Sunday, September 28, 2014


Take Two: The Inspiration for ELI'S HEART

Tegralogy of Fallot, the heart condition my character Eli Levin lives with, is a complicated and frightening disease which is present at birth. Physicians have been aware of it for centuries. According to Wikipedia, "It was described in 1672 by Niels Stensen, in 1773 by Edward Sandifort, and in 1888 by the French physician Etienne-Louis Arthur Fallot, after whom it is named." 

Eli’s Heart was inspired by a friendship I had decades ago with a brilliant teenage pianist born with this congenital heart condition. Samuel Sanders was fifteen when I first met him and heard him play. He was visiting a sister who lived in my hometown and he came to my house several times, and we listened to recordings of orchestral music, played piano duets (which was definitely daunting for me!), talked about books and baseball. His activities were restricted because of his congenital heart defect.

With a lot of help from Dr. Aarti Asnani, a cardiologist with Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, I finally developed a grasp of the condition. There are four separate defects of the heart: a hole between the lower chambers (ventricles) of the heart, which means unoxygenated blood is mixing with oxygenated blood; a narrowing of the valve between the right ventricle and the lungs, which means not enough blood is getting to the lungs to be replenished with oxygen; a thickening of the wall of the right ventricle; and an aorta which is misplaced and is drawing blood from both ventricles. 

The result is a considerable reduction in the amount of oxygenated blood distributed to the body. The average person receives between 90 and 95% oxygenated blood. TOF patients receive sometimes less than 50%. Breathing is a struggle. Any physical activity, even walking, becomes difficult and can be life-threatening. Many children died in infancy, or did not survive puberty. Cyanosis (blue coloring of the skin, especially fingers, toes and lips) is a primary symptom.

In 1944, Drs. Alfred Blalock and Helen Taussig, with considerable help from Blalock’s assistant Vivien Thomas, developed a procedure to alleviate these children’s suffering. A shunt was created by attaching a branch of the aorta to the pulmonary artery which increased the flow of oxygenated blood. Sometimes this increase was dramatic; sometimes enough to at least ease their symptoms. From my understanding, patients who survived the procedure lived more normal and longer lives. However, the heart was not repaired. The Blalock-Taussig procedure was considered “palliative” ─ it eased the worst of the symptoms, but all four defects of the heart were still there.

About ten years later an open-heart surgery (called the “total correction” or “total repair”) was performed which patched the hole between the ventricles and widened the opening to the lungs, giving the patients a chance at a better quality – and quantity – of life. Over the past decades, as TOF patients have lived longer (some into their seventies and even eighties) other surgical procedures have been developed and refined, and a range of medications also exists to help treat the condition. It was at first considered a congenital heart defect. It is presently considered a congenital heart disease, a life-long struggle with a heart which can never be made “normal.” From my understanding, there is no one “standard” procedure for these patients. One comment from Dr. Asnani in our extensive correspondence stands out in my mind:

“With regard to treatment options for (adult) TOF patients, it’s definitely not a straightforward decision to pursue surgery, so we will often try to manage with medications for as long as possible.  Newer technologies like cardiac MRI are helping us figure out when the heart dysfunction is progressing to the point where heart surgery is absolutely necessary to prevent a further decline, though we’re still wrestling with defining the exact timeline.”

One of the first things Samuel Sanders told me was that he didn’t expect to live past the age of thirty. Other than that, and telling me about the cyanosis and that he’d had surgery, he didn’t discuss his condition and I didn’t ask questions. We concentrated on enjoying the time we had together.

After hearing him play – brilliantly –  the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto a few months later, I lost touch with him. Some thirty years later I met a young man who was studying accompanying with Sam at Juilliard, so he’d have been in his early forties at that time. His student also told me Sanders had opted to work professionally as an accompanist rather than pursuing a career as a virtuoso pianist. I was very glad to hear he had survived past the age of thirty and was still sharing his extraordinary gift.

I thought of him again when I watched the HBO film “Something the Lord Made” (highly recommended) and wondered how he was. Internet searches revealed that he had died at the age of sixty-two. He’d had the B-T procedure when he was nine and two additional surgeries (the total correction and a heart valve replacement), and eventually not one but two heart transplants. The second one failed, sadly. While not a household name, he had a long and illustrious career as a collaborative pianist and performed with some great musicians who definitely ARE household names. I list a few of his many recordings in the discography at the end of the book.

