Sunday, 3 August 2008

Made For Music

Before we moved into our house, the landlady, who lived next door, told us that her daughter Mizuho was a concert pianist.

"She lives in Vienna," the landlord added. "She's been studying there for twelve years."

"It hasn't been easy for her," his wife put in. "People don't like living next door to a music student; it's too noisy."

"She's been kicked out of her last two flats," the landlord said. "She moves in and no sooner has she got the place all fixed up but they want her out."

"It doesn't help that she's a foreigner," they sighed. "So we can imagine how hard it must have been for you, trying to find a house to rent."

In fact, it had been hellish for us to find a place to live in the suburbs of Tokyo, and our landlady's sympathy was appreciated. Few landlords wanted to rent to a foreign couple with a ten-month-old baby, especially when one of them did not speak much Japanese. The house we were moving into had crumbling plaster and rattly windows. The roof was sound and there was a little patch of garden out in front -- a huge rarity in the Tokyo area -- but it was old and dilapidated. In short, it was nearly perfect for a couple with a soon-to-be toddler.

The house was unfurnished except for a grand piano in our front room which almost entirely filled the space. This room had fake wood paneling and a cracking linoleum floor. With its smooth dark wood polished to a high gloss, the piano looked as out of place as a jewel on a dung heap.

"It's Mizuho's," our landlady told us. "We'll be moving it into our new house, but we've had to hire a company with a crane."

A week later, the piano movers wrapped the piano in a blanket, took our sliding glass windows out of their frames and managed to lever the piano out. We shielded our eyes from the sun, watching its slow progress through the air. There was a lot of salty language as they painstakingly maneuvered it into the upstairs window of the house next door.

For five long years, the piano sat silent. Then one day, our landlady came over, her face lit up with happiness. "Our daughter is coming home this weekend!" she informed us. A week later, she proudly introduced me to Mizuho.

"Will you be playing the piano?" I asked eagerly.

"Yes, but I'll try not to make too much noise," Mizuho assured me, creasing her brow.

"Make all the noise you want!" I told her. "We love piano music!"

For the next four years, we could hear her playing from early morning until around ten at night. She was a fantastic piano player and we never once tired of listening to her, but we learned that we could not tell her this. Just mentioning her playing made her nervous. "I hope it wasn't too loud!" she would say anxiously. Clearly, her experiences in Vienna had made a dint in her confidence.

"It wasn't loud at all -- it was heavenly! You have amazing talent!"

"Really, if it is too loud, you must complain. My father has put in sound insulation, but I can play at different hours if it bothers you."

We finally had to give up complimenting her.

Lying on our futons, my husband and I would smile and sigh as a ripple of chords came wafting across. It made us think of birds singing, water splashing, a sunlit morning. "Debussy, isn't it?" one of us would ask the other.

"I think so. What was that thing she was playing earlier?"


"I thought it was Mozart."

"Maybe it was."

"What was that piece you were playing first thing this morning?" I once made the mistake of asking Mizuho.

She bit her lower lip and clasped her hands. "I'm so sorry! Was it too loud?"

No amount of reassuring could persuade her that it was not.

In fact, it was never too loud. Her music would soothe my headaches. It lulled our kids to sleep. We felt so grateful that we could retire every night to a virtual piano concert. When our eldest was six, Mizuho offered to give her piano lessons in return for English lessons from me. I eagerly accepted, and we got the better deal.

Clearly, Mizuho was a dedicated musician -- almost obsessively so. I marveled that our landlady, who did not seem pushy or academically minded and was by her own admission no musician herself -- should have a girl for whom music was everything. I pictured Mizuho as a small child, forced to practice hours a day. Our daughter had to be pushed; what a lot of patience our landlady must have had!

"I don't know how you did it," I told her once, after we'd pestered our eldest to do her twenty minutes of practice. "But whatever you did, it really worked!"

She stared at me. "I didn't do anything. In fact, I begged her to stop practicing. I had to bribe her to go outside and play with her friends." She sighed. "If I hadn't interfered, she would never have left the piano at all."

That night Mizuho played again. I think it was Vivaldi.


ChrisEldin said...

Such a beautiful posting. I felt as if I were there.

I love the piano. It's such a gift to be able to play a musical instrument, and play it well.

I'm reading "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" and there's a section about the family moving into an apartment, and the apt is similar to what you described. The family had left behind their piano because they couldn't afford the movers to hoist it out the window. I'd never heard of this before, but now it's twice in a week.


