In the building where I was staying in Barcelona last week lives a lady who sits down to play the piano everyday. Her halting rendition of classics, known and obscure, filled the stairwell and resonated through the elevator shaft which was located next to my room. I was filled with longing and nostalgia. I’ve been on the move for awhile, away from my piano. Listening to her took me back…
I left home two weeks after finishing High School (at that time, in Puerto Rico) intent on studying music composition with piano as my instrument at a University in the mainland US. There were a couple of details still to be ironed out, namely, no university had admitted me yet. I didn’t see that as an obstacle. The other detail was the fact I didn’t play the piano —or anything else, for that matter. In fact, I never had a musical lesson of any kind. No problem. I was going on the basis of the following evidence: I heard music in my head, which, based on the reaction I received from numerous universities turning me down was as good as saying, “I see dead people”.
My grade point average was in the low C’s. Oblivious to this, I had applied to mostly Ivy-League schools, because… well, go big or stay home, I’ve always said. My two sisters had already sat me down a number of times to deliver a “grow up and be realistic” chat. I had pretended to listen.
By the time I was in the air on my way to Miami I had been turned down by every University, Music Conservatory and /or School of Music I had applied to. I was rejected on the basis that I could not provide any substantiating evidence to prove that I had A) any previous musical studies or B) talent. These institutions included Notre Dame University, Syracuse, Columbia, Carnegie Melon and I think even Juilliard and possibly, Yale. But off I went, undeterred, without having secured a university entrance. I spent the summer working at a movie theatre in Coral Gables wearing an usher’s burgundy and gold uniform and carrying a torch—in more ways than one. Mid-July I get a call from my sisters: a University in Portland, OR had been forwarded my Notre Dame application. (University of Portland was Notre Dame’s “sister” school.) The letter stated that if I applied, I stood a “very good chance of being admitted”. Those words, almost verbatim.
No one asked about any previous musical education. No Mozart Piano Concerto performance to prepare. No letters from piano teachers…Nothing.
I was admitted.
“Come. We’ll take you” they seemed to be saying. And so I went.
During orientation week, us Composition Majors (3) had to meet with the Dean of Music, a Gent by the name of Phillipe de La Mare. Lovely guy, Phillipe (pronounced in the French manner, “Phil-leap”). He became a dear friend. Alas, Dr. De La Mare was not my friend just yet. I waited until the other two left the room and explained my situation to Dr. De la Mare; no piano skills to speak of, no prior music lessons… He asked me to repeat what I had just said. I did.
Wild geese of dismay flew across his eyes.
Why U of P didn’t ask for music referrals: I bypassed the Music Department. At the time of my application, Phillipe was in France visiting his former teacher, one Nadia Boulanger. Her name didn’t mean a thing to me at the time.
A very uncomfortable (for both of us) Q & A session ensued and Phillipe decided I was to audition for the other music faculty the following morning. I was to play the two pieces I claimed to know, Moonlight Sonata (Beethoven, this was good), and the theme from A Man and A Woman (Francis Lai. This was bad. Academia doesn’t take popular composers seriously. Especially one who composed that ditty.)
I later realised Phillipe failed to hear that I played “a little” of those two pieces. This also did not bode well for me.
I had acquired my cursory piano knowledge during theatre group rehearsals in my last year of High School. The brother of one of the actresses played piano and he showed me where to put my hands to play. I learned about a minute’s worth of Moonlight Sonata and about two minutes of Francis Lai’s popular song. Armed with this, the next morning I entered a small room where four stone-faced professors, Drs. Robert Norwood, Margaret Vance, Anthony Porto, and of course, De La Mare sat in a row. In front of them: a Steinway Grand Piano. Classes had not begun yet, so they could all be there.
Nerves. I had never played a Grand Piano. I sat down and not so much launched into Moonlight Sonata as tiptoed into Moonlight Sonata, or what I knew of it…and after a bit, I stopped. I looked over to my right, where they were seated.
Dr. Vance leaned forward with a concerned expression, “Why did you stop?”
I glanced around the room. They were all staring in intent silence.
“That’s all I know” I responded.
Much shifting in the seats, exchanging bewildered looks and stammering ensued. Imagine a birthing room where everyone knows the ugly baby is from Outer Space but no one knows how to tell the mother. Something like that. I was the ugly Spacebaby.
They asked what else I knew. I played my rendition of the theme from A Man And A Woman— two minutes worth, served lukewarm. I stopped and looked towards them. Suffice to say, I had not exactly set the room on fire.
They tried their very best to talk me out of a Music major, with Dr Porto later suggesting a major in Business Admin with a minor in music (“You could work for a publisher, selling sheet music…”). Well, it didn’t work. I graduated 4 years later with a major in Music Composition. By then, Dr De La Mare, Anthony Porto and Margaret Vance had become friends and great supporters. And so it is that Moonlight Sonata has remained near and dear to me, a piece of music I have taken a lot of poetic license with over the years. You can listen at the link below. I hope you enjoy.