About My Mother Winning a Piano Competition When She Was 18
My 76th Birthday Recital
As you probably know by now, I retired from consulting and seminars on June 1, 2020 (but am focusing on books), and I gave a piano recital for my 75th birthday. Although the plan was to do it as a dinner and a recital with about 35 people, things changed because of Covid, so instead it was given with just my duet partners and the videographer with five cameras.
Since I know many of you are writers, I want to say a few things about the relationship of writing and music and piano. I have found that one art form moves easily into another and that some of the same disciplines, decisions, and reflections are very much the same. Having actually been a writer since the age of 10, and since I have been writing articles and then books for most of my adult life, I have found that spending many years writing and learning this art form has taught me about freedom in art. I have a saying, “I never have to do anything exactly like somebody else has done it!” And often I ask myself, “What do I bring to the party?” Part of Art is to bring something new and to feel the freedom to do that without compromising the discipline of the art.
As I returned to piano in 2017, I found that similar freedom I had learned in writing. I learned to look carefully at the dynamics that the composer had chosen, but I sometimes felt there was another aspect of this piece to bring out. Thankfully, I have three terrific piano teachers who support this sense of freedom. I would sometimes tell Abe, one of my piano teachers, “I know the composer wants me to play this fast and mf (mezzo forte, sort of loud), but I’m thinking of playing it slowly and softly, like a bird alighting on a lake at dusk.” I would show Abe what I was thinking of, and often he would say, “That is a viable musical decision! I have never heard it that way, but it works.” And sometimes he would tell me, “That’s interesting but it’s not Beethoven,” or whatever composer I happened to be playing. So there’s always this balance between the history and the discipline of the art form and the freedom to bring something very new to a piece of music.
If you want to watch the recital below, there are seven numbers: six of them are two piano pieces and one of them is a solo. The whole recital is about 50 minutes long– there are about 35 minutes of music, and then I talk a little bit in between. So sit back with a glass of champagne or a nice cup of tea and enjoy.
My 75th Birthday Recital
I grew up playing piano since my mother was a piano and voice teacher. Music was the center of my life. Many evenings we gathered around the piano and we sang – my sister was a soprano, I was a second soprano and my mother was an alto and we sometimes sang trios and duets. My sister and I also entered high school piano solo and duet contests. During much of high school we had two pianos in the home – one a Steinway Concert Grand.
(in future website blogs, I’ll tell the story of the piano.) We played two piano duets and performed in a few places around Wisconsin. Then, I took piano lessons for one semester in college. And when I lived in Los Angeles, I had a piano duet partner for about 6 years – we played little house recitals three times a year.
I went back to piano about three years ago after not taking a lesson for 50 years! I had not been playing piano at all for about eight years because I have a neurological disorder called dystonia (a result of a small automobile accident 11 years ago) and I wasn’t able to play. With the help of a doctor in Houston, I am about 95% better. With her help, I was able to return to piano about three years ago. When I had my 50th college reunion in 2017, our drama group decided they wanted to get together and also have a drama reunion. We decided we wanted to sing some of the music from Kismet, which we had performed in 1965. (I was a harem girl in the Chorus.) I volunteered to accompany them, not knowing the amount of practice it would take. I started practicing in April for our October sing-along and realized I could go back to playing – at last!
I found an excellent piano teacher – Abe, and then when he went on vacation, he recommended Sara to me. I liked both of them and decided “why have one great piano teacher when you could have two?”
In April, 2018, I bought an Estonia Grand Piano after looking at pianos for about four months. I expected I would buy a Steinway or maybe a Yamaha but I fell in love with a piano I had never heard – an Estonia Piano. This was the one! (Yes, you can fall in love with a piano. We visited the piano factory in Estonia in November where they made my piano.)
I play duets with several people, including my teachers and I’m currently also playing piano duets with Maryann and have a new duet partner, Jan. Maryann and I and Jan and I are planning on entering an International Two Piano Competition this fall. I have amazing joy from doing this!
I usually start my day practicing 4 difficult measures for 3 to 5 minutes. I am never at a loss to find difficult measures to practice since there are many in many of the pieces I am playing.
Now that I am retired, I try to practice some in the morning and also some in the afternoon – 30 to 60 minutes each time.
My teachers don’t exactly know how to define me because I am an intermediate pianist that plays some advanced music. I make up for the challenges by being very disciplined at how I practice. My musicality is at a higher level than my technique is.
August 27th is my 75th Birthday. The original plan was a Birthday Dinner for about 35 people, followed by a 30-40 minute Two Piano Birthday Recital at a Recital Hall.