Tabitha said...

Oh, how lucky for Mizuho to have found what she truly loves. It takes many of us a lifetime to even get an inkling of that. And then we may not get the kind of support that Mizuho's parents gave her. What a great story! It's a shame about her experiences in Vienna. But I really hope she got over that.

Charles Gramlich said...

Kicked out for playing beautiful music. Wow. It's a strange, strange world.

Eryl Shields said...

I'm going to have to rethink my image of Vienna. I've always thought of it as the music capital of Europe, and pictured narrow streets with music seeping out of open garret windows behind which poor music students practiced day and night.

Mary Witzl said...

Chris -- I love 'A Tree Grows in Brooklyn! In fact, it was one of my favorite books, but I can't remember the piano. I think I need to reread it.

I find it hard not to envy people who can play musical instruments well. Listening to them, I think it must feel like flying -- being able to play like that. But the amount of practice involved is just amazing. And yet for Mizuho, it was a labor of love.

Tabitha -- I agree! The incredible thing was that she found this as a child and had to be begged NOT to do it. I could not get over that; my assumption was that her parents must have nagged her to practice night and day in order for her to achieve the level she was at.

Charles -- I could imagine that if Mizuho had been Rammstein, her neighbors might have had reason to kvetch (not that Rammstein aren't wonderful, but they are arguably very loud and not everyone's cup of tea). But she bent over backwards not to annoy people, and it seemed incredible that anyone would want to kick her out for the fantastic music she played. We used to feel guilty -- almost like we ought to pay for the privilege.

Eryl -- I think music in Vienna is a little like books in Hay on Wye or cheese in Cheddar or tea in Assam. No doubt many Viennese feel there is more of it than they want. I can't see myself feeling like this. Now I'm wondering if they ever get tired of wonderful cafes with delicious cream cakes?

Gorilla Bananas said...

I would have asked her if she did requests. There must have been a few American tunes from home you would have loved to hear.

Alice said...

I can't imagine my kids loving anything so much like that. Aside from the Nintendo. But they really don't pay you to play Nintendo in a concert hall.

How lovely to have had all that so near you when others had to pay to hear it!

Kim Ayres said...

Did she know any Chaz 'n' Dave?

Kappa no He said...

That might also be part of the Japanese personality. How even a compliment is really a complaint in disguise. If I could tell you how many times after I've gained a good fifteen pounds I've been told, Have you lost weight!? Which is a shame because you really wanted to compliment and encourage her.

Barbara Martin said...

It's a true gift to be able to play the piano well. I took lessons as a teenager.

Your post reminded me of the opera singer that lives in the apartment above me. He sings part-time for the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto: and when I'm home its devine whenever he sings scales or practices the parts he will be doing. Its music for the soul.

C.R. Evers said...

Wow. Beautifully put.. . not to mention, her dedication is inspirational.


ms.shoe said...

Your writing is brilliant. Thank you for sharing your life with the world.

Carolie said...

Oh! What a lovely story! It brought inexplicable tears to my eyes. There's something so beautiful and tender and poignant about the idea of earnest and timid Mizuho playing upstairs, while you and your husband lie side-by-side with clasped hands on your futon as the notes waft over you. Wow...what a movie setting!

Of course, now I want to meet Mizuho, but even more, I want to sit in your tiny garden at twilight and listen to her play!

problemchildbride said...

How lovely for your child to grow up surrounded with that beautiful music every day! And what hard lines Mizuho had to apologise for her playing these years in Vienna.

Lovely story, Mary. Another beaut.

A Paperback Writer said...

You must have been the perfect neighbors. I bet she was glad to have you there. No matter how beautiful the music, not everyone wants to hear it when the musician needs to practice. It's no wonder she was paranoid about how loud it was.
Glad you two could live in harmony. (Sorry. Did that pun hurt? I couldn't resist it.)

Mary Witzl said...

GB -- She played Old Man River once, and a couple of other recognizably American tunes. It brought tears to my eyes. But asking her for requests might have gotten our admiration across better, and too bad we're no longer living there.

Alice -- If only messing around on computers were something people paid to see, I'd be sitting pretty, too! My youngest does play the piano without being told, but so far she isn't quite as singleminded as Mizuho.

Kim -- I don't know that she did, but the awful truth is that I've never heard of these guys myself. I feel so ignorant...

