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carlo rotella

A music lesson

With the holidays over, my family is returning to its normal routines — the adults with relief, the children more peevishly. Overwhelmed by the onslaught of seasonal specialness, my kids have gotten a little too used to treats, indulgences, and suspended responsibilities. At times like this they’re more likely to question why anything beyond the bare minimum of assigned homework is necessary at all. Why do we insist, for instance, that they practice an instrument and take lessons and play in recitals, when they could be putting that time to better use sulking and hanging out with other oppressed preteens?

The short answer is “Because I said so,” but they’re getting old enough to absorb the longer, better answer.

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This afternoon I’ve been trying to play the piano part of a melancholy trio for piano, violin, and cello entitled “Intim.” There was only ever one copy of it, and it had been missing for decades, but it turned up in a box at my parents’ house last month when I was visiting them for the holidays. The score is notated in the elegant, slanting hand of my Catalan grandfather, Ramon Vives, who wrote it for my brothers and me sometime around 1980, just before he came to visit us in Chicago for the last time.

I was 16 then, and I’d already given up on the piano. My parents had made me stick to practicing and lessons until I was 11 or so, but then I got old enough to fight back, or at least to resist sullenly. I switched to the guitar, and have fooled around on that instrument with variable intensity ever since, but my victory in the struggle against piano lessons ended my formal musical training.

It wasn’t until my own children began to take music lessons, some 30 years later, that I thought to find out if the rusted-over pianistic circuits in my mind still functioned at all. Surprisingly, they did. I could still read music, if I unfocused my eyes and tried not to think too hard about what I was doing, and my fingers still knew where to go. With a little practice I can now passably handle Bach preludes I could play at the age of 11.

That leaves me with just enough musical wherewithal to fumble through the descending jazz-inflected phrases of “Intim,” raising the piece from its long slumber and setting my grandfather’s ghost loose in my home in Brookline.

I knew him, from my childhood visits to Barcelona, as an Ellingtonian old man who worked a musician’s shift into the wee hours of the morning and slept until noon. In the afternoons, hanging around the house in his bathrobe, he’d play piano, talk, and smoke, and then, as evening approached, dress for the stage and head out to make his living in the city’s musical nightlife.

Of course I didn’t know him as a young man, when he went off to fight for the Loyalists against Franco. He soon discovered that, as my mother puts it, he was more afraid of killing than of being killed, so he became a stretcher bearer. At some point he fell in with a bunch of burly anarchists who commandeered a train that had a piano on it. My grandmother sometimes maintained that it was on this train, on this piano, playing for the anarchists, that he composed an especially haunting piece entitled “Inquietud,” a manuscript copy of which might possibly survive in a box somewhere in my parents’ garage.

I never knew him well, and he died long ago, but through “Intim” I’m trying to build a musical bridge to him, using rudimentary skills left over from piano lessons I can’t even remember.

So, daughters, why do we make you practice your instrument? Because it equips you to make your way through the world, and someday may even save you from having to kill somebody. Because there’s no lesson more valuable than learning how to turn an inchoate impulse — to make beautiful noise, to reach across the years — into a competence that lasts. Because, as I struggle with “Intim,” I wish that I’d lost my long-ago battle with my parents over the piano.

Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College. His latest book is “Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories.’’
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