The highlight of our recent trip to Seattle was our granddaughter Rina’s “Winter Concert.” She played a melodic classical piece called “First Flight” by Lisa Moore, and she played it with feeling and to perfection. In my day, this would have been called a “recital,” but really, this was a true concert. Rina is eight, and has been taking piano for only a year, but there she was, up on a real stage in a proper concert hall, appearing poised and dressed for the part, along with her fellow students at Kristina Lee Music.
But this is not a blog about Rina. This little story is about her piano, and about Ann, Tula, Elise and Rina, the players of that piano. When on the morning of the concert, Rina gave me her “preview” of the piece she would play in public that afternoon, she had a big smile on her face. I mean a grand, sparkling smile. And that was when she said, “Granny would be proud of me!” as if it were Granny sitting there for the preview, not me, her Grandma.
In fact, Rina never knew “Granny,” my mother Tula Ruth Greenberg Friedman, who passed away at 93, three years before Rina was born. But what she knows about is the history of the piano she plays, and how Tula felt about music and the instrument.
My own Grandmother Ann, Tula’s mother, studied at the Kansas City Conservatory of Music and sang in the chorus of the Kansas City Opera. She purchased that Kroeger baby grand piano in 1915. Tula Ruth, as she was called in midwest fashion, grew up learning to accompany her mother’s soprano voice. My mother could sight read any piece as if she’d been practicing for days! And decades later, when we kids had a holiday, a dance practice, or a party that called for song, or the grownups had a party or a PTA show, it was always Tula they called on for rehearsals, performances, and just plain fun. All on Grandmother Ann’s baby grand, which by then graced our living room in Los Angeles.
But Tula didn’t just play, she also sang, both solo and in choruses. I have a tape of her singing “There’s a Song in My Heart” and operatic “art songs” in a trained, operatic voice in the early 50s, then later in the decade switching to a more jazzy voice and rhythms for “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “Cockeyed Optimist” and “Side by Side.” The jazz singer still sounded like her, but with an entirely different, more “modern” inflection. She compared her new style to the way Frank Sinatra had aligned his 1940s tenor (think Bing Crosby) to suit the times during the 50s.
On that tape, Tula also displayed her talents when she did practice and perfect a piece – the difficult Roger Williams arrangement of Autumn Leaves, popular in those days.
Beginning at aged 4, I was given lessons on that same piano. Now comes the heartbreaker. No way would I ever accompany my mother as she did hers. I had no talent for it. My sense of rhythm was there, and I could sing on tune. But I struggled with reading music. I hated to practice. I hated being alone in the living room, failing over and over again at that monstrous piano. We switched teachers several times over the next nine years. 9. Was I clear about that? When I was a teenager, a psychologist informed my mother that although I lacked nothing in intellect, my one low score on the IQ test was “eye-hand” coordination. Did I mention I was a washout on the playground, too? I could have kissed that aging psychologist! At last, I had a real reason that I could never be what my mother wanted me to be.
But Tula’s hopes revived when my son, Rina’s father Corey, took up the guitar in the 1980s. He would accompany the family for holiday singing and give little living room performances whenever the grandparents were on hand to ooh and ahh. I was now twice-redeemed.
I have absolutely no expectations of Rina where that baby grand is concerned. After several years in storage (it never fit into our living room décor – and I certainly did not push the matter), my son and daughter-in-law pulled it out, had it rebuilt, moved to their house in Seattle and tuned up. It sounds stupendous. It looks beautiful in their home. Its carries loads of family photos, including one of Granny Tula, on its back, just as it did in Granny’s day. And it has carried the additional freight of family history into the heart of our granddaughter.
Rina’s smile was genuine, I could see that. She loves shining in public, doesn’t feel shy, and has the poise of a girl much older than eight. She is also a loving sweetheart of a sister, daughter, granddaughter. Okay, I can stop now. Her two younger sisters are in the wings, listening. Perhaps they will prefer the violin?