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Tuesday, April 13, 2021

New Piano, Old Questions - How do we Learn? How do we Remember?

How do we learn? How do we remember? And what has that got to do with “Pipeline,” the Chantays hit from 1962? My head has been full of such wonderings since I bought a piano this spring, and started playing again after decades away from the instrument.

Right before we moved to a smaller home in 2015, I gave my century-old player piano to a carpenter who planned to repurpose its beautiful mahogany wood to create furniture of his own design. I'd learned the hard way that old pianos, unlike old violins, do not sound sweeter with age. No one wanted my ancient, heavy piano as an instrument; I couldn't give it away.

I never thought I'd miss a piano, since it’d been at least twenty years since I plunked a note. But after five years in a piano-less home, my mind became invaded by thoughts of sitting down and twiddling on some keys.

Maybe my interest was spurred by the fact that finally, in retirement, I have the luxury of time. During those two decades I ignored my piano, I was busy with kids and work. 

Perhaps my interest was spurred by an excess of time at home during the Covid-19 lockdown.

Whatever it was, my piano-playing urge was real, and insistent. I shopped the local online marketplaces, where free pianos are plentiful as dandelions in spring. I went online and found tutorials on what to look for in a used piano - essentials like an intact sound board, for instance. I researched companies that move pianos. My husband and I tried to "adopt" a free piano from a woman who lived nearby, but the woman’s work schedule never allowed her to be home when the movers were available (this was pre-Covid).

My brother David encouraged me to consider an electronic piano. "They never need tuning," he said - a very appealing attribute; yearly tuning costs add up. But I'm old-school and couldn't imagine purchasing a non-acoustic instrument. I'm also cheap and was afraid I'd spend a bundle for a brand-new instrument that would sit in my living room untouched.

It was my son Charlie who unintentionally pushed the "buy" button in my brain. He bought an electronic piano when keys broke on his old acoustic one. He and his whole family are delighted with the purchase. When I heard Charlie play "Werewolves of London," I was amazed that the instrument sounded just like a "real" piano. 

Then I sat down and tried it myself, and found that the keys felt right; they are "weighted" to give the feel of an acoustic instrument. Charlie's kids love operating the extra doodads the piano provides - special sounds and beats and such. I told him I wasn't interested in all those doodads. I'm old school, after all. He laughed at me and said I'd have to ignore the special features because you can't find an electronic piano without them.

It was hard to find a piano store with an in-person showroom during the pandemic, but I located one and was immediately pleased with the instrument I found there. I bought it, and made a promise to my cheap self, to prevent buyer's remorse. The promise was "Play every day, even if only for a minute."

It's been great. I've mostly kept my promise to myself, and my husband is teaching himself, using some beginner piano books. He'd started learning to read notes from a friend in college but never had a piano for practice. Now he does.

My husband, Mike, practicing.

I'd given away all my song books and sheet music when I got rid of my old piano. With the new instrument sitting in my living room, I had to rebuild my musical library. That, thanks to the Internet, was easy.

I remembered with great affection what my piano teacher called the "lettuce" books: a series called "Let Us Have Music for Piano," by Maxwell Eckstein. The books were published back in the early 1940s, and they must have been printed on quality paper because the ones I found through E-Bay are still in great shape. Eckstein's memory is a blessing to me, because he created easy and pretty arrangements of classical melodies and American folk tunes we've all heard. The songs are irresistible and, much to my surprise and delight, I can still sight-read many of them. My left hand jumps to chords deep down on the piano. I'm not looking at my hand; it finds the chords by itself. How can that be? I know I played through those books many times in the old days. Still, I feel like my ability to easily play through the books nowadays is due to more than "muscle memory."

I found these old beloved "lettuce" books on E-Bay.

And that's what got me thinking about learning and remembering. How does it all happen? Becoming a student of piano again brought back the years I spent teaching elementary school children, where I beheld the phenomenon of students learning to read. I'm pretty sure that no one has figured out exactly how we learn to read. It's some kind of magic.

I was never a great piano player, in fact I was mediocre at best, but I always loved it. I struggled to read notes (those darn black keys!!), and I struggled keeping proper time, but I never struggled to "play with feeling." The “lettuce” books are mostly easy for me. I can feel a logic to how the right-hand and left-hand notes go together, a mathematics of music I’ve never understood in a way I can explain. I’ve heard that mathematics and music go together, and math has always been a mystery to me. But there is nothing like the feeling when my fingers press the correct keys and the chords blend together just right - it's miraculous. (I've heard that drumming has been used to help people heal, and that purring cats self-heal their broken bones incredibly swiftly . . . maybe the vibration of harmonious chords works a healing magic on my soul?)

Unlike the "lettuce" books, the new books of music are another story. They’re hard!! I labor to find the notes, sometimes by counting down the scale from the one note I know. Then I grab a pencil (like my old piano teacher always did) and scribble the names of the notes, right onto the page. During this plodding process, the memory files in my head have opened and spilled out . . . 

From third grade through eighth grade, I took lessons from Sister Patrice at Mother of Good Counsel School in Milwaukee. My folks paid seventy-five cents per half-hour lesson. I shared the lesson with a girl named Janice Goff. In my memory, she sits on the piano bench, twelve years old; she has short hair and is thin and freckle-faced. She’s nice and she can really play (much better than I can).  

