Monday, November 10, 2008

Hands Separately

I am learning to play
"It Might As Well Be Spring"
but my left hand would rather be jingling
the change in the darkness of my pocket
or taking a nap on an armrest.
I have to drag him into the music
like a difficult and neglected child.
This is the revenge of the one who never gets
to hold the pen or wave good-bye,
and now, who never gets to play the melody.

-from "Piano Lessons" by Billy Collins

The left hand. Stubborn, sulky, even diabolical. My mother used to consider it the weak sister, destined never to be the equal of the right; using a left hand to hold a pitcher full of milk or a boiling kettle was courting disaster. You never knew what the left hand would do. In its caprice, it could suddenly collapse.

But playing baroque piano pieces pulls the left hand out of its torpor and gives the lethargic child a sense of purpose. All of a sudden the left hand is thrown bits and shards of the melody (without warning, as it were) and it is now required to be absolutely at the ready. I've got it! it cries and in a Charlie Brown moment, it utterly misses and turns the stately, logical run of notes into a jarring cacophony, as if Bach has just channelled R. Murray Schaefer.

When I play, hands separately (as strongly advised in the first tentative days of sussing out the piece), the left hand is a smooth operator, able to con me into thinking I have it. It executes its pianistic triple axels and salchows confidently and gives me reason to believe it is truly independent, set on its right path. The right hand (which has always picked things up more easily, breezing through the accidentals, thumb ducking under the index ever so expertly) enters the picture and all is chaos once more. Resentfully, the right hand drops out to allow for intensive remediation of the left hand. It dutifully goes through its paces. I wonder how many times the members of my family can stand listening to the same eight bars over and over again.

Glenn has spoiled me. I listen to him execute the left hand of any one of the Goldberg Variations and the Idea of the Left Hand is fairly imprinted on my brain. Its precise dance on the keys is confident, joyful, deliberate, triumphant. I should be depressed but I am not. Listen to the celebrant left hand, always hitting its mark but never having to look for it.

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