The Accompaniment

Many times I’ve wished my life had a soundtrack – a swelling orchestral accompaniment to celebrate my victories and finesse my failures.  My moments of sadness and longing would be so much more poignant with a cello playing a brooding melody in a minor key. And that last half mile on my run would be so much more spectacular with a brass ensemble playing a baroque processional piece in my ears as I pulled up to a stop at my front porch. Truthfully, that last thing already happened, thanks to my iPod, and it was gloriously triumphant and just whetted my appetite for the real deal—a full-service soundtrack, 24 hours a day.  But then, pondering this, as I’m wont to do while avoiding tasks I’d rather not face, I began to realize that perhaps my life already has a soundtrack, and in fact, has had one for all of my 50 and three-quarter years.

My father is a pianist, Professor Emeritus of Piano at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, where I grew up.  His 80th birthday last May 31st brought to a close his self-proclaimed “Year of Galen,” and heralded the advent of the also self-proclaimed “My 9th Decade.”  The piano has been a part of that life for about the last 70 years.  The only child of Robert, a carpenter, and Helen, a homemaker, who also sold Avon to help make ends meet, Daddy was born during the Great Depression, and raised with love and humor by Grandma and Grandpa.  They made sure he did the homework assigned by his teacher, his Aunt Mamie, Grandma’s older sister, in the one-room schoolhouse up the street.  They got him a piano, and he started piano lessons with Pearl Seiler, a graduate of the New England Conservatory, and a distant cousin, who taught from her stately home in Shamokin on her beautiful Mason & Hamlin piano.  They made him practice, and when he finished, he was allowed out to play with his friends who waited for him on the front porch.  They raised holy hell in the village of Snydertown, playing pranks that made people laugh and shake their heads, sometimes their fists, pranks that might get them arrested and into juvenile court today.

In the coming years he graduated valedictorian of his Sunbury High School class, left little Snydertown, graduated first from New England Conservatory, then Yale University with two bachelors degrees and a master’s degree in Piano Performance.  He became a lay minister at the Gettysburg Lutheran Seminary, and did a tour of duty in Korea with the Army, where, as the Chaplain’s Assistant, he was in charge of ordering the communion wine, to the delight of his friends.  He joined the piano faculty at Susquehanna after playing for the university president’s wife.  She liked his playing so much, she told her husband he’d be crazy not to hire my father, and so he did.  He married my mother, Deanna, nine years younger, in July of 1960, a romance nurtured in church youth groups and junior choir.  Her family was against them dating and didn’t approve of him.  He was a playboy.  He never held a real job.  All he did was play the piano.  That cracked us up as teenagers.  I was born 11 months later into a house full of laughter, good food, loving extended family, and music.

“Shhh…Daddy’s practicing.” That was the refrain of my childhood.  It wasn’t repressive.  We could hear how much work it was.  A phrase at a time, over and over and over.  Slowly at first, note by note, transition by transition, trying out a fingering and then changing it.  Then a little faster and again and again, then beginning again and practicing through that phrase until it worked and then on to the next sticky spot.  The metronome ticked along.  I liked to sit under the piano when he practiced and watch his feet working the pedals, my little body vibrating with the enveloping sound of the Steinway grand, and allowed to stay so long as I didn’t make any noise.  Scarlatti sonatinas, The Well-Tempered Clavier, Chopin mazurkas, and Liszt nocturnes were all names I knew before I even went to Kindergarten.  When I couldn’t sleep at night, and asking for crackers didn’t work as a delaying tactic, usually asking to hear some music was okay.  Daddy would ask “What do you want to hear?”  I remember, at 3 years old, asking for “a sonata.”  And an LP would go on the turntable and I would be lulled, finally, to sleep.

Starting at a very young age, whenever he performed we’d be dressed in our best clothes, allowed to stay up unspeakably late, and we would go to his recitals.  Afterward would be little cookies covered with powdered sugar, and fruit punch served by the incredibly beautiful and sophisticated ΣΑΙ sorority sisters who always made a fuss over me and my younger sister.  Mommy always looked so nice, and seeing Daddy dressing in his white tie and tails was indescribably exciting.  There was the last-minute search for black socks without any holes (family legend has it that one time a pair without a hole couldn’t be located, so a black Magic Marker was pressed into duty, and a black spot colored on the ankle under the offending hole solved the problem.  This technique was used years later by one of my own sons in a concert situation.)  Studs and cuff links were the next things to be found, and finally we would be ready to go.  Sitting in Seibert Hall at Susquehanna with the creaky wooden floor and the wooden and cast iron chairs, muffled noises from the women’s dormitory upstairs, the lights would dim, the piano (the good “Seibert piano”) would shine in the spotlight and my father would walk from the wings to applause.  It was thrilling and I was always so proud that this was my Daddy.  And then a hush, he would flip the tails of his tuxedo out behind him and sit down on the bench, put his hands on the keyboard, and out of all that palpable expectation, my heart pounding, the music would begin.  It was all familiar, but now it was fluid and uninterrupted and sometimes so expressive and beautiful, young as I was, it brought tears to my eyes.