Since I don’t expect social distancing to be over with by August 27th, I am having the recital videotaped without an audience at the recital hall. (The dinner and recital will happen when everything is safe again!) There will be two Grand Pianos on the stage – and six or seven cameras. Then I will have it edited. In early September, you will get another email announcement with a place to click if you choose to watch the recital. And I will be wearing a red ball gown!
I will be playing some fun numbers such as All That Jazz and Rainy-Day Rag (a bit of ragtime) and some beautiful and lush and dramatic pieces. And then I will be playing the solo that my mother played at an international piano contest when she was 18 – and she won! (Caprice Viennois by Fritz Kreisler in case you wanted to listen to the piano solo on YouTube. This was originally a violin piece but look for the piano solo!) You might also enjoy listening to the Danse Macabre by Saint Saens – which I will be playing as a two piano duet and which is 10 minutes long!
I am known for my interesting and unique birthday parties. So, you are invited! You can RSVP by signing up for the monthly newsletter. It would be great fun for me to know that many people are celebrating with me!
Two Piano Recital
We competed on March 20, 2021 in the US International Duo Piano Competition which is held every year at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs.
We will compete again next year and have also formed a piano quartet of two pianos, eight hands and had our first rehearsal in mid April.
Jan and I played in the Adult Category. Every competitor receives a medal and a trophy as a result of qualifying to compete. We won 1st Place.
The competition focuses on youth, but there is an adult/amateur category. Last year, nobody competed in that category, and this year, Jan and I were the only competitors in that category. Receiving the first place trophy was really fun, but to be totally transparent, we were the only people in that particular class. My teacher did explain to me that the judges do not have to give a first place.
After we did the performance, we then re-did it with five cameras which was then edited by Loren Barnes who also filmed and edited my August recital and will do that again this coming August. The piece of music we played is “Danse Macabre” by Camille Saint-Saens. It’s a story about the ghosts/skeletons that come out of the grave after the clock strikes 12, and dance, fall in love, and get more and more frenetic until the rooster crows at dawn, when they have to return to the grave. There are a number of YouTube recordings of this. It’s a very dramatic piece and a very challenging piece to play because there are so many different sections of it with a lot of octaves and big chords.
The editor and I worked on capturing what two piano music is about. If you watch this video, you will not only see double exposures but you will see triple exposures at moments and you will also see the reflection of our hands which is a bit ghostly as it should be.
Here are some things I learned from working on this piece for over a year. As in any creative endeavor, there is a point that you really want to make it your own and that means sometimes going against the dynamics of the composer or the tempo with which it is usually played. Jan and I went for the lyricism and we decided that we had ghosts instead of skeletons. You can actually see an animated version of this piece on YouTube which is fun. Creating a performance that is a bit different than how others perform this piece included a lot of discussion between Jan and I and the freedom to feel that we could make some different musical choices. Since I have been in the creative arts for over 50 years, I have learned a lot about feeling that freedom to think through the creative work I’m doing and to never have to do it the way it has been done before. At the same time, I take the intentions of the composer seriously and I always check with my teachers whether my alternatives are musically valid.
I did find performing in a ballroom at one of the great five-star resort hotels in the country threw me for a loop– more so than I would have expected. I have done so many lectures in front of many people that I expected the experience of giving seminars would somehow relate to doing this kind of performance – but it did not. I was actually disappointed in my performance until I watched the unedited version and then decided it was actually quite good. Supposedly my emotional response is not at all unusual. I had conversations with all three of my piano teachers about my reaction, and they were sympathetic, empathetic, and helped me understand what was going on. I have performed much smaller recitals and one of my teachers said that ordinarily, we would have been doing monthly recitals to prepare for this competition, but because of COVID, we couldn’t do that. We already have plans for various performances with neighbors, etc. leading up to my August 27th birthday recital this year, 2021, and to the January 8th, 2022 competition.
I was grateful for the opportunity to redo the piece for this film. I hope you enjoy the music, which I find extraordinary, and the editing as well.
The Story of The Piano
I have worked in the film industry for about 40 years, and my career has been in the field of theater and television and film. I’ve always loved drama and writing, but my background was music. I have now gone back to music and went back to taking piano lessons about a year ago. The last time I had taken a piano lesson was in my senior year of college although I have played off and on during the years.
But I grew up with music. My mother was a piano and voice teacher and was a beautiful pianist. She would have been considered just under the level of a concert pianist and she did do some concerts. I grew up with a 7-foot Steinway grand piano in our living-room which that was the center of our life. We played piano solos and piano duets and we sang solos and duets and trios. This was the gathering place for my family and it was also the gathering place for friends.