My book is fiction, and my character Eli Levin is the product of my imagination. I did not know Sam Sanders beyond that brief friendship when we were both little more than children. However, his passion for music certainly had a lasting impact on me; he was indeed an extraordinarily gifted pianist and musician. We don’t meet many musical prodigies in our lifetime, and if and when we do, we never forget them. The fact that this one also had a damaged heart made him even more unforgettable.

ELI'S HEART is available on Amazon as both paperback and e-book.

(first posted on July 3 - edited)

Thursday, September 25, 2014

What Is Important?

     Here in Northeastern Pennsylvania we have learned more about the massive manhunt for Eric Matthew Frein, the man who has been evading capture by law enforcement officers for over twelve days. The PA State Police are convinced he is in our forests, in a small area in the northern part of our county. They believe they’ve had sightings from a distance, and the PSP officer who is giving the information also said residents have reported sightings as well.
     I know I am repeating myself, but unless you’ve ventured into these thick forested regions it’s hard to understand how easy it is to virtually disappear … into the underbrush, behind a rock, into a bear cave. The LEOs are very much aware this man is armed and very dangerous. They have not been close enough to make a positive identification, and they have to proceed with caution. None of us wants anyone else hurt or killed.
     What does news about an alleged killer have to do with “Words and Music”? More than you might think.
     I grew up in a kinder, gentler era, the middle of the twentieth century. Yet even then, violent people sometimes committed violent acts. In my town of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, one such event had an impact on me that has lasted my entire life. 
     When I was a junior at Oak Ridge High School, a dear friend went through an unimaginable family tragedy. Her estranged brother-in-law broke into her home one Saturday night and shot and killed her mother, shot her father who died within hours, and shot her other brother-in-law, who lingered in agony for some three months before dying.
     Anita had gone to the movies by herself that night, as she sometimes did, and walked home to find this awful event had happened while she was not home. A friend called me and my dad drove me to the hospital where I spent some time with her. This took place the weekend before our school had auditions for the spring musical, which was to be Rodgers and Hammerstein’s powerful show Carousel. Anita was a fine actress and singer and it seemed she would certainly be cast in one of the three principal female roles.
     The directors of the show decided to wait a week to hold auditions. Even so, Anita auditioned within a week after burying both her parents. She won the leading role of Julie Jordan, and gave a polished and moving performance in the role, inspiring all of us … students and teachers alike … with her courage and poise. The show has been extremely meaningful to me ever since, and in March of 2013 I directed a production at the high school where I’ve been directing musicals since 1991.
     The following summer for the first time in my life I wrote a book. Anita’s story needed to be told, and HOW I GREW UP was published at the end of October. At the suggestion of a friend, I wrote the novel in the first person. It is a work of fiction, but it is based on the events surrounding the shooting and Anita’s subsequent triumph on stage. 
     Creativity, in this particular instance, music and theater, can have a healing effect on a troubled spirit. Sadly, my friend died young of breast cancer, but she shone brightly for many years prior to her death.
     I never understood why her brother-in-law committed this heinous act. I was told he was an abusive husband, and Anita’s sister had left him more than once and had returned to him. That’s a story we hear far too often. The difference in this story is that he did not shoot his wife, who was present, but her parents and the one man in the house who might have been able to stop him. But Anita’s other sister’s husband was the killer's first target.
     He attempted to flee back to Mississippi, but was caught before he crossed the Tennessee state line. He was imprisoned and eventually tried, and I believe his plea was not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect. He claims he was driven to his act because his wife’s parents interfered in his marriage and persuaded his wife to leave him. He served twelve years of a fifteen-year prison sentence. For taking three lives.
     There is speculation about a motive behind Frein’s alleged shooting of the two PA State Troopers, but at this point it is exactly that, speculation. He is reported to have been part of a group that re-enacts battles by military forces in Eastern Europe. One item found in the woods was reported as packs of “Serbian cigarettes.”
     There is far too much violence in today’s world, and the news from the Middle East is disturbing. How the current situation in our county will be resolved remains to be seen. Of much greater import is what is happening with our world, where war seems to be on-going … not because we choose it, but because we cannot avoid it. The world has become very small.
     I am fortunate to be able to escape into that “kindler, gentler time” as both my novels take place during the second half of the twentieth century. And my characters are people whose lives are filled with courage, love, and music. It’s been difficult recently to concentrate on completing my third novel because of the local events, but it’s helped me to put words and thoughts together for my blog.
     It was heartwarming to learn residents of the area of Monroe County most affected yesterday put up dozens of navy blue bows and American flags to show their support for the more than one thousand law enforcement officers now searching for Frein. Donations of food, beverages, and other necessities are being delivered constantly by both local residents and businesses throughout this part of the state. No one likes what is going on. It is impressive to see the community work together, either in person or through social media, to keep each other’s spirits up.
     Courage and love can be evidenced by such a simple act as making a blue bow and displaying it … or sending a message to a friend who is living in the “war zone.” Those are important. There are good people who live in our county.

