Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Cliff's KV Notes, Part 6: Music Man

New York Post—November 27, 1949:Henry St. Settlement provided the promo photo (left) of Cliff (wearing his signature bowtie) and an unidentified accompanist performing Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 with orchestral backup.

When my parents thought I had latent musical talent (boy, were they surprised), because I could carry a tune, they decided I should have piano lessons at the Henry St. Settlement Music School. They thought the same of my younger sister, Susan. To get to music school, you had to take the Madison St. bus, get off at Montgomery St., and walk across Grand St. to 8 Pitt St.--a creepy tenement building with funky smells. It was a real come down from KV which, at the time, was my only frame of reference to the rest of the world. The music school was run by Miss Grace Spofford—a blue-haired old lady who took no nonsense. My music theory teacher was Ruth Schaeffer who looked like Kate Smith (size-wise at least). Ruth once put a damper on my classroom antics by sitting on me, much to the amusement of the other musical geniuses in the class. My first piano teacher was a Miss Kleiger, and then Miss Dawson. Miss Dawson was a nice lady, not too strict, but she was serious about music. I think she was once a concert pianist but had health issues. Emcee (at least that was the way it was pronounced) was her first name and she hailed from Australia.
After many years and countless dollars down the drain for piano lessons, Miss Dawson told my parents that she would no longer have me as a student—because I showed her how I could play the piano with my nose, (Hey, Victor Borge played with his toochas), but it seemed I wasn’t “serious” enough. But before I got the heave-ho, I did play at a few music school recitals on their concert piano (had the whitest keys I ever saw) and I did play on a radio program once.
I really didn’t like the piano, and I hated practicing—scales, arpeggios, stuff that was supposed to improve my “technique.” And I hated the music-- simple, “classical” songs that were boring. Maybe if I had had a jazz piano teacher, things might have been different
My sister and I used to play duets at home on our blond wood Kimball upright piano that my parents paid big bucks for. “Play” was a loose term, because what occurred was more mayhem than music, as we tired to knock each other off the piano bench and wrestle with one hand while playing with the other (this, of course, when our parents weren’t watching). Somehow, in our “animated interpretation” of the sheet music, which usually ended up on the floor—along with my sister (fool with “Elevator Man, eh?”) we managed to break off two of the three foot pedals. ‘Course we (along with our parents) could never figure out how the pedals became disconnected from the rest of the piano (must have been a manufacturing defect). If my father knew the truth, I would have become a permanent part of the piano.
My father, determined to get some payback from all the money he wasted on piano lessons (he would have been better off in the market), forced my sister and I to perform a couple of pieces that we knew reasonably well for any company that happened by. We hated it, I’m sure the visitors (relatives, friends of my parents, etc.) hated it, and probably my father hated it, although outwardly he beamed. But we all played the game, and my sister and I acknowledged the polite but tepid applause when it was all over. Maybe my father secretly believed that I would become another Rubenstein, or Van Cliburn, and he could eventually retire in the lap of luxury thanks to the largess I would bring in from command performance concert tours.
Sorry, Dad.
the next chapter of Cliff's KV Notes
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