It's been a time of reflection so far this year. I've recently had more time to practice my piano playing, and I dug out a couple of boxes of sheet music I'd stashed in the attic. They've been in there for years, most of it hauled from Northern Ireland when I moved to Oregon in 1989. I've always loved the piano, but honestly could never play it. I'm not being modest. I just couldn't do more than painfully plonk out facsimiles of the melodies, blemished with wrong notes and prolonged hesitations. For someone who had their mahogany antique birdcage piano shipped across the Atlantic, that's pretty sad. That piano met an unfortunate accident en route. It was severely damaged, but I placed it in pride of place in my hallway in the house in Portland until I could bring myself to part with it. My friend Karen Keller, who also happened to be my boss at the time, a super-successful Avon representative, took it so her husband could tinker around fixing it as a hobby. I got a small amount back on insurance so I put it to a lovely little pre-owned spinet. Even though I tried to do right by it. that poor thing sat lonely and unplayed for years, apart from my occasional embarrassing honky-tonk. In the end I just accompanied myself on the guitar when I wanted to sing.
So ... fast forward to 2012. My singing voice had deteriorated so I'd stopped playing guitar. I hadn't realized that my immune system had gone mental and was attacking my thyroid, hence the voice problems. I won't bore you with this story (again!) In a nutshell, I developed Hashimoto's, then Graves Disease, which were undiagnosed for several years so my health rapidly plummeted and things reached a critical point, blah, blah. Then during a fairly routine surgery I had a thyroid storm (basically a heart attack caused by prolonged overactive thyroid), a blood transfusion, and finally a diagnosis had me on a long but successful path to recovery. After a zap or two of chemotherapy to kill off the psychotic thyroid gland, my singing days were truly over.
No endorphins from making song was a sad loss indeed. Until my dear friend Phyl Radford decided to get rid of her electronic piano. She sold it and gifted her music books to me. When I looked through them, the proverbial road to Damascus scales fell from my eyes. They were written for easy piano with simplified compositions that even I could play. Until then I didn't know such books existed! For the first time I was able to sit down at that sweet little spinet and play something recognizable. It was the theme from Titanic if I remember rightly. I soared through Phyl's books, then got online and ordered a ton more: easy classics, movie themes, Broadway musicals ... you name it. Suddenly I could 'sing' again, through my fingers.
I have two pianos now that I alternative between (so neither gets jealous!) My faithful spinet and a much-loved baby grand that I bought from a neighbor. I can't describe the joy that surges through me every time I sit down at that instrument. I've moved on from beginner ... not sure where I'm at now .... perhaps intermediate. Not expert! Never will be. But I just finished playing Handel's Largo from Xerxes. I fell in love with that haunting piece and included it as a funeral theme in A Song of Bullets, my Northern Irish novel, which came out in November. I never thought I could play something like that! It's a form of meditation, I feel such peace and happiness. And yesterday, ploughing through all that ancient sheet music I so wanted to, but never could play before. And to my excitement, I can tickle the ivories with quite a lot of it now! Even if some pages are almost in tatters and still have the price of 6 shillings printed on them.
Mind you, I wouldn't dare record myself playing. I get self-conscious and mess up if someone's watching. But here is a quick video of an extraordinary pianist who inspires me in every way, from her incredible musical talent to her intelligence and zest for life. Any of you who have been to my St. Patrick's Day parties will recognize my sweet friend Michele Freeman. We went piano shopping before I bought my baby-grand, and she gobsmacked the entire store when she performed an impromptu concert on their 18k gold-hinged $200,000 grand! Needless to say, she was invited to come and play anytime she wanted.