If you would like to learn more about my books:

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Manhunt for Eric Frein

And It Continues

September 23, 2014 ─ The media tells us the manhunt for Eric Frein, alleged shooter of two PA State Troopers on September 12 – one fatally – is now in its eleventh day. We’ve learned that along with PA State Police and members of local law enforcement agencies, there are also agents from the FBI, ATF, U.S. Marshals Service, as well as LEO from nearby New York and New Jersey. This information was reported yesterday during a press conference by the Governor of the State, Tom Corbett, on his second visit to the region and the second time he has addressed the situation; the first was a couple of days ago. No intent to disrespect the office, but the Governor seemed much better prepared on his second visit than on his first. He is in the midst of a campaign for re-election.
     It’s autumn in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, my favorite time of year and a time for visits by tourists to view our “Flaming Foliage.” “Mountains” is perhaps a misnomer, as these are more high hills than true mountains, but it’s beautiful here. The hillsides slowly turn to brilliant displays of red, yellow, purple, and gold, many hues of each color, contrasting to the variety of the different shades of green of evergreen trees. Vistas become breathtakingly beautiful and it’s a wonderful time to drive the back roads and enjoy nature’s display.
     We’ll have to wait a while to do that in some parts of Monroe County, because there are some roads that are currently filled with law enforcement vehicles of every kind, and hundreds of law enforcement officers attempting to locate and arrest this man, considered armed and dangerous, and listed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted at Number Two. It has been stressful for the LEOs and the residents alike. The hillsides of the Poconos are thick with trees and undergrowth and covered with rugged boulders of all shapes and sizes, sometimes as big as a house. It’s not a tranquil stroll through the woods. It’s Eric Frein’s backyard, and he apparently has stashed a great many items in those woods, preparing for this event. Exactly what those items are we haven’t been told, we assume food, possibly clothing, possibly more guns and ammunition.
     I found it especially distressing to see a Facebook post this morning from a legal office, not in our area, suggesting the people in Price and Barrett Townships were having their civil rights violated because of the efforts the LEOs are making to uphold their sworn duty to “protect and serve” the citizens. It’s disconcerting to see the many videos posted on FB taken from people’s living room windows as they watch a group of armed men, often dressed in camouflage, cross their front lawn. They have been asked to stay in their homes for their own protection, and the LEOs are understandably attempting to limit the auto traffic in and out of these two townships. That an attorney, before there is any resolution to what is a dangerous situation is laying the groundwork for a class action suit against the PA State Police, I find at the very least disturbing.
     It’s surreal to view other videos posted by residents of a drive down a back road with a law enforcement vehicle as an escort either leaving or entering one of the townships. These back roads are generally quiet and little traveled. Currently, such a drive is past numerous vehicles with law enforcement logos on them, sometimes on both sides of an already narrow two-lane road.
     The school district that had suspended classes for four days was open this morning but did not provide bus service in the “hot spot” … the two previously named townships. Children who were unable to get to school will not be marked absent. The district is holding all sports practices indoors. I am told via Facebook that administration and law enforcement officers were very visible at every school as students arrived.
     It’s a tricky juggling act, trying to find a fugitive in a populated area, albeit sparsely populated, and be sensitive to the concerns and needs of the residents. The local police in particular have to be exhausted by this point, and everyone is wondering how much longer this will go on. All indications are this effort will continue until Frein is caught. Most people who live in this area are supportive. It has certainly been at least an inconvenience for some.
     There are many stories that will eventually be told about all of this. Of course, numerous rumors are flying – in this high-tech world mostly via social media – but only the people directly involved know the truth. Many questions remain unanswered. How long can Frein, a self-styled survivalist, manage to elude police in our hills and valleys? That’s a question we’d all like to have an answer to. Hopefully, not too much longer.


