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Piano Fingers

Pianist or wishful plinking?

It’s a blissful moment when a child wholeheartedly throws themselves into a new notion of who they can be. This requires a large pair of rose coloured glasses and a lot of momentum. Though most of us know what comes next and it’s often accompanied by the sound of air slowly escaping from a balloon.

I noticed an absolute intensity in my own daughter when she was small. Her audacious vision of herself as Bemelman’s Madeleine was an exhausting phase for us. We read all the books together, watched all the TV series. I had dutifully sewed a yellow dress and red cape, and we sang the song... “da dada dad a ... she’s Madeleine, she’s Madeleine ...”

When my girl was Madeleine, she could fly; she was utterly convinced and would leap from climbing frames in the park and other likely launch sites. I hovered, listening for the telltale sound of “da dada dad a” as she hurtled down, a blur of yellow and red while I went in for the save like a star keeper.

It was a short but exhausting phase, but the point is, children have that astounding, brilliant, heartbreaking ability, to completely give over to what they want to be. That is the central theme in Piano Fingers, because when my girl decided to play music, the music was Madeline.

Years later, her interests turned to a piano.

While we spoke to the piano salesman and looked around the large showroom at the many shapes, sizes and colours, some even gothic numbers with candelabras, Jen had climbed onto a green velvet stool in front of a sober brown Challen. As a piano, it was not overly lovely, but it was within our budget and sounded sweet as the salesman gave us a tune.

Home it came and even when it wasn’t being played, it made its presence felt ... somehow? I began to realize that a substantial part of that presence was the smell of mothballs and undertone of mouse.

We were soon well along with lessons, and Jen practiced more or less every day, while I dusted the lumbering bulk more or less every week. That was when I noticed the scratches on the fallboard. Three small, parallel marks, un-mistakenly cat scratches from the previous owner’s pet, no doubt.

Time passed and the sounds emerging from the piano became more complex and enjoyable. As the inevitable dramas, joys and woes of Jen’s musical undertakings unfolded, a little something else emerged, apart from the puffs of lingering camphor. The cat scratches I’d noticed on the fallboard worked away in the back of my mind and soon a pompous figure began to emerge from the piano, not the actual piano, my drawings of. His name was Maestro Gus and he became ever afterward an attendant figure and counterpoint to the very serious moments of a young person who contemplated being a musician. I don’t know whether Jen got much comic relief from the ghost in the piano ... but I did. This picture book literally started from scratch, from three marks in the crazed varnish of our piano’s fallboard.

The sheer will and effort of learning a musical instrument is something to behold. To play at any level requires belief and commitment, it goes without saying. I once sat in on an orchestra rehearsal in order to draw the musicians in full flight. It was hard to concentrate in the sheer swell of sound, the energy and beauty of their playing. Later, I was speaking with a viola player in the locker room and noticed the smell of sweat that permeated the place. That summed it up for me. It is exactly that, sweat, effort, and out of that, sounds that make you forget everything, forget even to breathe.

I have done many drawings of my small brown haired girl bent over the keyboard. She has an absolute intensity, while the piano grows into a great magical machine as she plays, a door opens and the maestro appears. With a flourish, he eggs her on, in his red jacket and foppish cravat; he is the embodiment of a foolish idea of what might be. But that’s just it, that’s where we all start in our endeavours. Later comes the harder work, but for now... “da dada dad da!”

I love the sound of this piano ... I love what it makes me remember.

Jen came close to entering the music conservatorium and having just finished a stint at the Honours Ensemble Program, she made a slightly unexpected left turn into science. Now completing her masters overseas, the piano sits still here; it is eloquent in its silence. I admit that I miss the music, though something Jen confessed a while back does makes me smile. She said the one thing she cannot live without, is music. Her tastes are broad and that appreciation and love of music will be with her all her life.

Watching my daughter learn a musical instrument was the inspiration for Piano Fingers. Despite my permanently calloused eardrums, our daughter became a better player and we became better listeners of music.

This book is about a musical journey, but it’s also a love letter to all kinds of wishful plinking.

Caroline Magerl


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