People often identify others by what that person does, most commonly by what they do for a living. Under that rubric, my answer to the question "What do you do?" would have been any of a number of things over the years. But it seems to me many, even most, people have another kind of identity, based more on one's sense of self. The corresponding question would be "What are you?"
At the deepest level for me the right answer to that question is: "I am a musician." Especially since I retired that has also been my response to the "What do you do?" question.
Although I like many kinds of music, this identity refers to Classical music. In the active sense, I began by playing the piano, but in 1973 I switched to the harpsichord. This led to a successful debut recital at the University of Wisconsin's art museum in the spring of 1974.
My life as a musician began when I was about 16 years old, which is actually very late to start out in music performance -- too late, if what you have in mind is a performing career, as I initially did.
I was unlucky in love, you see, suddenly spurned by my best friend. That proved to be one of the best things that ever happened to me, because in Peoria, Illinois, there chanced to be a truly great teacher of the piano, Lois Baptiste Harsch. I threw myself body and soul into learning to play. I had noodled around before that, but I had no discipline and less technique.
Lois Harsch, affectionately called Maestra by her students, was an incredibly demanding teacher, but also very generous. In those days (1951) a half-hour lesson cost quite a lot, $2.50 (lesser teachers charged only half that). It was not easy for me to afford that, with my $16.20/week job. She thought I had talent, I guess, because after a few lessons she suggested I come three times a week for an hour each time, while still paying only $2.50. My first scholarship, so to speak.
But I practiced my fingers to the bone for it, at least six hours a day. I was also working as a copyboy at the morning newspaper, a 6:00-10:00 evening stint, six days a week. Hustle became a life-long habit. If I have any regrets about my present life, it would be that I no longer have the kind of physical resources, nor the required singleness of mind or focused concentration, for that level of activity.
Finding a place to practice was a major chore; nobody's family wants to listen to real practicing. I prevailed upon the high school principal to let me use the very good grand piano at the school, and to arrange for me to be let in as early as 5:00 a.m., when the janitors arrived. (And yes, just as you've heard, in the winter it was a two-mile trudge through the snow to get there.) I was also released from study halls to practice and allowed to be there after school until about 5:00. As a result of being taught from the very first how to practice, I didn't waste time, and I made fairly rapid progress.
At 18, just after high-school graduation, I played my first solo recital, at my teacher's house. That first program was not kid stuff. At the time I was very impressed with myself. Now I'm more experienced (heh heh).
Above all, I prospered as a person under Lois Harsch's disciplined but kind tutelage. I learned how to concentrate on the work so as to develop my gifts, both musically and technically.
I sometimes feel nostalgic about that kind of concentration, because after I started college, I could never again achieve a comparable intensity in my activities. I was intense (and still am), but not that intense, ever again. Monomania can be a very good thing, as long as you get over it eventually.
After arriving at the University of Illinois, I had a good enough audition to be admitted to the piano class of Soulima Stravinsky, and also had my first actual contact with the harpsichord, I quickly learned that the outside world was far less forgiving or understanding about the standard of one's playing.
It mattered not a whit that I was still virtually a rank beginner as a player: I was compared only to other students and all of us were compared only to the highest artistic standards. Of course, I was in no sense prepared to hold my own in that league. As a result, piano lessons there did not go well. In retrospect, at least part of the problem was really Stravinsky and not me.
It wasn't until my arrival at the University of Wisconsin that I was able to see how this worked. During my first year in Madison, I went to nearly every concert the town had to offer and practiced at the School of Music as much as I could. The drive to realize myself as a musician did not diminish much, despite the discouraging aspects of my Illinois experiences.
The year of listening revealed that there was a first-rate pianist in Madison named Gunnar Johansen, a great string quartet (the Pro Arte, then led by Rudolf Kolisch), and a fine soprano named Bettina Bjorksten. In due course I was to study with each of these great artists, and through them to develop as fully as I was able.
There is much more to be added here, including quite a bit about concertizing and about the wonderful people I've studied with, especially when I was a student at Wisconsin.
It took me almost ten years to unlearn how to play the piano, which apart from having keys is almost diametrically opposite the harpsichord in terms of playing technique. I should probably include something about harpsichords, since many people still don't know much about the instrument and its history.
[to be continued]