My mother accompanied all the kids that performed in high school contests so there were many times other people practiced in our home. The piano was the center of our lives.
I actually thought that we were wealthy because we had a Steinway 7-foot concert grand piano. When I was in my 40s, my mother said that we were very poor when we were growing up. That made no sense to me – I couldn’t figure out how we would have a grand piano and still be poor. My mother explained to me that when I was very, very young, my parents went to a party at the home of a rather wealthy person. He had just gotten a Steinway grand piano and he knew that my mother was a very fine pianist so he ask if she would sit down and play. She played a piece called Caprice Viennoise by Fritz Kreisler which was the piece she played in an international talent contest when she was 18 and won. He was very impressed with her playing.
About a year later his wife died unexpectedly. He called my mother and he said “you are the one who should have this piano.” Now he was not saying to her “I’m going to give you the piano” but he was saying “you are the one who should buy this piano from me because this piano should be yours.” My mother told him that there was no way they could ever have this piano. It was somewhere around 1948-1951 and the piano was $5000 at that time. He said to my mother, “I don’t care how long it takes for you to pay off this piano, this piano should be yours.”
So, my mother took the piano -naturally – and I almost think I can remember that piano being moved into our house. I was probably about three or four years old. Dad would pay off a little at a time.
One day this man’s son, who would probably have been a young teenager when his mother died, and who was now in his late teens, came knocking at our door and said to my mother, “that was supposed to be my piano.” My mother quickly invited him in and said “we have to call your father.” The father said, “Put my son on the line.” Then the father said to the son, “you may have any other piano in the world but that piano. That piano is Agnes’ piano.”
Even though I went in so many different directions in my life, the memory of the piano remained important to me. And throughout the years, I would occasionally play piano. For six years when I was in Los Angeles I had a piano duet partner and we would do three house recitals a year. But during the last 10 years I developed a movement disorder called dystonia and I was not able to play the piano because it was a strain on my neck. But as I improved, I found that I could start playing the piano again.
Last October was my 50th class reunion at Colorado College and we also decided to have a drama reunion. We had performed the musical KISMET in college and our committee said, “let’s sing the music from Kismet at our reunion.” I volunteered to accompany the group. When I got the music, I realize it was much more difficult than I had thought and I needed to practice about an hour a day between April and October to prepare.
I so enjoyed being back at the piano, that I decided to go back and take lessons. And I began to wander into piano stores. I would go to the piano store and say “this is not serious I’m just walking around” but I would try playing different pianos and see what I liked. I went to the Piano Warehouse in Colorado Springs and they had an Estonia grand piano that was a little over 6 feet which was too big for our living room. I sat down and I said “what is this piano? I’ve never heard of it. It’s beautiful.” But I was just looking and was not serious
After a few months of playing piano and taking lessons, I got to thinking more seriously about a grand piano. I asked my financial advisor if it was possible for me to think about this and he said “yes, it is. But don’t buy the Bosendorfer which is $200,000.” Thankfully, I didn’t fall in love with the Bosendorfer.
My husband said to me, “do you have to get a Steinway grand and is this all about your childhood and your mother?” and I said “I don’t think so. I think it’s about this feeling I had for the piano when I was young and it’s still there.”
But then, how does one choose the piano? To what extent is choosing a piano like falling in love? You meet a lot of different pianos, and you wait for that moment that says “this is the right one.”
There are many different tones and touches to pianos. The Steinway tends to have a very mellow and warm tone and tends to be a heavier to the touch. There are other pianos that have a lighter touch and have brilliant and bright tones as opposed to mellow tones. Over a period of September to December last year, I went to about seven piano stores and played about 50 pianos.
In December, I went to the Classic Piano Store in Denver and played about 10 more pianos and then the salesman showed me a corner of Estonia pianos. One of the pianos was two-tone – meaning it was black ebony and African wood and it was absolutely stunning. I literally stopped in my tracks because I had never seen a piano that beautiful. I sat down to play and I was instantly in love. I asked the piano salesman if he would sit down and play something on that piano. He played Claire de Lune and it was gorgeous! I then asked him to go over to one of the other pianos and play the same piece. I said “What am I Hearing? There is something about that piano that I haven’t heard before. “He explained to me that many people have the same reaction. I discovered that this was a piano company that had been under Soviet rule in Estonia but it was a very third-rate piano company. In about 2002 a very fine pianist who had worked at the factory as a youth bought the company and started to upgrade everything in the company. He got the wood from the shady side of the mountain in Germany. He got the Renner action which is the action that is used on Steinways, the Bechsteins and the very finest pianos in the world. He started adjusting various levels and brought this piano up to the level of a very fine instrument. The piano store had a 6-foot grand I had figured out the biggest piano that would fit in our living room would need to be 5’6”. They had none in stock and they were none in the United States. But they could be ordered.
