Bach, Beethoven, and the Book of Mormon

I’m taking piano lessons again. This time my mother isn’t forcing me. I am actually doing it on my own. In fact I even practice on my own!

About two years ago I started having sharp pains every time I moved my thumbs. After several tests and visits to various doctors, I had surgery on both thumbs to relieve the pain. After the final stitches had been removed the doctor made the statement that would stimulate the strong urge to take lessons again. He said, “If you want full use of your hands again, try to exercise them every day. In fact, you should take up something like the piano.”

Well, needless to say, I wanted the full use of my hands, so piano lessons became very interesting.

One of the teachers in our local elementary school was an outstanding pianist. I can remember many of the little programs his classes put on for the rest of the school. He was always at the piano playing beautiful, difficult accompaniments without a piece of music in front of him. If the children were having a hard time singing because of pitch, he would effortlessly transpose to an easier key. If they were slow and listless, he would change the rhythm into a fast march. He made any song sound fun, easy, and enjoyable. When I learned that he was giving piano lessons, I knew that this was what I wanted. I had dreams of playing just as effortlessly as I had seen him play.

As it turned out, I ended up a year on his waiting list. But this gave me the time to practice on my own and build my hands back up. I had taken lessons off and on all through school, so I wasn’t a beginner. In my mind I knew I was ready for all the modern songs and rhythms. It would be so exciting to start improvising and chording any song I wanted!

As the time came for my first lesson, I excitedly rattled off my desires to play all the new fun songs. I wanted to learn to improvise. Mr. Mayberry very patiently listened and then gave me my first pieces—two by Bach, one by Beethoven, and a very difficult modernistic piece by Aram Khachaturian.

At first I was surprised, but I decided he was testing me to see if I knew how to count. I went home and with a pencil marked the counting. Then, faithfully, every day I counted out loud. After about two weeks of precise and cautious practice, I went, ready to pass off the pieces. When I finished, he commented on how exact the counting was and then said I should work on the expression. With a red pencil he marked loud and soft passages. He continued to mark such expressions as happy, sad, or dreamy. As I left he said, “Keep working on the counting.”

Once again I practiced, trying to perfect the counting and at the same time work on expression. When I returned the next week, he said it was coming fine. Now I needed to watch the phrases. One line was smooth and melted together; the next line needed to be jerky and staccato. Sometimes one hand was to be smooth while the other hand played march-like staccato.

When I was sure I was finally ready to pass off the pieces, he showed me how to properly use the sustaining pedal. Instead of just up and down at the beginning and end of each line, I was to use the pedal on each chord. Chord, hit pedal, release pedal, release chord. This was very hard for me to learn. It took many weeks of practice to unlearn old habits. With each chord I would say out loud, “Hit, hit, release, release.”

I had started lessons in September, and in January I still had the same pieces. Now I was beginning to feel like I had accomplished total perfection. At the next lesson he said everything was coming along, but now we needed to make the whole song “Presto”; it should go twice as fast. I was so close to tears, I didn’t dare blink. I felt that I would be practicing these same pieces the rest of my life.

It was at this time I was taught a very important lesson. Mr. Mayberry patiently turned to me and said, “Mary, I know you want to learn chording and improvising, but before you can learn those things you need to go back to the basics. You need to go back to the classics, the standards. Every time you go over these pieces there is something new to work on. We will never ‘pass these off,’ to be thrown out or forgotten. Every time you review, something new will jump out at you.”

Because of months of practice and reviewing over and over, I felt I was ready to pass off counting, phrasing, and expression. I knew all there was to know about the “Old Standards.” Yet these lessons were something I needed to continue working on while I went on to learn about tempo, pedal technique, and rhythm.

As I drove home I remembered a comment I had heard a General Authority make: “I’ve read the Book of Mormon over 50 times. Every time I read it I find something new I need to work on.” At first I laughed. It took Bach and Beethoven to help me understand what the General Authority had said. The old standards of the music world had opened my eyes to the importance of the standard works.

One doesn’t “pass off” the Book of Mormon. Each past lesson needs continued work, and each new lesson should bring more goals.

Now as I review my piano pieces I am reminded of the Book of Mormon. Just as I have to learn new piano techniques, I must review the Book of Mormon and learn “eternal techniques.”