Memory Triggers


The experts say that smells are one of the more powerful triggers to memory; if you have ever experienced nostalgia, chances are that a smell… apple pie, cookies, rich dark chocolate… might propel you to a fond memory.  Or in Iowa, possibly the smell of a pig farm, baking in the summer sun, might bring thoughts of chores, or state fair FFA exhibits.

Of course for me, pieces of music are a powerful trigger.  One of my high school students came in this morning with the first movement of the Italian Concerto by J.S. Bach.  I was overwhelmed with memories associated with this piece.  It was an important piece because it is still associated with my first college Juries.  All of my piano teacher-friends will know exactly what Juries are; and, yes, they are as scary sometimes as confronting a regular jury in a courthouse.  But, let me tell you about the Italian Concerto.

I have always loved to practice.  The only cajoling that I remember at home was to remember to play certain piece that would relieve me of chores around the house, and to “not practice too early” when people were sleeping.  When I discovered the grand piano, my love of practice transformed into an almost-on-steroids event.  I didn’t have many chances to play on a grand before college, so when I arrived at the University of Northern Iowa’s music building and discovered grands in the practice rooms, I thought I might be in heaven.  The real dream was yet to come true.

Explorer that I am, I soon discovered a little door in the band room; a person had to duck to go through it, and I found that it led to the main auditorium, where a 9-foot Steinway resided.  The door had no lock, and I could walk through a short tunnel from the band room to the stage.  It was dark, but I didn’t care.  I tucked this knowledge away for later.

One night, after practicing until almost 11:00 (when the building closed), I heard some very interesting sounds coming from the band room.  Jazz Band 1 was rehearsing; I knew nothing of jazz.  My high school was in a town of 2000, and we were lucky to have a good band director.  There was no budget for a jazz band.  The sound entranced me.  I found a balcony in the band room, where I could sit and listen.  It was so interesting to hear them rehearse.  But more interesting was to see Campus Security come through the music building to lock up at 11:00 pm.  The jazz band was allowed to stay, as they rehearsed from 10:00 to midnight.  Aha!  An idea was born.

The next night I went up to the balcony to listen; when Security came through, I simply laid down on the floor of the balcony.  When the jazz band left, I waited until it was totally dark.  I then went through the little door, to the stage, and found the beautiful concert grand waiting for me.  I was in the process of preparing pieces for my first Jury, so I had music prepared and almost memorized.  I found the lights, opened the piano, and proceeded to spend the next hour in the concert hall, playing proudly on the Steinway.  I felt like a concert artist.  I basked in the glow of my imaginary audience, and I simply stunned them all with my masterful performance of Bach’s Italian Concerto (first movement only… remember, I was a freshman!)

I spent many nights practicing in the concert hall.  Years later, when the janitor retired (he and I had become close buddies), I found out that he knew what I was doing all along.  I’m assuming that a piano nerd from Jesup, Iowa didn’t seem like too much of a threat to the security of UNI.  But my story of the Italian Concerto is not finished, dear reader.  Much is to be revealed.

When I approached my first Jury, I became increasingly frantic.  The whole piano faculty and the organ professor would all sit and listen to me play the music I had prepared that semester, and then they would give me my grade.  I was insane with fear.  I remember the night before my jury, practicing the Italian Concerto (first movement only) in the auditorium for hours on end.  I was very tired, but I persisted.

I only went back to my dorm room when I jerked, woke up, and found myself STILL playing Bach.  I didn’t know that it was possible to play in your sleep, but I’m here to tell you that it can happen.  I felt ready.  I felt energized.  Right before the jury appointment, as I was walking down the hallway to my sure doom, I made a quick pit stop in the men’s restroom and divested myself of lunch.  I remember trying to vomit quietly; if an upperclassman had found me in that situation, I would have been too humiliated to live another day.

When it was my time, I walked onto the state of the main auditorium, where the Jury was assembled, seated behind a long table.  They looked so evil to me; on the end was the oldest member of the Jury, the teacher of one of my friends.  I was sure he knew every note of the Italian Concerto by memory.  I could imagine the tally marks he would make, as one note after another fell to his superior, evil mind.

My teacher had the most deadpan look on his face.  Where was the stiff, but endearing smile that always greeted me, as he ushered me onto his piano bench for yet another lesson.  He was my only friend in the world, and he seemed to have forgotten that.  I knew I was condemned when I saw Dr. Joyce Gault, there in the middle of the table.  She was tall and gaunt; she was scowly; she was the head of the keyboard division.  Oh my God!  It no longer mattered that we were on my turf, in my auditorium, with my Steinway 9 foot concert grand.  They, SHE, wanted me dead!

Then it happened; one of the most significant events of my life was about to be interrupted by fate.  My stage, and my piano, had to share space with the pipe organ console.  It was huge, and since it shared the stage, it had to be able to be moved from backstage to the stage extension for performances.  Since pipe organs need air for their bellows, this organ was fitted with an “umbilical cord” that screwed into the stage floor.  This umbilical supplied the organ with its air supply electrically.  There were several holes in the stage floor where the umbilical could be attached; they were supposed to be covered by metal plates.  Someone, probably the evil organ professor, forgot to put the metal plate back in place after they finished with the organ.

As I walked toward the grand piano for my first jury, my foot slipped into the hole in the stage.  I tried to act like nothing had happened.  I subtly pulled my foot up, but in trying to hide my problem, I twisted, and my foot became helplessly stuck.  I could no longer hide my anguish, so I bent over and tried to see what the problem was.  I just couldn’t get it out.  I prayed for the angel of death to take me away.  Instead, I got Joyce Gault, feared leader of my Jury.  She bent over and tugged on my leg.  I knew this couldn’t be happening.  It had to be a vestige of a dream I was having, as I slept and continue to play the Italian Concerto by J.S. Bach (first movement only).

But somehow Dr. Gault lost a little of her “snap” as she smoothed her dress and mounted her perch at the table.  We had somehow bonded, she and I, and I no longer felt she was seeking my demise.  My performance of the Italian Concerto was adequate.  I think I would have done better with more sleep (sans piano).  We won’t talk about my (almost) Victor Borge impression of scale playing, where I was instructed to play an E Major scale, 4 octaves, in 16th notes.  THAT would have been much better if I would have started the scale in a place where there were four octaves to complete it.  As it turned out, my right hand sort of ran off the end of the piano, seeking keys that were not there.  I recovered, finished the downward journey of E Major, and was relieved when I was dismissed.  I’m thinking that the Jury might have been relieved also.  I wonder if any of them ever told this story to anyone.  Probably not.  My current student will have a much less eventful, a much less interesting life with J.S. Bach’s Italian Concerto.  He’ll be doing all three movements, by the way.


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