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Bigger fingers at the keyboard

IT has been several months since I rummaged through that cardboard box full of books in search of a volume with a title something like ``Little Fingers at the Keyboard.'' It was a piano instruction book for beginners. I had stored the book away since childhood in the event that someday I would be ready to learn its lessons. As I thumbed through this long-ignored volume, it seemed incongruous that only now, as a grownup, was I ready for this: a book in which the student was urged to use crayons to color in the pictures accompanying such compositions as ``The Happy Hedgehog'' and ``The Dandy Lion,'' a book in which the musical notes were so large that only nine or ten would comfortably fit on a page. Nevertheless, it had all the information I needed, and I set about learning to play the piano.

I would guess that the adult beginner is more likely than the child to be sensitive about having his elementary keyboard excursions overheard. It was silly, I know, but I did not want my initial noise-making to reach human ears and would make sure that all possible doors and windows were closed before I so much as depressed one ivory key. What's more, I would push the rug up against the crack under the door to prevent sonic leakage, and I would stop playing if I thought I heard encroaching footsteps.

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But my lessons must have escaped through the ventilation system, because, to my dismay, I would hear family members unconsciously humming, or neighbors blithely whistling, some four-note ditty I had struggled with earlier. Apparently the repetition of these simple note patterns made them highly contagious. I myself drew some odd glances at the bank by unconsciously singing under my breath a little tune about a bug in a rug who, in keeping with the composition's rhyming demands, was also snug.

After several weeks, I had progressed to being able to play some chordal underpinning to the melody notes. The book began to include simplified versions of famous classical works. Although a monumental Beethoven theme might be assigned words about a jolly turtle or a mustachioed jumping bean, this gave me some sense of being connected to the great keyboard literature.

One day some friends, who came over for lunch, asked me to play the piano for them. I considered this my first recital and was suitably nervous. My tempo was rather leaden, because, as a beginner, I had to proceed consciously step by step. I had to peer at the music book, translate some anonymous-looking black dot into a letter, refer to middle C on the keyboard, then recite the alphabet in one direction or the other until my finger was poised above the correct key -- all of which sabotaged the intended

dance-like rhythm. My friends could have eaten lunch in the time it took me to change from one chord to the next.

Nevertheless, this experience was a first step toward extending my art to an audience. Post-performance assessments held that I had a chance of becoming an effective recitalist, though I might have to specialize in works for which leaden tempos would be appropriate. ``My Favorite Dirges'' might be a good program heading for me, it was suggested (although ``My Favorite Rests'' would have been even more apt).

Like many beginners, I soon grew weary of entering into the long deciphering process each time I faced a music sheet and, for the sake of maintaining some melodic flow, began guessing which notes were to be struck. I gained digital fleetness, but I made frequent mistakes and could only hope that listeners would accept my discordant tones as being, perhaps, part of an avant-garde composition.

During this phase, I had the good fortune to read an article which buoyed my spirits considerably. It stated that the late, great pianist Arthur Rubinstein occasionally missed notes. Granted, he missed maybe three in 10,000 whereas I was missing three out of eight, but who's counting when expressivity is of the essence? Mr. Rubinstein, while speaking of the importance of keeping the overall shape of a composition in mind, said, ``To be absolutely careful not to miss a few notes makes one small-minded.''

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Maybe I was not inept, I thought, but was just extremely broad-minded.

I continue to engage in daily practice sessions. All I require are this fine book, with its pictures and its admirably simple instructions, and this amazing instrument, the piano. I find that imagining myself in a recital situation helps me to apply myself to the task. Sometimes I imagine myself in Carnegie Hall: Vladimir Ashkenazy can't make his engagement, so I fill in. I open my book, play my piece, accept applause. An interviewer approaches with microphone and asks, ``I noticed that you declined to play Beethoven's `Hammerklavier' in favor of playing `The Happy Hedgehog.' What is it that you like about its composer's writing?'' ``The size of the notes,'' I reply. ``Anything else about his work?'' he asks. ``Well,'' I say, ``he drew very well. I doubt if even Beethoven could've drawn such a fine hedgehog as this.''