We would all like to enjoy the beauty and serenity of these hills again.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Living Under "Siege"

The “New Normal” – Hopefully Not for Much Longer

     Life has changed dramatically in our little corner of Northeastern PA. On Friday, September 12, at a PA State Trooper barracks in neighboring Pike County, two Troopers were ambushed and shot, one fatally. The following Tuesday a vehicle (I believe a Jeep) was found partially submerged in a pond of some kind, or a swampy area, not far from the barracks. It appeared to have been abandoned by the shooter, a man who lives in the northern part of Monroe County, probably some 20 miles from the barracks where the shooting occurred. There were surprising items found in the Jeep, including ammunition and some form of ID. The Jeep was found by a resident of sparsely-populated Pike County who was walking his dog.
     Since that time there has been an intense manhunt for the alleged shooter, primarily in and around the house he occupies … or occupied … with his parents. This has involved hundreds of law enforcement officers, not just from the state. Eric Frein is now #2 on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, with a $100,000 reward on his head from the FBI and an additional $75,000 reward from PA Crime Stoppers. The search I believe heated up considerably last Thursday night and has been continuing with this intensity ever since.
     Some schools have been closed, primarily those in the area closest to the activity. Students were removed Thursday afternoon very abruptly from after school activities by one neighboring school district. A second district was closed for a day. Many businesses in the immediate area, the usually quiet little town of Canadensis, have been open only sporadically.
     News media of all kinds have reporters on the scene, and the law enforcement personnel have been very sparing of any details. We have been told that “there have been items found” in the dense woods that cover hundreds of acres. SWAT teams have been quite visible, helicopters and low flying aircraft are patrolling that area pretty much non-stop. I’m not sure how many federal agents from which agencies are on scene, other than ATF (we’ve seen occasional photos of the jackets or comments from locals who have seen them).
     Roads have been closed and people have been requested to stay inside their homes in the immediate area. The activity seems to be highest at night. There is speculation that Frein is holed up during the day and moving around at night. Many people in the area have scanners and listen intensely, and post periodically via primarily Facebook status updates and comments. There are many threads, especially on certain FB pages, and those of us who don’t own scanners find ourselves drawn to these comments, always hopeful the word will come that he’s been apprehended. Sometimes it seems minutes away, but he’s evaded and eluded capture for at least five days at this point. Perhaps longer, I’m sure there are many details of which we are not aware, and probably should NOT know about.
     This must be similar to what the people in parts of Boston dealt with after the Marathon bombing, when they had no idea who had committed that horrific crime. We don’t know if Frein acted alone. I’m baffled as to why he would leave such clear evidence in his vehicle. I have to trust that with all the forces gathered in basically two townships in our county there is good reason to believe he is actually where they are looking for him.
    Some people are critical of the law enforcement officers, unfortunately. None of us civilians have ANY IDEA what they are dealing with; especially in this area. Not only are the many hundreds of acres of woodlands dense with trees and underbrush, this part of the state is very rocky. And when I say rocky, I am talking about boulders, which are everywhere and which can be incredibly large. So there are many hiding places. To my mind, the most chilling thing we’ve been told is that Frein has been planning this “for months, if not years.” It makes me wonder what has been found that would prompt such a comment. I also wonder why an alleged “cop killer” would be the subject of so much attention from Federal agencies.
     The way social media has been used to communicate what sparse information is available is fascinating. One local group’s Facebook page had requests to join from I believe over three hundred people in one day, because many of the original members had scanners and were posting whatever they could understand. Word of a shelter for people who can’t get to their homes was posted on FB as I was writing this blog post. There is a strong sense of community through the whole county because of social media. I live probably at least 15 miles from where the action is taking place, but when I walked across the road to my mailbox this afternoon, I could hear the helicopters to the north. Having them directly above you has to be nerve-wracking. I wonder how parents of children are handling this, especially parents of young children.