Kappa -- Yes, I've had that one myself -- the old "Have you lost weight?" meaning "God, you've packed it on, kiddo." I'm not going back to Japan before I've done about five weeks of aerobics. But you're right: there was no way we could tell her just how much we loved her playing.

Barbara -- Lucky you with an opera singer neighbor! I'd love that!

I took piano lessons as a teenager too, but I was a surly, reluctant pupil and sorely tried my mother by refusing to practice. When I did play and got praised, I rested on my laurels.

Christy -- Thank you, and you are right -- it was. It was wonderful to see someone enjoying what she did so much.

Ms Shoe -- Honestly, thank you for reading it!

Carolie -- Thank you. Just writing this made me feel a little sad myself -- the house was such a hovel, but we were wierdly happy there, and that music was something that made even cockroaches and mice seem bearable. And Mizuho was definitely earnest and timid, which is such an apt description. We went to hear her in concert once and she was just the same Mizuho in front of hundreds of fancily dressed people as she was when we saw her across the veranda.

Mary Witzl said...

Sam -- I sometimes have to apologize for playing my violin, and you can bet nobody leaps to reassure me; they just look resentful and long-suffering. Thank you for your kind words!

APW -- What a great pun, and no, it didn't hurt a bit, especially after some of the dodgy and gratuitous ones my husband pulls. But you're right -- we were perfect neighbors for her, and yet it is impossible to imagine that anyone would not enjoy hearing her. I suppose there are people who find music irritating even during the daytime. Mizuho never played after ten -- she was quite scrupulous about that -- though we often wished she would.

marshymallow said...

Pianists have it easy. My brother is a tuba player.

laura said...

I have Hans' 100 year old Steinway sitting in my livingroom because no one can get it up to his 2nd floor apartment (and don't think engineer-minded Hans hasn't tried to talk movers into it!). I love to listen to him play it and I always make him play House of the Rising Sun for his grand finale! I don't know why, I just do.

Eryl Shields said...

Bob has a couple of friends who get paid by computer game developers to play games all day. I don't think it's a particularly wise career move though, and he says it sounds incredibly boring, but it does exist as an occupation, shocking as that may sound.

Merry Monteleone said...

First, Yay, Chris is reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn - Let me know if you liked it when you finish... I'm so glad you picked it up...

This little blogging circle has damn near doubled my to be read pile.

I love, well, all of your posts, Mary - I can hear the music... I have no musical ability at all, though I love to listen and sing along, badly, but still...

My uncle was a professional jazz musician and played piano, vibes, and trumpet, but he passed away before I was born. My mom was sure one of us must've inherited the gene - being that she grew up with music in her house at all times and professionals jamming in her living room since girlhood...

She bought a piano and enrolled my brothers and me in lessons - I took piano, my oldest brother took sax and piano, my other brother took trumpet... The oldest was a natural - he learned sax, guitar, and piano with ease... but hated it. He quit playing in high school because my mother really couldn't make him any more and I always thought it was a shame that he was so naturally good at something he just didn't enjoy.

I sucked. I'm being very kind in that assessment, too. I took lessons for two years and even my own mother wouldn't push me to go longer - I can barely remember the scales now.

A few years ago my mother gave me that piano (I think perhaps to torture me). My daughter started writing her own music at once. She was in first grade and when she played around at the keys, you'd swear she was playing an actual song instead of making it up as she went... She can hear a song and play it by ear, going back and forth over the keys when she hits a wrong note until she picks out the right one and then starting over from the beginning. She was in lessons for a little over a year and advanced past students who had been playing for two years longer than she had... We're taking the summer off and I'm going to look for a more professional teacher for her this year - it seems it skipped a generation in our family.

Today I heard the old made up music coming out of the living room and was sitting upstairs just smiling, when I wondered why she wasn't playing sheet music today... it was my six year old at the piano, and I was rather surprised because he's never played before... so I asked if he wanted lessons.

"Nope. I was just bored." he said,as he jumped off the bench and skipped out of the front room...

apparently you have to let them choose for themselves... damn.

Mary Witzl said...

MM -- Hey, my kids have a drumkit upstairs, so I can only imagine what a beginning tuba player sounds like. Still, it's all good fun.

Laura -- There is nothing nicer than listening to someone playing the piano with ease and grace. I hear people playing and kick myself for not trying harder.

