anyone’s permission, walked over to the piano and sat down to play. I’m not really sure what I was feeling, but I can try to piece it out. Certainly I reacted viscerally to reading that book. Certainly I was feeling grey and gloomy on that grey and gloomy day. But part of it was that it had just been too long since I’d seen a piano and if I asked permission and they said no then I wouldn’t get to rest my fingers on the keys. If I played one chord and they said no after that, at least I would have gotten to do that much. I’m sure I had fleeting thoughts in which I imagined that I was adding to the ambience of the place, but unfortunately I know better. Some people (myself included) are pleasantly surprised when someone starts playing piano in a public place—a bar, the lobby of a hotel, the student lounge of a university, etc. I don’t mean when a professional starts playing; I mean when someone sits down and starts practicing or running through pieces inexpertly. I like hearing that sort of thing. I’m sure I’m not the only one. But I have few illusions as to the idea that most people feel that way. Nevertheless.

I started with Bach. I figured they couldn’t object to Bach. Unfortunately, the only piece of his I have memorized is Prelude 1 from Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier. So from there I went on to other short pieces I know. Someone came over to me and asked me to lower the volume. I acceded to his request by pressing my left foot firmly down on the damper-pedal as I kept playing. About five minutes later, he came over again and said I was disturbing the people in the offices—he pointed to a row of windows on one wall that I hadn’t noticed before, behind which it appeared there were some cubicles. I shrugged and stood up.

“Can I buy you a coffee,” he asked, by way of apology.

“No thank you,” I said, and I put The Screwtape Letters into my bag, without paying for it, and walked out of the shop.

3 thoughts on “London Letters #6: A Tale of Two Pianos

    1. thank you! I’ll be moving to soon (once we get it set up). be sure to follow me there.

      how did you find us?

      1. In the reader, under discover. It pulls up articles that I can scroll through and read on my phone.

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