JOURNEY

The NFL COACH begins a journey as a student of a CONCERT PIANIST.  Along the way he learns that NFL football players and  elite musicians share a great deal of common ground.  The journey began here:

 

CAROLYN’S LESSONS

Carolyn was in fourth grade when she began studying piano at the University of Cincinnati’s College Conservatory of Music (CCM).  CCM is one of the top music conservatories in America.  My wife, Kathy, and I are casual musicians, but our daughter Carolyn is a very talented musician.   It was recommended by her piano teacher that she study at the Conservatory.   

I remember Carolyn’s very first lesson at CCM.  Her teacher, Albert Mühlböck, was a concert pianist.    Austrian born and trained in Vienna; he has performed all over the world and recorded professionally.  I recall doing a Google search of Albert which led me to Amazon and to a preview of a Mühlböck recording.

“Kathy, come listen to this guy ….he sounds like Horowitz”.   I shouted, referencing the great Russian pianist.

Later, I learned that Albert sounded more like Artur Schnabel or Alfred Brendel:  concert pianists trained in the rich Austrian tradition.  Nonetheless, Albert was a student at CCM completing his doctorate in piano performance.  I couldn’t ask for a more impressive person to teach my fourth grade daughter the piano.  At that first lesson, I asked Albert if Carolyn’s current lesson books were sufficient for her piano study with him.

“The music doesn’t matter”, said Albert in his rich Germanic accent, “I will teach your daughter how to play the piano.” 

His statement was delivered with the finality of a Mozart cadence.  I knew right away that this guy was a good teacher.   I admire teachers who can teach beyond the syllabus, without notes, or in my case without the crutch of a playbook.  Such teachers have embraced their craft and their subject matter so well that it is part of their souls.  It was that first day when my curiosity about Albert began.  As I sat through her weekly lessons with him, a myriad of thoughts raced through my mind.

Is there any physical skill more difficult to perform than the requirements of a concert pianist?  On a typical evening, Albert might play 20,000 notes. The range of notes can span the length of the keyboard with blazing scales, glissandos and arpeggios, strong chords and gentle ornaments.  The rhythms are difficult, often times the right and left hands are playing in unrelated rhythm patterns at the same time.   The endurance of the music can be brutal with the pianist’s arms and shoulders begging for relief.  It’s an athletic event which requires mental focus and physical precision that inevitably leads to perspiration and exhaustion by the end of the performance.   If the pianist misses just a few notes, he’s had a bad night.

The piano sings like a beautiful violin from the skill of a concert pianist. The piano is not like a typewriter or even an organ.  The pressure, weight and speed applied to a key have a profound effect on the sound a key makes.  The multiple techniques a pianist uses for striking and releasing the keys to create expression separates the concert pianist from the typical church organist.   How does the pianist learn and train the myriad of techniques for performance?

How does he control his nerves?  Vladimir Horowitz, considered to be one of the greatest Pianists of the 20th Century, had to be coerced and pushed out of the green room and onto the stage at different points of his career.   Glenn Gould, one of the greatest Bach pianists of all time, hated the pressure of performing.  Gould refused to play on stage in front of an audience and limited his art to recording studios.    Both Horowitz and Gould could not overcome the stress of concert performance.  When the pianist gets nervous, his hands shake as he approaches disaster.  It’s impossible to generate great sound, if any sound at all, when the hands are shaking. 

Typically, concert pianists memorize their music as a matter of practice.  How does the pianist memorize an hour or more of music that can be brutally athletic and requires enormous dexterity and focus?  One momentary mental or physical lapse and the house of cards comes tumbling down.

These thoughts became a plan.  I decided to take piano lessons from Albert and train as a concert pianist.  My piano experience to this point included just a dozen lessons in my lifetime, but I had enjoyed plucking at the keys since high school.  I’ve enjoyed classical music as a hobbyist for as long as I could remember.  But most importantly, I was going to find some answers to my questions about elite performance.  As I began my journey with Albert, I was convinced that this  football coach was going to learn a great deal about human performance.
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