     There are times in our life when we simply have to endure. This is such a time for my community, and especially for two small townships in this county. It’s my understanding the law enforcement officers have been helpful in cases of emergency and have been escorting people in and out of the area when it’s essential. I for one … and I think I speak for many who live here … am very grateful for the LEOs who are trying hard to bring this to a swift and hopefully peaceful resolution. For the most part, they are heroes.  

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Bogey, Bacall and Hemingway

Bogey, Bacall and Ernest Hemingway – and Cigarettes

     I’m not sure when I first became aware of Lauren Bacall or Humphrey Bogart, but I do remember my first encounter with Ernest Hemingway. I read For Whom the Bell Tolls when I was a sophomore in high school. I realized I was reading a great book, and one I enjoyed as well as appreciated. The story was riveting, but I must admit one memory that sticks with me is Maria thinking about making love with Robert Jordan and how she felt the earth move. The kind of thing that definitely piques the curiosity of an extremely naïve fourteen-year-old who wasn’t really kissed until she reached college.
     And yes, I read the film fan magazines, so I knew all about Bogey and his Baby. I think the first Bogart film I saw was Key Largo. Most of the films from the forties I’ve seen on television, though a few were re-released in theaters. I know I didn’t view Casablanca, which I now watch every time I can, until I saw it on television. From what I’ve read, it’s quintessential Bogart, and I obviously enjoy watching the film. Much of that is because I am very much a fan of Ingrid Bergman, and her scenes with Bogart are worth seeing repeatedly.
     Last night for the first time I watched To Have and Have Not, a film based very loosely on one of Mr. Hemingway’s lesser-known works. It was so similar to Casablanca in so many ways I had to stop looking for Ingrid Bergman to come into the bar.  The film launched Lauren Bacall’s film career and also her love affair and later marriage to the many-years-older Bogart. At the time, the film was highly acclaimed and made an instant star of Bacall.
     Lauren Bacall was a beautiful girl … I believe she was nineteen when the film was made … and later a beautiful woman, and had a distinguished acting career. Watching the film from the vantage point of 2014 (it was made in 1944), it’s a little difficult to understand what the hoopla was about. I’ve never read the Hemingway book, but from what I Googled this morning (and oh, how I love the Internet), it's apparent Howard Hawks played fast and loose with the novel and basically just moved Casablanca west and made Bogart a small boat owner version of Rick, replete with piano player (Hoagy Carmichael in this case). 
     Bogart was an arresting presence on screen, and he played characters more interesting than the pretty much one-note character he played in this film. Sabrina comes to mind (I liked his vulnerability as Linus), and The African Queen. And certainly The Caine Mutiny, in which I thought he was brilliant.
     I also read via my Googling expedition that Hawks was “smitten” with Bacall when he signed her to a personal contract, so his nose must have really been out of joint when she became enamored of her leading man and began a relationship with him. The really interesting part of the story, an attempt to smuggle a political prisoner off of the notorious Devil’s Island, was never developed and seemed more like an afterthought … and an opportunity to present Ms. Bacall with a sort of rival. That was never developed, either. The politics of the film were pretty obscure, so I’m glad I did some Googling.
     Walter Brennan played a caricature of Walter Brennan, the befuddled drunk, and an actor named Dan Seymour played a political personage who seemed to be in charge of the island of Martinique as a caricature of a member of the Spanish Inquisition. He’d have given Eric Idle a run for his money in the Monty Python skit. Or maybe that’s where Eric got the inflection he used in that skit.
     One of the most fascinating things to me was the almost constant smoking. Cigarettes were omnipresent, generally one hanging unlighted from a character’s mouth until another character lighted it. It was Bacall’s first moment in the film, asking for a match (with a cigarette either in her mouth, or on the verge of being placed there).
    Lighting a cigarette was the first thing a character did on arising, and the last thing before retiring. I don’t recall seeing a cigarette smoked all the way down and then being extinguished. Generally they seemed to be placed in an ashtray, or if the characters weren’t indoors, they were just tossed aside. 
     I wish I had counted the number of times I saw someone in the film lighting up. What did the directors do in those days if they had to present a character who didn’t smoke cigarettes almost non-stop? What a great hand prop. There was so much that could be done with a cigarette, especially in the days before filters. Taking the pack from pocket or purse, removing the cigarette, maybe tamping the cigarette, lighting the cigarette, blowing smoke, picking tiny pieces of tobacco from the lips or tongue (yes, children, they sometimes did that; I know, gross), flicking the cigarette away or casually laying it in an ashtray. Oh, another hand prop. Or the sometimes present decorative cigarette box and table lighter.
     Cigarettes still sometimes appear in films, but certainly not to the extent they did in those days. Eventually I found it extremely distracting.
     More importantly, this film reminded me that Hollywood has ever played fast and loose with literary works. What’s the saying? “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” I’m not sure I’ll go to see Into the Woods. I love the stage musical. But at least nobody will be smoking.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Two Musicians

