Monday, January 05, 2004

The Piano Shop on the Left Bank by Thad Carhart

I usually talk to you about a book or two I have read recently, and I am going to mention one book later on. But I would like to talk to you a little bit first about reading. I'm almost certain many of you have, among your new year's resolutions, resolved to read more—a little twinge of guilt running through you as well as regret. City readers, folks who spend a great part of their waking life working a job, raising a family, making a life, sometimes feel a personal failing in not reading more. Something akin to scolding oneself for not practicing piano, or finishing a project. My advice to readers is to be gentle with yourselves. And not simply because you deserve it, but because you will end up reading more. I'm going to suggest quickly a few ways I think readers need to give themselves some slack, some permission. First, foremost, never stick with a book out of duty; never insist to yourself that you finish one book before you are 'permitted' to start another. At least in my own past, when I insisted on reading first what I in some sense 'had' to read, I simply quit reading--or at any rate slowed down, lost the love of reading. I've had the same experience with writing. Doris Lessing says that the moment a book does not hold your interest, you should drop it to the side and find another (there are so many!) You may pick up one of those dropped books years later when it will speak to you instantly. That has happened to me lots of times. Secondly, abandon forever the habit of insisting on finishing a book you've started at all. Walk out of a 'bad' book at least as quickly as you would out of a bad movie or a boring conversation.

While it's true that having four or five books going at a time is a sign that no one of them is quite pulling you into thoroughly experiencing it, better four or five, any one of which might 'catch fire' on the next page, than to risk your love of reading by sticking to a bad book.

If you haven't been reading for awhile, instead of challenging yourself with Moby Dick, start with a short book, so that you can give it a lot of attention for the few hours it will take to read it, increase the possibility of really getting inside the book (and outside yourself). Finishing books makes readers feel good, and also makes them much more likely to pick up another.

Don't put off novels until your 'really important reading' is done. Start reading what you most want to read with your best energy of the day, whether that's morning or night. Pick up your novel when you would usually pick up the paper. Part way through graduate school, bogged down by reading analytic and traditional philosophy, and literally on the edge of dropping out, wondering if I would ever recover my love of reading, I suddenly rediscovered novels. I began to carry a novel with me always, and I considered myself to be legitimately 'working' when I was reading it. I read a lot of novels in graduate school, but I swear I also picked up momentum and sustained concentration for the more demanding reading and writing I was doing. In a very real sense, it all became more interesting because of the commanding interest of the novels. Reading novels made me a better reader, period.

I could sum this all up by saying that when/if you love reading, you are bound to read more, so do what you have to do to keep that spark alive. Following these bits of internal advice has helped me; it might help you as well.

And now, having said all of this, I have to admit that I am in one of those periods where I have five books going simultaneously, several of which I think are quite good (and also very long). Still, I picked up another book yesterday, and I may well finish that one before I get back to the others, and with any luck I'll return to the others with new interest and vigor.

While I usually recommend novels to you, and try at least to choose books that have obvious moral and political significance, today I want to mention a delightful little memoir that may have the effect of sending you back to music, may even send you back to Paris. The name of the book is The Piano Shop On The Left Bank, and the author is Thad Carhart. Mr. Carhart is an American living in Paris, and shortly before he wrote this book, he dared to become a freelance writer, although I think most of his writing has been non-fiction more or less technical writing. He tells us in this book that he found himself more and more interested by a little shop he passed on his daily walk from taking his children to school. While the shop seemed to have equipment in the window having to do with pianos and piano-tuning, his brief visits inside discovered no pianos and rather obvious attempts to get him quickly out of the shop. Finally, because of his persistence and because the shop was about to change hands, he was invited to the back rooms, absolutely filled up with pianos of all sorts and all ages. Thus begins for Carhart a renewed passion for music, for piano, and for the close intimacy of French neighborhoods.

If you have ever played an instrument or been at all serious about vocal music, I think you would very much appreciate this book, and it may very well rekindle for you a passion to make music of your own. I have had a thirty year love affair with pianos, so I was bound to find this book very interesting. Quite honestly, I learned more about pianos from this little memoir than I had ever learned from my reading or my passionate journeys into piano stores. Carhart not only returns to piano, but also learns about music theory and about what goes wrong with most music lessons and most music teachers. I said above that habits we pick up regarding reading, habits we think are rooted in discipline and healthy senses of duty, often have the effect of destroying our love of reading. I think this is even truer of the study of music. Carhart points out that in his early music training, everything was geared towards recitals, and all students treated as if they were aspiring to be professional musicians. Carhart (like so many of us) feared and hated recitals, though from the first he loved the experience of sitting down at the piano to make sounds for himself. As he returns to the piano and also has the opportunity to select how his own children will be introduced to music, he discovers (at least in France) that there are teachers whose goal is not to produce professional musicians, but to launch children into a life of making music for themselves, training their ears and their hands not so they can perform for others, but so they sustain and cultivate their own love of music. I found myself excited by his discoveries, and I am already finding that several internal blocks I had to making progress with music-making are eroding. I think I know now what to look for in a piano teacher, and that it is not so much their excellence as musicians that counts, but their attention to teaching and to their students. I also have a new sense of what it means to train one's ear, as well as all the wrong things to say to children as they begin to make sounds.

While there is nothing profound of a political nature in this book, there is more about human psychology than one might expect, and a love of Paris and of a different way of living day to day than most of us have ever experienced. I loved this book, and I think the writing is smooth and clear and presented with an intellectual and musical humility that is refreshing. Oh, and it's also short, perfect for a long weekend or a few passionate evenings of reading.

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