Friday, April 6, 2012

Sarah Lisanick

Sarah Lisanick

"Pick up your wrists," she told me again.
    She nodded her head with the suggested rhythms of the piece I was butchering.  When I blew an accidental and trotted past the legato marks, she circled them and insisted I repeat the surrounding four to six measures until I no longer needed the music. 

    Sarah Lisanick played the piano exquisitely.  She was a bespectacled, short-haired blonde with a love of floral prints and pearls. She taught more than technique; she nurtured the unteachable.

    In the second week of my study with her, she figured out my secret: I was a lazy sight reader. Instead of working out the rhythms and actual notes, I would ask my teacher to play a piece once for me, then I would play it by ear.  I had never progressed in my sight reading abilities because my old teachers hadn't figured out what I was doing.  Mrs. Lisanick nailed it in week two.
    The work of sight reading was excruciating to me.  I think it utilized a part of my brain that would’ve rather been left alone.

    She studied with Béla Bartók.  To me, this makes her something akin to royalty.  In the genealogy of musical training, this makes her my pedigree. 

    My ear pulled away from Beethoven and Chopin; no matter that these are the masters to learn when developing technique, she eschewed them for my sake and brought me Erroll Garner.  She filled my head and ears with Johnny Mercer.  She introduced me to Stephen Sondheim. 
    "You need to work out the counterpoint between the hands.  There is a slight syncopation toward the end of the measures that is truly his signature style."
    "I'm really not seeing it.  Would you?"
    She acquiesced and took the bench. 
    "Right here, and again here.  Once more, and then we repeat."
    And then I played it perfectly, not reproducing her nuance but creating my own.  There is great intelligence in the balance of Sondheim's harmonies, but the beauty of his lines can be devastating.

    I saw her for the last time a few months before she died.  Her ex-husband John had moved back in with her for the end. 
    "It's so sad," he told me.  "All the time we were apart.  Now something wonderful has happened, but it's too late." 
    She looked the same as I remembered; short, blonde hair, large, thick glasses-- except she wore a housecoat instead of the usual florals and pearls.  We sat for tea and I told her that while I was still studying music, I had switched from piano to voice. 
    If she was disappointed, she didn't show it.  I played a bit for her, to prove that I was keeping up with the piano, even if I was no longer studying formally. 

    In every musical experience I carry her mark.  I feel her love of music, I remember her emphasis on interpretation and her rejection of histrionics.  Interpretation, as an art of the musician, crosses the span of all instruments.  In the drift from piano to voice to guitar and around again, I have discovered something fundamentally changed. On the good nights, when the technique is strong and little more than impulse, my hands and throat have become conduits for something greater. Mrs. Lisanick molded me into an instrument.

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