That Elusive Quality – Talent

     I recently described Jamie Logan, the young tenor in You Are My Song, to one of my readers as “an ordinary guy with an extraordinary talent.” Jamie has an unusually beautiful singing voice; he also has a good ear, which helps him learn music quickly and grasp language pronunciation well. By applying himself he learns to sightread music well, and to retain what he has learned. By virtue of more hard work, he understands those many languages he is expected to use in different operas. Jamie is also fortunate to be blessed with good looks and he is a good actor. As a singer aspiring for a career in opera, he has “the whole package.”
     It’s interesting to compare Jamie to Eli Levin, the protagonist of Eli’s Heart. Eli was born with a prodigious musical gift, so despite the complicated and frightening heart condition he was also born with, it’s a given that Eli will be a professional musician. The only question for Eli is how he will use his remarkable skill as a pianist: as a virtuoso, performing solo recitals and orchestral appearances? That is the manner in which most pianists endowed in this way spend their lives.
     Eli chooses instead to work with other musicians, as an accompanist or collaborator. The early part of the book includes descriptions of his battles with his mother over this choice. Because of who Eli is, with these dual challenges there is of necessity the sense of a fairy tale in his story. He’s different from most of us. He’s very different from most of us. He was performing professionally as a soloist at the age of twelve. When he is twenty-four, he’s completed his master of music degree and has embarked on a busy career as a collaborative artist that takes him all over the world.
     Jamie, on the other hand, starts his adult life with an associates’ degree in business and an early marriage that is in trouble. In high school he had enjoyed singing, and like most of us, sang in the school choirs and the high school musicals. Unlike Eli, Jamie has actually heard very little classical music until a voice teacher plays him a recording of a tenor singing a particularly beautiful and moving aria. Jamie is excited by what he hears to the point of wanting to go back to college at the age of twenty-three and eventually attempting a career in opera.
     Many professional opera singers don’t begin serious study until high school or even college, as opposed to instrumentalists who sometimes demonstrate talent and even genius at a very young age, as early as three or four. Serious singing requires muscular and mental development that doesn’t begin to take place until the mid-teens for most men, and the early to mid-teens for women.
     The difference between Jamie and Eli, it seems to me – and I know them better than anyone does – is how they perceive their talent. Eli has the ability to play anything to near perfection the first time he reads through it. Yet he practices hours on end, striving for absolute perfection. He has a very revealing moment in the book when talking with his psychiatrist (I think I did him a great service by putting Pete in his life):

     Eli was aware of how quiet it was in the room. They were high enough above the street so that traffic noise wasn’t audible.
     “You know something, Pete? Nobody ever asked me if I liked playing the piano. It came easily to me, and I could sight read anything, so everybody figured that’s what I should do. What else was I going to do?”
     Eli thought a minute. “I love music, Pete. I don’t mean to say that I don’t like playing piano, because really, I do. I’m hard on myself sometimes because I want it to be perfect. But when I’m working with another musician, it can be exciting to feel what’s happening.”

