I play piano. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that I used to play piano. Now that we have moved into a comfortable, cozy, third-floor apartment, my piano is safely tucked away in storage. We have talked about selling it; as often as we move, the thing has become a burden to keep dragging around with us. But. . .I just can’t seem to part with it. I’ve played the instrument since I was a seven-year-old second grader. At one time I was quite proficient, but over the years as I became more lax in my practicing (jobs, children, grad school, other diversions) I lost my “edge” and piano playing eventually became little more than sitting down to plunk out a ditty or two before jumping up and running to my next task. At least that is what my playing had become by the time the piano went into storage. Rarely a day goes by however, that I don’t wonder how the thing is doing in the cold, and I visualize where it would fit perfectly into our tiny space.
Recently I visited my youngest daughter’s Facebook page. She is the one child of my three who chose to continue piano lessons beyond the obligatory two years that I required of my children. On her page was a “like” for Van Cliburn’s Facebook page, and a recording of Van Cliburn playing Debussy’s “Claire de Lune,” one of my favs. I forget that my adult children love classical music, literature, philosophy, etc. along with all of their other interests. As I clicked on the link to listen to Van Cliburn, I was whisked back to a time in my youth (11 or 12 years old) when I lived a stone’s throw from Shreveport, Louisiana, Van Cliburn’s early childhood home.
Van Cliburn became world-famous in 1958 when as a 23-year old, he won the International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition which is held in Moscow. His accomplishment was made more phenomenal by the fact that it occurred during the height of the cold war between the US and the Soviet Union (USSR). After winning the competition to rave reviews, Van Cliburn returned home to a ticker tape parade, the only one (to my knowledge) ever given for a classical musician. Van Cliburn went on to play with the best orchestras in the most renown concert halls around the world, but he never forgot his roots in Shreveport, Louisiana.
Every year Van Cliburn would give a concert in Shreveport, free to the public. One year my wonderful piano teacher, Mrs. Billye Dunn, took me to hear Van Cliburn play the piano like the piano should be played. I had never heard of Van Cliburn before that time. We arrived at the concert hall and found our seats. I wasn’t so sure that I was really that interested in spending an entire, sunny afternoon inside a dark auditorium listening to someone play the piano, but here I was. The place was packed to capacity, and I, being a young girl, was busy looking around at the “stuff” one looks at in an auditorium while waiting for the performance to begin. Soon the lights dimmed and the crowd quieted down, and then Van Cliburn walked out onto the stage. The applause was instantaneous and it was thunderous before he even sat down or played a note. After a few minutes the crowd once again quieted, Van Cliburn sat down and took a minute or two to collect his thoughts, and then he began to play. For the next hour or more, I, a young girl “with better things to do than to sit and watch someone play the piano,” was mesmerized. I was awestruck. My seat was perfectly situated to watch his hands fly across the ivories in a blur. I don’t remember breathing. When he finished and stood to take a bow, the crowd was on its feet yelling “bravo” or “encore” and clapping till hands were red and sore. I can’t remember how many encores Van Cliburn gave, but I do remember that I never wanted the concert to end. I remember tears running down my cheeks because of the sheer emotion of witnessing a genius create a sound and a mood that totally moved me. Even now, I “tear up” just remembering the experience. I remember when the concert was finished, walking out of the concert hall, into the hot sun and into the parking lot, and wishing the hour of Van Cliburn’s concert for the “home folks” had not ended so soon.
It has now been over forty-five years since I experienced Van Cliburn. For years afterwards I envisioned becoming a “Van Cliburn” myself. I attribute that singular experience as my motivation over the years to keep practicing, to keep playing the piano. Even after I realized that I was no prodigy and that I would never play to packed houses or thunderous applause, I continued to play because I loved music, I loved the piano, and I loved how Van Cliburn made music when he played the piano.
After I saw the post on Mary’s page, and after listening to Van Cliburn once again, I paid a visit to Amazon.com and ordered a DVD of Van Cliburn performing in Russia (Brahms, Prokofiev, and Rachmaninoff). I don’t know if Van Cliburn still gives concerts in Shreveport or not. I doubt that he does. But I still enjoy his musical genius, and I have never forgotten one sunny afternoon sitting beside my beloved piano teacher and listening to Van Cliburn make beautiful music.