Before I’d ever heard of The Beatles, Donna Summer, or The Captain and Tenille (yes, I grew up in the Seventies) I could tell you about Mozart, Bach and Vivaldi. You see, my mother, Marilyn, had been training to be a concert pianist before I was born, and thus I grew up listening to – and watching, because it was quite a visual experience -- her play.
Marilyn tried to play the piano for the first time when she was four years old. First, she’d sit next to my Grandma Ida on the piano bench and listen. Then, frustrated when her own attempts to recreate the melody were such failures -- as an adult, she'd say "it sounded like noise" -- four-year-old Marilyn would slam the piano lid down hard on her mother’s hands. Ida, who had no patience with violence to her gorgeous hands or painstakingly manicured dragon-lady fingernails, took her daughter to a piano teacher named Agnes. And by the age of 12, my mother was playing with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Never again would it sound like noise.
My happiest childhood memories are without a doubt those involving my mom and her piano. Marilyn would sit at the keyboard of the antique Steinway baby grand, eyes closed, summoning music by memory. Because she knew it all by heart. Not only that, but she could literally look at a piece of music on the page ONCE and figure out how to play it, often without reading the score as she went along. Mozart, Bach, Chopin, Handel – they were her mainstays. She taught me the difference between the impressionistic Chopin and the structured, orderly Bach through what each felt like, and how each categorized experience. She used composers’ names as adjectives, describing qualities in her own life.
An ordered, well-made bed would be like Bach. A beautiful free-flowing silk dress or an afternoon in the country would be Chopin. Mozart was her ultimate. Anything extraordinary was likened to Mozart – particularly falling in love. She taught me the songs she and her friends made up in their music study programs at Wayne State University, songs like I Want To Go To Bed With Mozart or Mozart’s In the Closet (let him out, let him out, let him out) with funny words set to the composers oeuvres so that they could remember which piece was which. She taught me, in this way, that classical music was fun. And art could be immediate.
Watching my mom make music was like watching someone step into a stream of her own magic. Like watching God -- The Infinite -- at work. My mother taught me more than she ever knew about being an artist, both in these early music sessions and also, through her love of the visual arts (particularly abstract expressionism. My mom was “to die for” over Jim Dine, Mark Rothko, Helen Frankenthaler….) and theater and dance. She took me to museums, to the ballet, to the symphony -- where we always sat close enough for her to keep an eye on the pianist’s hands -- and to theater. Which is probably why I work in the theater today.
In the last years of her life, severely impaired by diabetes, kidney disease and glaucoma, she stopped playing the piano altogether. Which was a mighty shame. She was a Spirited Woman whose spirit renewed itself through music. Without music, I think she struggled. She had to find other ways, other modes of communication between self and spirit. And those weren’t always easy to come by. Shopping just didn’t fit the bill. (Although she certainly tried.)
For Marilyn, music and art were never cerebral experiences. Instead, she taught me to enjoy them, to feel them, to experience the spirit of the work with my own spirit. She taught me that art and music could be savored, like a great meal or a good laugh. Moreover, she showed me that a mother can commune with dead composers and bring them to life again through her own skilled fingers. These were precious gifts. And too soon would she lose the ability to transit them. In the last days of her life, my mom talked a lot about missing music. And in her death, I hope that she has rediscovered her music and merged with it fully.
Brooke Berman is a playwright, screenwriter and author of the new memoir, No Place Like Home: A memoir in 39 Apartments. More information about Brooke and her book are available at www.brookeberman.net.