Andy Can’t Play Bach

There are few things worse than an adolescent realizing their limitations

The following is a modified chapter in The Shaman (which is due out Sept 2023). I found this modification while simultaneously editing Search, The Shaman, writing The Alibi, and jotting down ideas, paragraph chunks, and plot points for half a dozen other pieces in various stages of completion (almost, close to, what was this about?, proto, nascent, not even worth mentioning, …).

This stood out to me because, while editing The Shaman, another “Andy” chapter came out, one which closes this character’s arc in the story.

That chapter’s still in production (currently at the “close to” stage) so I’ll share this one (also not completely as it appears in the finished novel) for now.

7th grade Music Appreciation Class. We met every other week. Mr. Schroeder did everything he could to help a bunch of late 1960s “Isn’t Laugh-In the Greatest? Heah cum de Judge, Heah cum de Judge” adolescents understand what music gave us culturally, historically, psychologically, …

Not many kids cared. This class was, essentially, a biweekly recess in a school that offered no recesses, wolf-down-your-food time-limit lunches, and the other wondrous traumas associated with acne-endowed pre-teens in a new school – my class was the first class to take part in the new junior high system the school department instituted – with students pulled from parts of the city I didn’t know existed.

Mr. Schroeder had patience. Amazing patience. He did everything he could to come up with entertaining, educational ways to help us appreciate music.

Me? I’d been in love with music for years at that point. I’d played clarinet for about seven years and had taken up piano on my own. I played clarinet because you could rent one for 25¢ a week from Ted Herbert’s Music and I could afford that (still have my clarinet. Still play it). I took up piano because my mother, during a visit to some family friends who owned a piano, said in front of everyone if I could play something recognizably before we left, she’d buy me a piano.

I could and she did, and so I began playing piano my sister, Sandra, loved Sonata Quasi una Fantasia, aka Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, and I wanted to learn because it meant something to me to give her something she loved. Sandra got me started on lots of things.

I’d also encountered Bach. It was love at first hearing. The precision, the clarity, the mathematical beauty of it (not kidding about appreciating mathematical beauty when I was in junior high. I wrote my first published math paper in 8th grade).

Bach, to me, is rapturous.

I also, at one point, put tacks on the piano hammerheads so I could get a honky-tonk effect. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard Bach’s Brandenburgs played honky-talk, let me tell you.

One of the other kids in Mr. Schroeder’s 7th grade Music Appreciation Class who had some music in his background was Andy.

Andy’d been studying piano since god knows when. The piano in his house was right next to the family’s dinner table, something revealing about his family’s value system that I only recognized years later..

“Pity that couldn’t afford to buy you a new one.”

Andy’s family wasn’t like mine, something Andy reminded me of at least once every time we were together; his people were this and my people were that.

I remember once Andy, after studying violin for a bit, proudly telling me that his parents bought him a 200 year old violin.

“Pity that couldn’t afford to buy you a new one.”

Andy hated me for that.

But it was my people’s way to be ignorant and stupid.

So one day in 7th grade Music Appreciation Class, and for whatever reasons, Mr. Schroeder let Andy play the piano.

Andy played for most of the 50m class. He played Beethoven, he played Haydn, he played Mozart, he played everything a good piano student is suppose to play.

The class was silent around him, listening. Maybe that’s why Mr. Schroeder let him play. The class was silent and attentive for once.

No question, Andy could play. He was a marvel of technique, a good little machine. He played exactly as he’d been taught. Not a note out of place. Not a beat missed. Not a rhythm unrhythmed.

But interpretation? We don’t need no stinkin’ interpretation. Feeling? Andy don’t need no stinkin’ feelin’.

Only what was written. Only what any other student with as many years training could do. Only what his music teacher, Mr. Belisle, what his parents, what who knows who else, taught him to play. Exactly as he’d been taught to play it.

No music. Only sounds.

Organized, well constructed sounds for sure, but really just a player piano with a few less notes.

My clarinet teacher – also of the ignorant and stupid persuasion – and I played a game during my lessons. The first half, play what was on the page because, after all, there is a reason to learn technique. I completely understand the purpose of a good technical foundation and encourage others to get such foundations in whatever vocation or avocation they choose.