I came back and told my husband about the new love in my life and he said “let’s go together”. So, we went back to Classic Piano and I played three chords on the Estonia piano at the piano store and Peter said, “I know exactly what you mean. Yes, this is terrific.”
Since the piano had to be made in Estonia, I ordered it December 23. At the end of February my new piano got on a very slow cargo ship in Estonia and went first to New York and then to Indiana and then to the Denver warehouse and then finally to the piano store where it got tuned.
On April 20 they delivered it to our home.
Meanwhile in this long search for the piano and taking piano lessons I got to thinking about that piece of music that my mother had played in the international talent contest and that had been the motivation for her getting our Steinway grand piano. Caprice Viennois. I decided to order it, thinking that it might take me about three years to be able to play it. I got it in January and started slowly practicing. I’ve now performed the piece several times. It’s difficult and lush and I’m thrilled that I am able to play out – although it’s still a work in progress.
Then I started thinking about piano duets. I loved playing piano duets!
I asked my piano teacher, Abe Minzer, if he knew of someone who might want to play duets with me. He emailed three different students, all of whom were around my same level and all three of them said “yes.” Then several others expressed interest as well and suddenly I had five duet partners. Abe called me the queen of duets.
Most piano playing is a very solitary art form – you practice the music by yourself and you might occasionally play in a recital and maybe you talk to some of the other people at the recital but you don’t have a community in the same way as if you were doing chamber music or were part of an orchestra. But then I got to thinking not just about duets but two piano duets. So, we decided to keep our old Baldwin spinet and to start doing two-piano eight-hand duets. We started to form a kind of a community. We began to be friends. Sometimes after practice I would have pizza or have my duet partners over to dinner. I began to feel like I had entered this new art form and that it had its own vocabulary, its own expression and attracted its own specific types of people. I began doing piano house recitals. We had one on June 10 and had six different people play, including the piano salesman from Denver.
I’m going to have a lady’s recital on August 26 to celebrate my birthday. I’m aware of this new chapter in my life opening up and of this new and very special love relationship that happens between a person and a piano.
The Piano Tour
Peter and I decided to come to Estonia before Latvia because my grand piano that I bought two years ago was an Estonia piano made at the piano factory here. Once we knew we could get a tour, we made the decision to spend some time in the city of Tallinn. The owner of the factory, Indrek, is currently in the United States but he said his wife Triin would give us the tour and she was accompanied by a new employee, Anna from Canada who recently received her Ph.D. in music from Cambridge University in England.
The factory has about 40 employees and makes between 200 and 250 pianos a year and they said many of those pianos do go to the United States. The factory itself has been around for over 100 years but under communism, the pianos were not of good quality and they basically sold to communist countries. Around the year 2000, Indrek bought the factory and began upgrading everything to create a high-quality piano. Gradually people around the world are finding out about this piano and as one piano person said to me on this trip, “the Estonia pianos are greatly underrated. They are truly terrific pianos!” Which I know since I fell in love with one of those.
One of my favorite rooms was the room with the piano strings and the technician who has perfect pitch and is one of the experts in the world on stringing pianos.
We also enjoyed the room where they put what looks like Saran wrap around the entire piano when it is ready to start its journey.
The one piano that is a zebra looking piano is being made for somebody in Los Angeles. It was wonderful to meet some of the people who made my piano. And, we received a little hammer as a gift… which will be put in our living room.
At the end of the tour, we entered this room that had about six pianos basically completed. Anna explained that they would be going through some final tuning and checking. I was encouraged to sit down and play each one of them. Yes, I had brought my music along just in case.
My piano took up about six weeks to cross the ocean from Estonia on a cargo ship, starting its journey in February 2018 and then was brought to New York and I think then to upstate New York, then Chicago and Indiana, then Denver where it was tuned several times over several days. Then I was allowed to go to Denver to try it out to make sure it was what I wanted and then it was delivered to our home near Colorado Springs on April 20, 2018. And we had champagne to celebrate its arrival, but definitely did not smash the bottle on the piano!
Look for the next blog about actually playing the pianos at the piano factory.