Poulenc Toccata, thumbs down?!

Poulenc Toccata opening

Poulenc Toccata opening

My mother, Rosamond van der Linde, is always full of creative ideas. She has this wonderful ability to speak passionately about what she believes in and so many of her suggestions come to fruition.

Mom was the local piano teacher here in Bennington, VT and taught oodles of hours, some in group lessons, some privately. One day, back in 1973, Mom approached the public school board with the objective of asking for support towards those who play the piano. Pianists, unlike other instrumentalists couldn’t sign up for band, chorus or the orchestra and therefore were unable to receive school credit for their work. 

So, with a plan in hand, she approached the school board with a proposal: her piano students would learn all their scales and arpeggios, keep track of their practice time (no less than 30 minutes per day), play in at least two concerts per year, accompany other instrumentalists, if needed, record the pieces they’ve learned, have parents sign the practice sheet forms (just like homework) of all the time spent practicing the piano. Lessons would remain off-campus in her private studio and the pianists would receive one credit for the academic year of work.

Remarkably, the school board approved the proposal with one small addition: they wanted to hear a live concert of the pianists playing at the end of each term. The first year, I was the only recipient in this new music program. I was in 8th grade and was ramping up my practice hours in preparation for an audition to the Juilliard Pre-College Division, a very competitive Saturday music program that Mom and Dad were considering for my high school years.

Practicing longer hours, learning new repertoire and keeping track of my practice time on the forms that had been designed by my Mom were my normal routines. I chose Poulenc’s Toccata No. 2 from Trois Pieces for the live performance that the school board requested. I felt that it was a good choice as it lasted around 2 minutes and 30 seconds. I was pretty sure that the school board wouldn’t appreciate listening to something that dragged on and on.

The meeting was scheduled to be held in the library at the old middle school in town. Imagine my complete horror when I showed up and saw that hundreds of people from the town of Bennington as well as journalists from far and near, from radio and TV stations as well as various newspapers and magazines were in attendance. Apparently, there was a controversy Ms. Magazine being on the shelves of the library. People were particularly objecting to an article written by Erica Jong that was considered too risque and they wanted the magazine removed from the library shelves immediately. It was 1973 and this had hit national news.

Imagine my teen-self trying to worm my way out of playing. I made many an implored look at my Mom. But, because the piano program was new, she silently commanded that we’d be sticking to the plan. I could barely listen to the very heated discussions between townfolks and the school board. There was some yelling and a pen was thrown by a school board member. Thankfully, a very clever editor from Ms. Magazine was able to describe the merits of keeping the magazine on the shelves in the name of feminism. I was proud that our little town had such a liberal edge after all.

Shortly thereafter, an ugly upright Yamaha piano, laden with brown cigarette burns on many of the plastic keys, was rolled into the center of the room. Someone from the school board called my name, pronounced quite inaccurately and I was asked to play the piano. My cheeks could feel the heat of the room. All eyes were upon me, the school board at a long stretched table to my left and all the people who had come to this meeting straight ahead of me. I was glad that I couldn’t quite see over the top of the upright piano. For once, I enjoyed my short stature. Inside I was reeling: I was pissed I had to play. I was pissed I was on the agenda. I was pissed at Mom. I was pissed at the bad piano. Everything sucked (a throwback word from my teen years).

I began. The piece starts with a series of open fifths, cascading up and down the middle range of the piano followed by a fantastic display of rhythmic gestures in an alternating hand passage. The piece swirls about like a bunch of acrobats on a trampoline. The entire time the piano had a tendency to roll around on its wheels. I had to keep adjusting the bench to play catch up. Despite these setbacks, I was able to stay completely focused because I was seething with anger. The last couple of measures have a series of loud forte chords interrupted with rests that punctuate a rhythm that still carries over in my memory. The piece ends with the very last and lowest note on the piano, played as fortissimo and as short as possible.

Last two bars of the Poulenc

Last two bars of the Poulenc

I was proud that I was honoring my mother’s efforts in creating this new for-credit course, but, given the circumstances of the evening, I really wanted to do the juvenile thing and give the school board the finger. Never one to behave inappropriately, I came up with an instantaneous plan: I was going to strike that last note of the piano by turning my hand upside down and planting the tip of my thumb directly in contact with the lowest singed plastic key on that miserable upright piano.  Off I went with my directed intention, but I missed my aim and hit the wood just to the left of the key. I quickly adjusted and played the A, internally embarrassed that I had missed it initially. My thumb radiated with immediate pain but the agony of the injury didn’t bother me at all for I had just one-upped the school board and the Ms. Magazine controversy in my own little subtle pianistic way.

Here’s a youtube recording of the Poulenc for your listening pleasure.

Thumbs down!

Thumbs down!

By the way, I missed the A on the piano but I got an A in piano!

About Polly van der Linde

Pianist, teacher, director of International Piano Camps in VT, for adults and children of all levels of ability
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8 Responses to Poulenc Toccata, thumbs down?!

  1. Susan Grooms says:

    As a former music specialist in the public school arena, I’m totally impressed with Rosamond’s idea to give piano students the
    opportunity to earn a fine art credit! Way to go, Rosamond!

  2. And guess what Polly, you played the piece better than Horowitz. He played it too fast and lost some of the drama in this manner! Way to go Polly! Yes, those were exciting days!

    • pianessa says:

      Thanks Mom. Yeah, I could not find many performances of the Poulenc on youtube and this one by Horowitz was never put on record, so I thought it a good one to share. Glad you liked the post – you remain an inspiration!

  3. pianessa says:

    P.S. That A I missed on the piano. That was my grade. I want to edit this into my post. Ok to do so, those of you who keep blogs? To edit after publishing?

  4. aekohli says:

    I find all of my students who do well have parents who encourage, motivate and sometimes even push them to practise – mostly their mothers! Eventually, they grow up into self-motivated piano players and students

  5. Peter V.V. Hewitt says:

    Sounds like you were trying to hitchhike off the deep end and made a common (1973’s era) tennis error: all wood, no strings. Thank goodness you and Rosamond are tenacious, Polly.

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