Me and My Piano : ‘Together, We Can Compose Songs or Symphonies, Do Digital Aerobics, or Simply Noodle Along . . . ‘
“One scorchingly hot day last July, I watched as two perspiring piano movers hefted a Yamaha upright through the tiny door of the motor home that serves as my traveling dressing room when I’m acting in ‘Crazy Like a Fox.’ Later that day, several amiable crew members devised a system to bolt the piano to the floor of the cabin, so it wouldn’t fall through the wall when we were in motion. Since then, no matter how long the shooting day stretches, I can invariably find time to slip away to my sturdy, wooden friend. Together, we can compose songs or symphonies, do digital aerobics, reminisce and romanticize, or simply noodle along with whatever music happens to be passing through my ear.
Music courses through my mind like the blood through my veins. It always has. Sometimes it’s a nuisance: I remember a period in the late ‘50s when all other interior music was drowned out by the relentless Doublemint gum jingle (‘DOUBLEgood DOUBLEgood . . .’). At other times, ever since I began piano lessons at age 4, my inner ear has gotten stuck repeating an unconquerable Czerny exercise. Far more frequently, however, it has provided me with a lilt and a lift. Some magical combination of Brahms, Chopin, Ravel and Fred Astaire carried me through my adolescence--which is also when I discovered Broadway music. With my good ear and my terrible sight-reading, here was music I could play well without having to either toil through hours of counting lines and spaces or force my rebellious fingers to learn some immutable choreography. For the first time, I could actually sit down and play what I was hearing in my head!
I soon realized that some of the music that was causing me to tap my foot during chemistry class was music I had not heard before; it was, in fact, mine. And I could play it, too. So I did. Whenever and wherever I could. This did not go over very well with my father, who thought I was on the way toward a career as an orchestral conductor. The word ‘traitor’ comes to memory--I think he felt I was giving Bach and Mozart too little attention. This was quite true; but perhaps he did not realize what a fantastic impression he had made on me numerous times with his sparkly-eyed renditions of ‘I’m Just Wild About Harry,’ or his spontaneous after-dinner medleys of Richard Rodgers and Cole Porter, all performed with the same guts and gusto he gave to Beethoven and Rachmaninoff.
Nor had I turned my back on classical music. I recall being in Rome with him for a couple of weeks when I was 15. He was recording Chopin waltzes for RCA, and I turned the pages for him. He recorded from 7 to midnight because Georg Solti was conducting ‘Rigoletto’ in the same studio during the day. I would hang around watching and listening to the opera all day, and then assist my father at night. After three days, he suggested that I take a day off, get on a train to Naples and visit the ruins at Pompeii. When I said I’d prefer to stay and sit in on the recordings, he got angry. ‘What are you turning into?’ he yelled. ‘Pompeii is one of the wonders of the world, and you want to sit in the studio and watch the needles move on the meters. It’s crazy!’ I stayed.
It was four years before he really forgave me. By then I had decided to be an actor and was studying drama at UCLA, but I’d also written the score for a musical comedy. To see it, my father flew in from Toronto, where he was on tour. He came, he later told me, to warn me not to make a fool of myself. ‘You’ve never studied harmony or theory; you can barely read music,’ he’d planned to say. ‘What makes you think you can write an entire operetta?’
To his surprise, he liked the production and liked my music. From that time on, he would listen with pride and a kind of bafflement to the film and television scores I composed, orchestrated and conducted. ‘All those times you used to hang around the orchestra, I thought you were dillydallying,’ he said. ‘But you were really learning something.’
Music was a way my father and I could talk without words. Nothing I ever said to him gave him that glowing look he had when he’d heard some piece of mine that pleased him. And although he was a renowned talker, historian, jokester and story teller, his truest and deepest heart was only--and always--revealed to me when he was playing the piano.
I guess that language was the first one I knew, and it remains the one I am most comfortable with. This summer, on my bolted-down Yamaha, I even returned, after 23 years, to playing Brahms and Chopin. My fingers are more lazy than rebellious now, but strangely, the toil has turned to satisfaction. The practicing is a pleasure. And sometimes, if I am very lucky--and usually for just a few measures--the sound touches on that other sound I hear in my head, and then no trouble in the world can approach me.” PRODUCED BY LINDEN GROSS