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  • Writer's picturestephensgerald10

Health Update and Continuing Weird Piano Stories

My right hip replacement is going well; I had the surgery Dec. 14. The new hip is sore from working out and physical therapy; other than that it's doing really well. I get that the body needs time to accept a new part, and I intend to keep active while staying careful. I can walk for several blocks without a cane or walker, which I haven't done in a long time. I can bend my hip enough to sit upright, which I couldn't do before, although the left hip arthritis and lower back scoliosis can still be painful. I am up to 45 minutes/1 hour at a time at the piano. Since I am still quarantined and only working a little from home, this is good for my therapy, as I have plenty of time for breaks. I will see my surgeon next week and find out a timeline for when we can replace the left hip, and then I hope the scoliosis will be the only issue for a while. I plan on keeping that at bay with yoga. Oh yeah, I can do the beginning of side stretches, backbends and forward folds now, from a standing yoga position. I had not been able to do those because of the right hip pain since sometime last summer. I am getting better.

Ok, now the continuing music story. On last week's blog, I wrote about my first piano teacher and her health struggles, and a little of my musical confusion as a kid. I will try to pick up here. After working with that family (see last week's blog) for a few years, I got a better piano and another teacher. I think I was 12 when my folks realized I was serious enough. They invested in a little Cable console piano, which at this writing is at my Mom's house, no longer in good condition. But it was great for me at the time, and this is about the same time I went to Mrs. Ann Newton in Southaven for piano lessons. I was with her from junior high (middle school) through senior year of high school. She was a Presbyterian church lady pianist who loved the classical repertoire. She got us the busts of European composers for Christmas each year, and always talked the 3 B's to us, Bach, Brahms, Beethoven.

The weird thing in retrospect is that I don't remember being told these composers were European. I had no idea what this piano music was that I was learning, and I was the kind of kid to trust everyone and see where it led me. I trusted my society. If this is what you do at piano, then just do it. I performed the classics every year for recitals, by memorizing them note for note, but I didn't understand the music at all. I didn't listen to it, and didn't even know you could.

My parents only listened to country music radio, although my Mom had some old 1950's rock records mixed in with the country ones. My brother and I did play a lot of those in the house, in the years before we had our own radios. Once I had my own radio I found classic rock and metal during high school (1980's), and I specifically remember once sitting in the truck in Mrs. Newton's driveway waiting to go in to my weekly before-school morning lesson. I was listening to AC/DC, and wondering what was the difference between this music on my cassette and the music I was about to play inside. I had no idea. I also was confused by the high school friend who could play Jerry Lee Lewis hits on the school piano and get surrounded by girls at the piano. This was another world from mine, and one that fit into society better. I was left out.

I went to college and became immediately surrounded by so many really good classical piano students. I realized suddenly that I didn't know or understand much at all about this music which I had been playing for years. I just wasn't given the information I needed, and that I now use on a daily basis.

For example, as a kid, I was made to play scales from a "Scale" book. They were all written out for me. I got that there were different ones for different key signatures, but I did not really understand the concept of what key a song is in. Even the least trained musician will know the very beginnings of this idea of key center. Not me, not yet. The scale and exercise books were boring. No one told me that melodies come from scales, and that scales and chords come from intervals, or that intervals make up the melodies and harmonies of songs and other musical pieces. No one ever said "melody" or "harmony" to me at all, as far as I can remember, not until college. Think about that, musicians. I played one of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies for my senior recital when I was in high school, but didn't know what a chord was.

At this point I must give special props to Dr. Charles Schultz, now retired, from (at the time) Memphis State University. I was in his Tuesday morning/8am Music Theory I class in 1989 or '90, which is where he one day wrote the notes C, E, and G on the blackboard and said something to the effect of, "This is a major chord boys and girls." He went on to do an hour and a half on major and minor triads, and a huge light bulb went off for me in my head. I had been playing these all along! And for a decade at that point. But no one told me what they were! Welcome to ignorance. I will be your first example.

Worse than not understanding how the music worked, was not understanding how my body worked, at and away from the piano. My physical problems, while not fatal but chronic, were not exactly known or understood by me until my 40's, of which I am now in the last year. The current issues are that physically warped hips, put sideways under a piano for 4 decades, probably led specifically to me having the "arthritis of an 80-year old at 45," as a surgeon told me 4 years ago. I think the scoliosis developed over time, not sure if I had that while I was young. I definitely have been warped in the middle of my body for my whole life, and am just now, in middle age, understanding this and knowing how to properly deal with it. This topic is a whole other blog in and of itself.

To get back to the piano issues, I also was never taught about proper posture or how to use arm weight with gravity to get a better sound at the instrument, or how to get more action with less effort. Not only is this way of playing better, it became necessary for me, for it eliminates pain. By the time I spent the 5-6 years between the ages of 19 and 25 practicing for 4 hours a day by forcing my arms, hands and fingers to push the keys down, I had developed what probably would've been carpal tunnel syndrome or something if I had not had the grace of being able to stop practicing while still working as a performer. When I was 25, pain would start at my right arm, go up to the shoulder, and then halfway down my back whenever I would play. I was still working it out with (finally) a classical teacher who understood what to do, in my early 40's. It's amazing that I am still doing piano at all, but I am, and better than ever.

Ok for now, more blogs next week. Hope everyone who is reading this is doing well and staying safe and healthy during these interesting and trying times.

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