When I was a kid, I used to have to play in piano recitals, which I hated because I was never any good at playing the piano in front of other people. Besides, things happened to me at recitals.
The recital I remember best from seven years of piano lessons was the one in which I played a duet with a girl named Robin Franey. Robin was my best friend and also my partner in a duet for two pianos, four hands, like the kind Farrante and Teicher used to play. Only I don’t think I ever heard Farrante and Teicher play “Let’s Have Fun with a Fugue,” which was the name of Franey and Murphy’s recital piece.
Now the neat thing about playing a duet in a recital is that you got to bring your sheet music on stage with you so you didn’t have to memorize your recital piece. I’m not exactly sure why this was except to say that all the measures in a duet are numbered so that you and your partner can start together anywhere in the piece when you rehearse. Anyway, Robin and I were the only ones to play a duet in this particular recital, so we were the only ones who got to bring our sheet music on stage with us.
A word about the title, “Let’s Have Fun with a Fugue.” A “fugue” is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as: “a musical composition in which different parts successively repeat the theme.” It’s also defined as: “a disturbed state of consciousness characterized by acts that cannot be recalled upon recovery.” Our performance could therefore be described as: “a musical composition, characterized by piano playing, that cannot be recalled upon recovery.”
The afternoon of the recital was a hot Sunday in late June. The auditorium was stuffy, airless, and filled with relatives. On stage were two huge grand pianos, back to back, with the keyboards facing stage right and stage left, so the performers could look at each other as they played. It was so hot under the stage lights that behind the stage-left piano stood a tall oscillating floor fan.
When it was our turn, I went out first and walked over to the stage-left piano — the one with the big fan behind it. When I got out there, I noticed that the old fan was on and creating a pretty powerful wind whenever it blew towards the piano. At the time, I didn’t think anything about it.
I stood at my piano and waited until Robin got to hers; then we both sat at exactly the same moment, just as we’d rehearsed. We put our music on the pianos, readied our hands above the keyboards, and at a nod from Robin, began to play.
The first few measures went beautifully. Unfortunately, when I went to turn the page, that big fan oscillated back my way and blew my sheet music off the piano! I sat watching it float onto somebody’s lap in the front row. I was so stunned, watching it go, that my fingers kept moving over the keys, playing random notes like chickens that keep running around after getting their heads chopped off.
As soon as I pulled myself together, I realized that I would have to get my partner’s attention as unobtrusively as possible in full view of a packed auditorium. For Robin, a model of concentration, had not stopped playing and didn’t seem to notice that I wasn’t playing with her. She didn’t seem to be aware of what was happening on my side of the stage at all.
I decided to whisper across the expanse of grand pianos: “Robin, wait a minute. My music blew off the piano.” She continued to play.
The audience was laughing when I went to pick up my music from the man whose lap it had blown onto. I sat down at the piano, opened up my music again, and whispered a little bit louder this time: “Robin, pick it up at measure twenty-three; start at measure twenty-three.”
Either she couldn’t hear me over the noise of the fan or she was so terrified by this time that she couldn’t stop playing. I panicked, forgot to whisper and yelled: “Dammit, Robin, will you wait a minute! My music blew off the piano. Pick it up at measure twenty-three!”
The parents were in stitches, Robin kept on playing, I was trying to pretend I hadn’t just said “dammit” in front of the audience, when Sister Jerome, our music teacher, came out on stage.
She went over to the big fan and unplugged it, clapped her hands for silence — which even Robin heard — crossed downstage, glared at the audience until they stopped laughing (which didn’t take long), turned to us and said, “You girls start that piece again and no more of your nonsense!” and marched off stage.
It all happened so fast. Robin was humiliated because Sister Jerome had come out on stage and yelled at us, and she seemed to blame me. She gave me the dirtiest look I’ve ever received, nodded, and we launched once more into “Let’s Have Fun with a Fugue.”
When the piece was over, the audience gave us the biggest hand of the day. Robin was ready to kill me. When we got back to our seats, she slumped down and started to cry. I, who couldn’t play the piano anyway, was secretly thrilled by the audience response. For me, it was the best recital I ever gave — at least the best received. (Robin’s father had captured the whole thing on film with his home movie camera, but Robin never invited me over to see it.)
That was the experience that convinced me that I had a future on the stage — any stage — as long as it didn’t have a piano on it.