My father’s playing was the backdrop for my life at home.  It wove its way through my sleep, through my play, through my snacks and my TV watching, through my homework, through Scrabble and Parcheesi nights, and through my own practicing when I began clarinet lessons.  When he wasn’t practicing, he was often listening and I developed a love for chamber music, orchestral music, choral music, and ballet: Tchaikovsky, Dvořák, Brahms, Copeland, Ravel and Fauré.  When I played well enough, we played chamber music together.  He found a cellist on campus and we played a Beethoven piano trio, performing at Susquehanna and then at our church.  Together we played the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, both Brahms clarinet concertos and other pieces written for clarinet and piano by Hindemith, Poulenc and Weber.  It was wonderful time together and did a lot for my understanding of when music was good and when it was just ok.  Music was just fun too.  When the Deibler children turned 21 we were each led to the living room with great ceremony for a rite of passage.  My dad would play us a recording of x-rated Elizabethan madrigals, which, now that we were “adults”, we were old enough to hear, and all four of us remember laughing till we cried at Florence Foster Jenkins murdering operatic arias with her indomitable accompanist, Cosmo McMoon. When I was looking at colleges, I only visited one—Oberlin College.  With a world-class conservatory staging up to 3 recitals in one day, a creative writing department, and an Artist Series that featured the Cleveland Orchestra, Itzakh Perlman, The Chicago Symphony, Emanuel Ax, and YoYo Ma, among others, I was sold.  And even though I wasn’t living at home anymore, the music was integral to my life.  Even now, listening to James Taylor, Simon & Garfunkel, Brahms’ 3rd Symphony, Earth, Wind and Fire, The 5th Dimension, and especially Judy Collins takes me right back to Oberlin.  I developed my own tastes, but couldn’t wait to go back home, to talk to Daddy about what and who I had heard.

We four children were all indoctrinated early on that technical perfection, while perhaps impressive, is a dull performance indeed without feeling and expression.  You have to make the music sing to make it exciting.  Some of my favorite recordings are of Artur Rubinstein playing Chopin.  There are wrong notes, but I like that.  There is without any doubt a human being playing that piano in spectacular heart stopping fashion.  Thanks to my years of listening to music of all kinds, and the guidance of my father, I know in my gut when I’m hearing good playing, be it a piano, a chamber group, an orchestra, or a choir.  My heart pounds, I’m on the edge of my seat, I’m lifted along on a wave that escapes the walls of the concert hall.

In the past five years my dad hasn’t performed as frequently, and busy schedules have sometimes prevented me from hearing every recital.  Two weeks ago, however, I went to hear my 80-year old father play a recital of piano four hand music with his former student, now friend and colleague, Robert Snyder.  My dad and Bob have been playing together for 40 years, and it shows.  It was his first performance following mitral valve repair and triple bypass heart surgery in August.  Although unspoken, this brush with mortality has reminded us that there probably are not unlimited chances to hear him play anymore—something that I think we had all fancifully believed true up until August 17th.  Now every recital is a jewel.  One more opportunity to hear the music inextricably entwined with our lives and our hearts.

We are all there on that Sunday afternoon—me, my sisters, my brother, and of course my mother.  Like a page from the past, my father walks out to applause and a wave of family love.  He sits down at the piano and my heart begins to pound.  He puts his fingers on the keyboard and plays, and we hear that it’s all still there.  The notes, of course, but more importantly, the expression, the musicality, the feeling, and the intellectual understanding of what the composer intended. This playing is exciting, and after 70 years of dedication to the piano, to his students, to his family, to his art, my father is still the consummate musician.  I feel myself lifted along on this beloved familiar wave.  For 50 years, this has been the accompaniment for my life.  It will be there as long as I live.  And it is beautiful.

8 thoughts on “The Accompaniment

  1. somehow I missed this post when it was posted, but I just bawled my eyes out over my morning coffee reading it. It reminds me of my grandmother who passed this fall. She played the organ in church in addition to teaching piano for 30+ years. I used to sit under the piano while she played as well. Now our children are lucky enough to have in our house the very piano she played every day until four days before she died.
    And now, I will listen to some Chopin and hear her and mother playing the piano and violin duets.

    1. Music memories are for me the most evocative and the richest. I hope our children are making memories of their own.

  2. I learned so much about the “whys” and “wherefores” that brought your family to Selinsgrove through this piece. Thanks for sharing your memories! They remind me of my grandmother who studied piano at Susquehanna. She used to tell me that she played background music for the silent movies in the area.

    1. That’s so interesting Lucy! Music winds through the lives of so many people in so many different ways.

  3. Kim told me about your blog, Andrea, and I’ve been snooping on it. It’s wonderful: funny, poignant, and at times hauntingly beautiful. This piece on your dad is especially moving. As a parent, I’d feel so fulfilled if Jonah was ever moved some day to pay a similar tribute to me.

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