     Jamie, on the other hand, has come much later to music and the realization he might have a career as a performer. But he battles self-doubts, partly created by the early marriage that ended badly after only two years. More than once these doubts surface as Jamie works hard to become as good a performer as he possibly can. At one point his second wife asks him:

     “What do you want, Jamie? I mean what do you see as the fulfillment of your dream?” She was surprised she had never asked him this. She knew he wanted to sing. She wasn’t really sure what would make him feel he’d “made it.”
     He said without hesitating, “Singing Don José at the Met.” He looked a little troubled. “It may never happen. But I guess it’s good to have a goal, and that’s mine.”

     Just keep these in mind when you hear a gifted musician perform. No matter how gifted they are, how diligently they practice, how extraordinary they seem to us mere mortals, they’ve had moments similar to these in their lives. What they expect of themselves is even more than what we expect of them. It’s not an easy life. It can be immensely satisfying.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Please Don't Say "Accompany-ist"

Pianists and Accompanists

     It would be nice to think that the word “accompanist” no longer carries with it the suggestion of a second class or second rate musician, a pianist who isn’t good enough for a solo career. In ELI’S HEART my character Eli Levin, born a piano prodigy with a defective heart, makes a conscious choice to pursue a career as an “accompanist.”
     Eli has a conversation with his best friend Jackie Barron about the term, after he has been treated shabbily by a soprano for whom he has performed as a last minute replacement for an ailing pianist.

     “You know, it must be hard sometimes,” Jackie said thoughtfully. “I mean, you started your professional life getting a lot of attention for being a ...” he saw the look on Eli’s face, but he knew better than to use the word prodigy. “... an extraordinarily talented young pianist.”
     Eli had to smile. “Yes, I did. You think I may feel slighted sometimes because I don’t get those kinds of accolades anymore?”
     “You perform with so many people, and some of them are truly great. Some you make sound great because you are so amazing. But you certainly have a different role these days, Eli.” Jackie offered him more whiskey, but Eli shook his head no.
     “Have you ever looked up the definition of the word ‘accompany,’ Jackie? It means ‘to go with,’ ‘to keep company with.’ This one’s my favorite, ‘to co-occur.’ In other words, to happen at the same time. It’s a good word, actually. There’s nothing about being subservient. But it’s been corrupted in the music world to mean that. Maybe there’s a better word that could be used. Do you have any idea how many times I’ve been told I’m a ‘really good accompany-ist’?” Eli laughed, then grew more serious.
     “Part of the problem is that too many people think they play well enough to accompany, so they try it and wind up doing a half-assed job. Okay, maybe that’s harsh, but not everybody can do it. It’s an art that takes a distinctive skill set. It requires a lot more than being a proficient pianist. We work hard to develop those skills. There has to be a way to make more people aware of that.”

     This section of the book takes place in the mid 1960s, and now, a half century later, it would indeed be nice to think Eli’s dreams of recognition for the skills of the accompanist  take place routinely. While collaborate artists are given more recognition, there is still a struggle for them to be appreciated as the artists they truly are.
     I found online an interesting article on “The Strad” website entitled “There Is No Such Thing as a Piano Accompanist” which addresses exactly this subject. Elana Estrin’s thoughtful article of July 3, 2014, begins with restating the exact perception Jackie and Eli discuss, that the pianist as accompanist is an inferior musician, not good enough for a solo career. Happily, there seems to be a concerted effort among string players to recognize that in most string literature, the best performances are the result of the sharing of ideas of pianist and violinist/cellist. The “featured soloist” is advised to allow sufficient rehearsal time for these collaborative efforts to actually take place. 
     Estrin also comments that this should also be true for any instrumentalist or singer who is working with a pianist. While often the soloist is expected to perform from memory, the pianist has the score before him. This can mean the pianist is able to cover errors during the performance by jumping ahead, moving back, or even improvising in the style of the composer until the soloist realizes what she needs to do to get back on track. 
     Fortunately, at the highest levels these events are rare, but for young and/or inexperienced musicians they can happen. They can happen even to mature performers who are well-prepared. Performing is a nerve-wracking business.
     The next time you attend a recital, keep an eye on the pianist and see how alert and focused he is. Ideally, he knows all the music, the soloist’s part as well as his own. If it’s a vocal recital, he may have even sung through the songs before performing them.
     It is, as Eli says, “an art that requires a distinctive skill set.” And after you enjoy that recital, make it a point to let the pianist know you appreciate those skills.