Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Mother Tongue...

Last week I stepped by accident or good fortune into Alice's rabbit hole.

All my life I've spoken on occasion a language in musical improvisation. I never encountered a fellow live human I could converse in this tongue with until I stepped into a class at the 92nd Street Y called Creative Music/Improvisation.

As a girl I studied piano a bit at the Bristow Hardin School of Music in Norfolk, Virginia. But I never got the hang of how to read music! Notes and I were at war, like my battles now with computer keys.

I did pretty well in other languages, like French, where I won state tournaments. And Latin, which I majored in, then taught. I had the kids speaking Latin. Drove their families nuts!

Even re-wrote Lucretius' De Rerum Natura as a 20th century dance-drama!

But every now and then my fingers longed to touch the ivory keys.

When the organist got sick at the college prep boarding school in Sewanee, Tennessee, I subbed for her. Pulled the wool over the keyboard and actually played all the hymns and masses for the Episcopal services.

My most fun stint on a keyboard was when my boss was head of the Manhattan Kiwanis Club and hired me on to play for their meetings.

How many women have had the chance to play the piano in the wine cellar of Mamma Leone's restaurant???

My royal salary was lunch and a glass of wine.

When I taught modern dance I recorded my "improvs" for the classes - it seemed to work okay. The audiences clapped.

Time passed. I found places where I could sneak in and talk with an empty keyboard on occasion.

To get back to Alice's rabbit hole - the class at the Y is taught by a real pianist. A composer with a sterling track record in composing soundtracks for films and documentaries. A young musician named David Cieri. He has played at Carnegie Hall.

He sat at one grand piano. I sat at another, equally grand.

You start to press the blacks and whites. He does too, matching your rhythm, tempo, tone, mood.

Neither of you has any idea where this is going! But you are in sync, giving a real concert to the class!

You are speaking in a tongue never heard on the planet since Adam and Eve!

By the way, the next time I have to fill out an application this is what I shall write:

Language - Improv

Race - Yes, as fast as I can

Thelma Jacqueline Straw


  1. I've done music improv with singing. Not only is it like speaking another language, the rush you get when it works and you're completely in sync is absolutely addicting.

  2. Thelma,I am addicted to music. The first thing I do when starting any project is turn on music to keep me focused and keep my brain working while I write, cook, pack for a trip, whatever. The ability to make music, especially on the piano, is the one thing that inspires envy in me. I have always wished I could know what it feels like to be able to do it well--if I could do it for only five minutes. Your blog today helps me imagine it, but makes me even more envious!

  3. Reply to Annamaria: Funny how different folks need different strokes! In spite of this Improv thing, I cannot listen to ANY music when I write. or even do dumb research. I have to have absolute silence. Re playing and writing - I think if one made music while creating it might be harder to concentrate on the word-words. Who knows... Thelma

  4. What a wonderfully depicted experience!!! Yes, indeed, Alice through the rabbit hole!!!

  5. Fascinating, T! I can write while life/words are going on around me. Music? I don't know but don't think so.