by Starr Parodi
Today I’m going to write about one of the most profound relationships in my life – my love affair with my 1928 Steinway B piano.
Each day I walk down the 34 steps from my home in Los Angeles to the hillside studio where my piano lives. The studio windows face a graceful canyon full of sycamore trees and the Pacific Ocean beyond. I’m conscious of the stirring view, but my focus is drawn to the 90-year old instrument I’ve once again come to see. While I’ve been known to stand in the blazing sun without the appropriate amount of sunscreen, my piano sits in a room with the shades drawn and that never changes temperature. There’s a faint hum emanating from a three-tank humidifier which runs at all times (except when I’m recording!) to keep just the right amount of moisture in the air so that the dehydrating Santa Ana winds won't crack the soundboard. I sit on the black cushioned piano bench in this dark, temperate space and feel enveloped in a womb of creative possibilities.
Sometimes I run my hands along the wood under the bottom of the keyboard, and feel little bumps of ancient chewing gum. They’re reminders of all the studio musicians and composers who played this piano when it resided on the MGM sound stage in the late 1920's, throughout the 1930's, and into the 1940's. Maybe Gershwin? Arlen? Judy Garland between vocal takes?? My piano still bears the MGM tag on one of the legs. I was told that the score to the Wizard of Oz was recorded on this piano. I can only imagine whose gum it might be underneath, so I will never remove it! NEVER!!
Now I’m ready to practice.
There’s a difference between practicing and playing, at least for me. Practicing is a time I carve out for myself to do finger calisthenics and muscle-building in my hands. There’s a lot for my brain to do also: pondering scales and the relationship of one note to the next, to the key, to the chord, to the emotion. How interesting it sounds to play the melodic minor scale a half-step up from the root of the dominant altered chord that you want to improvise over. Example: a C melodic minor scale over a B7 altered dominant chord. That scale and chord combo has all the colors in it! Today I'll do that exercise in every key. Why does my pinky finger feel weaker than the others?
I diligently execute the finger exercises that I learned from my teacher and mentor, Harry Fields, so many years ago. We’d sit together at two grand pianos and race each other up and down the keys from the bottom note to the very top (which happens to be a C). Doing finger exercises is like going to the gym: you don't really want to go, but afterwards you feel great. I bend forward, rest my forehead on the top of the piano, my arms dangle freely, and I feel the tingling sensation flow into my hands and fingers.
Now I’m ready to play - I stop thinking.
Pianos LET you play them. Each piano has a distinct personality - because the wood from which the instrument is made was once alive. The myriad different feels of the keys and sounds created by the personality of the soundboard beckon an artist to play in as many different ways. Sometimes you settle into familiar ways of comfort and ease, like sinking into a favorite chair. Other times it’s like jumping onto a spirited race horse carrying you into provocative territory. Sitting at the piano is looking in a mirror - a genuine reflection without filter of how I’m feeling and what's really going on. I am my most free and unbridled when I’m playing. I’m also at my most judgmental, and the person I most judge is … me! Wait! Let that thought go. Stop… Breathe… Play… If I empty my mind, just breathe and put my hands on the keys, music starts flowing through me, and images come to mind.
This is the most honest place I know. I pray a lot when i am playing – for my family, friends, the world. But the sequence of words and thoughts running through my head flows with the music and has no specific beginning or end. It doesn't start with "Dear God" or end with Amen. It’s a big long run-on sentence that mixes words and music together. Things become clear when I’m sitting here playing my piano. I feel connected. I feel like everything will be ok.