Invitation to the Dance: Mary Stein
by Mary Stein, Aug 15, 2012
When I was growing up, the radio stations in the Detroit area mostly played country music and pop tunes from the “top 40.” On Saturdays at halftime during football season there were the college bands with their boisterous marches. On Sundays you could tune in to church services and gospel music. Classical music on a radio station was almost unheard of. Nevertheless it was not unknown to me.
Beginning around the age of six, for seven or eight years I took piano lessons from Mrs. Janice Scott, who prided herself on her classical training, for she had journeyed to New York as a dedicated young person to be a pupil of the great Josef Lhévinne. Although she laid much emphasis on the Czerny finger exercises, and spent, or more likely wasted, considerable time attempting to school me in Bach’s two-part inventions, much of the music she assigned her pupils in our small southern Michigan town hovered in the range of more appealing classics such as Invitation to the Waltz or The Joyful Peasant.
Sometimes, as the yearly recital loomed, there would be four-handed pieces that she would assign to two of us so that a novel piano duet could dazzle the audience. Once there was even a six-handed piece for three people cramped together on the bench; this became a cacophonous disaster at the recital and was never attempted again. The duets, which came around regularly, always filled me with anxiety, fleetingly relieved when all four hands of the two players arrived at the same place in the measure at the same time.
In these duets, the person on the right of the piano bench got to play the melody, much as the sopranos in the church choir got to sing it in the church choir on Sunday. If I had looked more carefully at these duets, I might have appreciated the musical support that the person on the left side of the bench provided, just as the altos and tenors and basses helped out greatly in the choir. That message missed me, though, since I was convinced that the melody was the star part, and the star part always went to Mrs. Scott’s star pupil, who was Jane Sawslayer, not me. I got the lower half of the duet.
One day the radio was tuned to a different station, or perhaps one of the usual stations gave air-time to something different. What I remember hearing was several stringed instruments—a violin or two, a viola, a cello—engaged in what sounded like a musical conversation, wherein each instrument had a distinct part to play and could be heard on its own before joining for a time with the others. Another instrument then took the lead, introducing a new tonality, a new phrasing, or a new rhythm. The others listened, then responded to the impulse and wove their replies into the continuing conversation until still another instrument sallied forth with a new suggestion. Sometimes there was a musical statement abrupt and bold as a debater’s striving words, followed by an equally strong reply, and then a sudden silence, an absorption. Then the conversation resumed and the voices again intertwined.
I had never heard anything like it before. The announcer called it a “classical string quartet.” From that time on, a new question—though for a long time hardly recognized—began in me about I and we, and the possibilities of human exchange and work together.