Eryl -- I can't imagine anything I'd like to do less for a living, unless it was breaking up stones, say, or cleaning out cesspools. And can you imagine how awful it must be when strangers ask what you do for a living?

Merry -- I loved 'A Tree Grows in Brooklyn' too -- just the name made me want to read it. And boy, do I have a reading list now that I've started blogging! I thought I was reasonably well read before; now I feel close to illiterate.

What a great story about your kids and that piano! I took lessons when I was young, too, and the teacher told my mother I had promise and played with real sensitivity. I was silly and took this as proof that I didn't need to practice. My sisters kept at it -- and the violin (which I also played poorly) -- and got really good at both piano and violin. I'm crap at both, and entirely because I was too lazy to push myself. My husband, who cannot play the piano but is a superb teacher, taught both our kids to play (and Mizuho helped too). Only the youngest still plays, and she plays because she enjoys it.

You are so right: kids have to choose for themselves. There is only so much we parents can do; at some point we just have to get out of their way and let them get on with things.

Angela said...

Wow--think of all the money you saved by having your home turned into a concert hall. Did you ever follow her career afterwards? What became of her, do you know?

Kara said...

so was she able to make her living from it? it's sad she had to come back from Vienna.

and people who complain about such things are asshats.

The Anti-Wife said...

What a lovely story, and wonderful landlords you had.

Kim Ayres said...

Wot? No Chaz 'n' Dave? Look 'em up on YouTube.

Altogether now, "Gertcha"...

Mary Witzl said...

Angela -- We went to a concert of hers in 2000, just before we left Japan. In 2001, she was going to come to visit us in Scotland with her mother, in late September. After 9/11, she and her mother were understandably put off air travel. The next few years, we exchanged New Years cards and we learned she had gotten married. I can only hope the guy she chose was worthy of her. The story of her various omiai with total losers that her parents thought would be good matches could fill a separate book.

Kara -- A few people assured me that we'd feel differently about even classical music if we had to listen to it night and day, but we never did. Maybe if we'd stayed there another ten years we'd have gotten sated.

Mizuho got a job in an insurance company in Tokyo, last I heard. She resented people who assumed her music was a 'hobby' and because I knew how well she played, just hearing about people like this made my blood boil.

Anti-wife -- We were lucky, in fact! In all my 17 years in Japan, I never had a bad landlord or landlady. In fact, some of them became real friends. Wish I could say that about my landlords/ladies in San Francisco and New York.

Kim -- Ooh, I got it -- London, in't it? I'll be looking them up. Even my kids haven't heard of them, so we're clearly all out of it!

debra said...

a lovely story, Mary. I've played the piano, too. When I was a teen ager and my mother kept reminding me to practice, I used to respond that it was called PLAYING, not working...

Anne Spollen said...

My boys play the sousaphone (one of the few instruments you can actually WEAR), tuba, drums, electric guitar and baritone horn. I see the air conditioning on a real lot in this neighborhood...wouldn't stand a chance in Vienna.

All Rileyed Up said...

How wonderful. I love the piano, and I used to play and I've recently been tryign to get back into it. Oh, to have all the hours of the day to practice.
I tried to reply to your latest comment, but my email keeps rejecting my messages to you:

When my friend and I were at the beach talking
about alternative scary board options, I said "an oil slicked bird" and she
said, "OH, that was just wrong." and I said, "So does that mean you don't
want to hear about my baby seal boogie board idea?"

Middle Ditch said...

What a wonderful posting. Such a beautiful story. I could hear the piano and I could see her horrified face each time you asked her something about her playing. What some dedication that girl has. Wonderful.

Mary Witzl said...

Debra -- My youngest daughter plays the piano all the time. She seems to enjoy it, and like you, she never calls it 'practicing'.

Anne -- Wow, your house must be even noisier than this one! We've got a guitar, a keyboard, a drum kit, violin, and dulcimer, plus three harmonicas and a tin whistle, but for sheer volume, you've really got the goods!

Riley -- Recently I've been trying to get back into playing the violin. Like you, I wish I had more time to practice, but my family are pretty glad that I don't.

You and I share a sense of humor. I'd have laughed at that baby seal boogie board comment.

MD -- Thank you. I wish now that I'd thought to ask Mizuho for requests. That way she might have realized we were truly grateful to live next door to her.

Danette Haworth said...

Ah, wonderful! Reminds me of when I first started college and would pass through the practice rooms of the music hall. All those sounds! I thought it was glorious.