Thursday, March 23, 2017


The organ teacher asked him to play.  So Liam sat down to play his version of "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" on the Steinway piano in the church.  He seemed to be enjoying the perfect tuning and rich tone of the instrument as he worked his way through what he knew of the piece.  He still uses odd fingering and his pace is all over the place.

I watched Liam and I watched her face.  Wonder and concern flitted across her features in turn.  We talked about the difficulty in getting him to practice skills outside of a piece itself.  She reached around him and demonstrated a simple piece of music to work proper fingering.  He followed her clam, insistent hands.

She invited him to join her at the organ.  He could finally hear the piece as it was intended, on the full organ.  She showed him how the stops worked and he played with sounds, finally letting loose with all stops out.  Aware of the folks working in the church office, the teacher tried to push some stops back in, but he would have none of it - he wanted that big, full sound.  Sonically, as usual, he made it sound good, but technically, as usual, it was a slippery mess.

After some time, my husband and I discussed her assessment.  "He's very talented - such ears! And I want to work with him, but I worry, in my heart, that I won't know how to reach him."

"Oh, that's fine." I said, "We feel that way every day."

She smiled, but still looked a little worried.  "If you'd rather not take him on, I understand, but you should know that every teacher who meets him feels the same way.  You will find a way to reach him.  Just be direct and insistent.  Make the boundaries clear, and he will learn to follow your lead.  We don't know where it will lead, either, but if he's excited about something, you can use it to your advantage!"

We agreed to go for it and see if they can find their groove.  When he finished his first lesson, Liam shouted from behind the huge instrument, "I'm an ORGANIST!" then raised both arms with thumbs-up.

And so we've added another teacher to Liam's life, with another set of keys.  I know from experience that all teachers (myself included) spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to unlock his potential.  Sometimes it feels like coming home late on a Saturday night with no porch light as you fumble to find the right key and get it into the lock, before either dropping the damn keys or scratching the hell out of the door.

But I also know that with patience, and persistence, talent and imagination, potential becomes reality.  Liam's art teacher Linda, at Pastimes for a Lifetime, has helped him grow in this way.  His raw talent is apparent, and now it's taking form in ways that other people can enjoy.  Here are a few of his recent works, unlocked by a teacher who found the right keys:

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The One Even Less Traveled By

Two roads diverged in a wood and I
I took the one less traveled by
Until my son grabbed my hand
And together we made a third path
Where no-one else had been

Walk with me.

I'm listening to my son's piano lesson in the next room, as I write this.  Last year, he started teaching himself Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor," by ear.  About the same time, he joined a rock band class.  The bond with his band teacher, Dan West, allowed him to transition back into private piano lessons at home.  He had hit a wall in playing the piece and needed to learn technique to proceed. Dan also directed his band, P.A.N.D.A., and Liam was able to see that practicing songs led to playing with others and playing for other people. It gave music a "why." 

Now, bit by bit, he follows his teacher through the piece, improving, goofing, learning.  It will be rewarding to hear him wander over to the keyboard later in the week and play it, just for pleasure.

Recently, we got a notice from Goldstar Tickets about a Pipe Organ Concert at Disney Hall.  Liam has been watching performances of "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" on YouTube, featuring amazing organists.  (In fact the technical skill of those players made him want to play at the same breakneck speed - a hard habit to break). I showed him a video of the featured organist and he ran over to his keyboard saying, "I want to play the organ with my feet!"  He proceeded to play his piece, while pretending to play bass notes with his feet on the floor.  I bought the tickets.

It got me to thinking, I used to sing in a choir, directed by one of the top concert organists in town, Christoph Bull.  I reached out and asked if he, or anyone he knew, offered lessons on the pipe organ.  As it turned out, one of his former students, Dr. Namhee Han, was giving a concert at Our Lady of Angeles the following day.  I wrote to her and asked if she might consider meeting Liam as a prospective student.  We went to the concert and Liam listened and watched and asked if he could play that organ.  I told him he'd have to wait to have a lesson and we agreed to meet with Dr. Han at her church in Westwood the following week.

The steps that led to these discoveries began long before I even met my son. Because I sang in a choir 18 years ago, I knew a brilliant organist.  Because I have been improvising since the late 80's I know that "yes" leads to far more interesting options than saying, "no."  And because we chose to allow Liam to lead the way, all of these past experiences have converged into a new path.

On days it feels like we are wandering in the woods, I remind myself that this is not the road I imagined, or the one most others take, but that makes all the difference.