George first came to Sonata Piano Camp back in 1989. He brought his wife, Catherine, who came to camp as an auditor, to make sure that we were a legitimate entity only his first time to camp. Much to Catherine’s delight, George loved camp and came back year after year. There wasn’t much not to like when it came to George: a tall man, humble, a wonderful sense of humor with a twinkle in his eye, who drove his light blue ancient Ford mustang to camp every February, to attend the Winter Sonata.
George didn’t talk much about himself, preferring to enjoy the stories that others had to share. Nevertheless, we were able to eke out of him that he had had some excellent piano training in his past: the esteemed pianist, Jorge Bolet, taught George as a teen. While he got quite good at the piano as a youngster, George decided to take a different career path. Not until he had been to camp several times did we learn that George was a CEO at IBM and while he drove his modest little blue car to camp, no one knew that he lived in a large estate with a Steinway concert grand and an indoor olympic-sized swimming pool until he had rubbed elbows with us for a good dozen years in a row. I cringe every time I think about how the Sonata Piano Camp house, here at 5 Catamount Lane was in dire need of some renovation back in George’s early days of attendance. This was back in the day of quick fixes: linoleum floors, dropped ceilings and faux-wood-designed paneling. George never shuddered; his focus was on piano. Every morning George enjoyed a half a red grapefruit. He struggled with the knives we provided to circle around every grapefruit section so he went and bought us a couple of grapefruit spoons, the kind with the jagged edges at the tip so that he could reap the benefits of using one too.
As it turned out, depending on the Winter Sonata schedule, George’s birthday often occurred while he was in session with us. I loved it when I offered to sing “Happy Birthday” in Dutch to George, which requires the honored person to stand on a chair during the song, followed by three cheers when all attending guests would join in ensemble, throwing their hands up in glee to the words “heep, heep, hooray.” George was always game to have a good time while completely upholding his reputation as the perfect gentleman.
One day, George signed up for one of my master classes. Back then, we were still a pretty small enterprise and while we were considered a haven for the pianists who attended, we were still a best-kept secret until the book “Piano Lessons: Music, Love and True Adventures” by Noah Adams, came out in 1996. About a year earlier, George was struggling with fits and starts of performance anxiety. His fear of playing stemmed back to his youth and was one of the deciding factors not to go into music. I really wanted to help him. So, in front of the entire group of Sonatafolks seated in the living room with, at that time, a Kawai grand and an organ with 465 pipes, I shared a story of my own issues with performance anxiety, which I abbreviated to P.A., so that the words wouldn’t smack us in the face over and over. I’m well aware that simply talking about P.A. can get the heart rate up.
I told the group about my chamber music group and how we’d handle P.A. Backstage, we’d form a huddle, cheering each other on like a group of football players, gearing up to go on stage and play like dynamite. It helped to pump up our adrenaline and scare the P.A. crap out of our systems. We’d always end our moment backstage with some hand slapping and reciting as loudly as we could: “Merry Christmas” and the unsavory “F-bomb word,” in its far less delicate permutation. Loud and clear, we meant business and heading out onto any stage after shouting this allowed us to walk tall and strong and play well. The group loved this story.
It was time for George to play. I could see his demeanor was changing in front of me. He looked pale, his brow full of sweat and his classic smile was escaping him. I had to do something so I took a moment to gather some things and placed them in the adjoining sun porch. Then, I invited George to accompany me, away from the group, who were functioning as his audience. I asked him without any explanation: “George, are you going to go with me on this?” He responded with a nervous nod. I said: “Ok, George, here’s what I want you to do.” I promptly put a 4-foot wide sombrero on his head. I told him that he was to walk out on “stage” and play the Chopin Fantasie-Impromptu like he never had before. And so George followed my directives to a T. He walked out on stage and everyone started cracking up, hardly expecting this scene in front of their eyes. He bowed and sat at the piano, ready to play. To this day, I will never forget the image of the sombrero undulating in rhythm to the left hand passages of the Chopin, the hat keeping perfect time to the piece. We were all astonished at how beautifully George played with nary a moment of P.A.
George got up with a smile, beaming with joy at his own self accomplishment. What he realized about himself was that he needed to make a connection with the audience before performing. The fact that the audience burst out in laughter, helped George to overcome his fears and find his P.A. sweet spot (as we all like to call it).
But, the master class was a couple days before the piece de resistance (if I might call it this), the marathon concert, scheduled for the last full day of camp. George wanted to play the Fantasie-Impromptu again but he didn’t want to wear the sombrero. I understood. On concert day,the entire group was on edge, all feeling their own degree of P.A. As a teacher, I felt for them, knowing what they were all going through. I, too, had a nervous edge but mine was in wanting them all to succeed to the best of their abilities – never expecting perfection – only that they are happy with the end result of their performance.
I decided the perfect piece to begin the program with would be George’s Chopin. The piece unfolds with a sustained whole note, a single octave on G# eventually falling to a C# minor arpeggiated chord that continues rocking back and forth. I called upon George, who promptly disappeared into the neighboring front hall. I worried that I had made a big mistake, when, suddenly, George shuffled across the stage area from the sidelines. His feet scuffed across the floor and he looked oddly and uncharacteristically full of himself. We all thought he was going to continue the quest to go right off to the other side of the stage. Instead, George turned 90 degrees, abruptly facing towards us at center stage. He had a pencil in one hand and with the other, he gently unrolled his makeshift scroll of paper. A cacophony of laughter ensued. For George had found his P.A. sweet spot:
Then George played as if he was on fire, the Chopin never defeating him. After it was all over, we burst into screams of joy, support and exhilaration. George had scored Big Time. We all loved observing this gentle soul having his moment of glory.
I’ve shared this story, many a time, with other Sonata groups, explaining that they’re in charge of their own P.A. destiny. They all get it – even if it’s difficult. One Sonata group decided to make something, to throw around, if needed:
But, sensing that it needed better musical and educational weight (since they are really here to learn), they modified the other side of the ball with:
George, sadly, died this past December. I was happy to see that his obituary included a mention of his great love of attending piano camp. In typical mischievous-George form, my last correspondence from him included one item: a grapefruit spoon that he forgot to return to the silverware drawer. No note included. Just a spoon.