As I've been going through the “lettuce” books, I can hear Sister Patrice's voice in my head. I see her placing my hand around a cowrie shell and explaining, “That’s how your hands should be shaped at the piano – round, not flat.” She's saying, "Count, Gail. Don't rush through the parts you know well." I hear her say, “Learn the right hand first, and then you can add the left hand.”

I can see her black habit, the way the white wimple cut into the flesh under her chin. I see her stern face, her eyeglasses - she wore wire-rimmed glasses before John Lennon made granny glasses cool. I smell the starch in her habit, I hear the click of the wooden rosary beads she wore around her waist, and I see her reach sometimes for a handkerchief that was always tucked inside one of her voluminous sleeves. 

I can see the long narrow piano room where Janice and I shared our lessons - an oversized closet, really. It was a pie-shaped room on the third floor of the old school building, off a dark hallway with a wooden floor that squeaked when I walked on it. The lesson room was just big enough to hold two upright pianos. On one piano sat a cage with a parakeet inside - Sister's pet. She must have spent hours with him because the bird readily hopped onto her finger and "talked" to her, his beak close to her lips. I loved Sister's framed picture of Saint Cecelia. "She's the patron saint of music and musicians," Sister told us. 

In 1981, when I purchased our old player piano, I bought and framed a Saint Cecelia picture to keep nearby. Today I found the old dusty picture in my basement; I'll hang it near the piano soon - it will feel right.

My picture of Saint Cecelia

The funniest thing about playing piano again is discovering what's stored in my brain box: like "Pipeline," for instance. For Christmas 1962, I begged for a transistor radio, and glory be I got one. Like everyone else in sixth grade, I walked around holding the little radio against my ear. It was the size of a deck of cards, had a cool black leather case, and emitted the tinniest of tinny sounds. The hit tune playing repeatedly that winter was “Pipeline” by the Chantays, a huge instrumental surfing-inspired hit in an era of huge instrumental surfing-inspired hits. I remember feeling joy as I held that radio against my ear and listened to the tinny sounds of “Pipeline” in the thin frosty air. I hummed along, ice skates flung over my shoulder, as I walked to the city skating rink a few blocks from my house.

It was easy to find the sheet music to “Pipeline” at the music store. I worked on that song until I memorized it. The family piano was an old upright, with a non-functioning player feature, that my mom had found second-hand for thirty bucks. My folks put it in the basement rec room that they had finished under the guidance and expertise of my Uncle Jerry, a carpenter. There, in the corner of the room, I played “Pipeline” for myself and for anyone who came into our house. My sister would cry, “Gail! Not ‘Pipeline’ again!” I think she was kidding, but I’m not sure.

So, was “Pipeline” still up there in my memory? You bet it was. It took me just a few minutes to find it. So now, on the days when I don’t have time to play anything else, I play “Pipeline” and fulfill my promise to myself to play at least a minute a day.

How do I remember “Pipeline,” really? How does my left hand find those hard far-away keys in the “lettuce” books, yet I struggle to find the same keys in my new sheet music? How is it that after playing from my ancient “lettuce” books for a time, I find it easier to play songs in my brand-new books? I know that “practice makes perfect,” but I suspect that something else is going on here, some mysterious element in the art of learning.

The most amazing thing . . . this piano work seems to have shaken something loose in my head: an urge to compose music. The other morning while I was drinking coffee and doing my crossword puzzle, a song came to me – one that spilled out of my head, complete with words. It was just a couple of verses, but that hasn’t happened since I was a young teen and invented a (very embarrassing) song about two boys I liked.

Argh. I don’t plan to become a composer in my eighth decade of life. I’ll be happy to just plunk merrily, and imperfectly, on the keys. Yet it all amazes me - the breadth of the mind and the power of music to plumb its depths.

It’s fun.

Gail Grenier is the author of Dog Woman, Don't Worry Baby, Dessert First, Calling All Horses, and Young Voices from Wild Milwaukee, all available on Author royalties are shared with charities.



  1. Loved the piano photo. I didn't know an electronic piano could look so elegant. I hope you keep playing every day, and continuing "life-long learning."

    1. Thank you so much! I plan to be a learner as long as I can!!

  2. I LOVE your post for so many reasons!!! My niece and nephew just got that piano and it is fantastic! This past year I've been checking off from my bucket list, learning to paint. It has been a joy! This year, I've decided to go back to brushing up on my long lost, and even at that not so proficient,piano skills. One of the songs that I want to resurrect is in that blue book!!!I think it's called Le Sabre...2nd year piano recital piece. If it's there, could you take a picture of it and send it to me?
    You talked about our memory and how it surprisingly rewards us with the most uncanny lost gems. I had that experience when I moved back to the States. I realized how much English I had actually forgotten. For the first few years words would resurface that I hadn't used for decades. It was almost a physical feeling, but also so reassuring to know that somehow our brain is a marvelous filing cabinet...if we can just find the right folder label!

    1. Did you live in Italy? I am jealous!! I will look for the piano piece. Yes the mind and memory are amazing things!!

  3. I remember the "lettuce" books well. I can still play by memory "Country Garden" which I believe is in one of those books. Must've been about a fifth grade recital.

    1. I forgot "Country Garden"! I used to love that piece. I will have to look for it. Thanks!!