The second half started when he said, “Okay, now let me hear how you want to play it” and I went wild with interpretations, alternative fingerings I found in old clarinet books, riffs I copied from the radio, from records. Lots of times he’d play along with me, other times he’d sit back and let me go at it, sometimes laughing, always smiling, often showing me ways to do what I was doing better.

Similar things occur to this day. I’ll play the piano and Susan will say, “That’s beautiful. What is it?” and I’ll answer, “I have no idea and if you weren’t recording it you’ll never hear it again” because I played the music as it moved through me at that point in time.

Andy played textbook examples of classical masters. The bell rang to go to the next class. Kids were walking out of Mr. Schroeder’s 7th grade Music Appreciation Class. Andy got up from the piano and I said, “Geez, Andy, all those lessons and no Bach?”

I asked because I love Bach and love hearing it. Andy’s playing everything but Bach didn’t make sense to me. Didn’t he like Bach? Was Bach somehow unworthy?

Andy looked at me. If there is ever an example of someone freezing in place, Andy, at that moment, was it.

I was confused. “Oh, you’ve never learned any Bach.”

Andy whitened.

And then I understood. I understood what I should not have understood.

But understanding wasn’t my crime. My crime was stating my understanding, sharing my understanding with someone who did not wish it shared.

“Your music teacher doesn’t think you can play Bach. He hasn’t taught you any Bach because he doesn’t think you’re ready for it.”

“Shut up! Shut up!” Andy shook, his face blanched, his eyes reddening.

There are lots of people who don’t want the truth revealed because, once revealed, action must be taken.

Either take action or accept you are unwilling to act.

What I remember all these years later is that look of shame. The look of being found out. That look of someone realizing he was an impostor and having nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. That look of unwanted discovery, of disgrace. I’ve seen it many time since, in many faces. There are lots of people who don’t want the truth revealed because, once revealed, action must be taken.

Action taken or an acceptance that one is unwilling to act.

Back then, I wanted to get past it, to move on, to break the tension, to relieve the embarrassment.

I didn’t do it well. I sat at the piano. “Bach is easy, Andy. He’s a combination of mathematics and manual dexterity.* See?”

I really did talk like that back then. No wonder I had few friends, huh?

The mathematics…anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of music theory gets the mathematics without calling it such. Study any musical instrument (save perhaps voice) and you get the manual dexterity part.

I played Bach’s Two-Part Invention #8. I still play it. I still learn from it.

I played it and, at one point, shifted the left hand an octave lower than is written.

“That’s wrong! That’s not how it sounds!”

Andy was so proud.

“Yeah, I know. Bach had those lower octaves available in his day. No idea why he didn’t use them here. It adds more counterpoint, more thematic distance between the registers, playing it that way. Don’t you think so?”

Andy looked at me, confused. How many years had he been studying and these concepts where unknown to him.

Andy was a good student. Me, not so much. Andy would stick to the book, do the lessons, only ask questions based on what was already in the books, turn in his homework, get good grades. I would read some of the book to get the basic concepts, go and read more advanced books that answered questions I was asking, not do the homework because it was trivial and uninteresting, skip classes to go to lectures or talk with people who did interest me, got mediocre grades. Andy was a good student because he never went beyond the book. I was not a good student because the book was a point of departure for me, a doorway to things both terrifying and wonderful beyond.

As we grew older, I continued to be awed at Andy’s inability to put 2 and two together. Most of my life’s been putting disparate information together and coming up with 4. Or four. Or IV. Or ||||.

Give Andy information that doesn’t fit and he’ll ignore it. Give me information that doesn’t fit and I’ll rework the system until it either does or I’ve developed a new system that allows all the information to fit together (and I have patents and been cited in patents to prove it).

(I feel like there’s a Harry Chapin Taxi riff coming up here)

All of this comes back to something mentioned in my interview; I have genuine remorse for people who lack imagination. They are, to me, imprisoned. My imagination takes me places, shows me things, allows me to hear and feel and taste and touch things no one else ever has, to experience things with senses humans have forgotten how to use or understand the information they provide.

I remember my mother explaining me to relatives with “He does a lot of deep reading.”

Now an adult, now versed in more fields than I care to count (others have. They come up with about 120), I recognize Andy’s actions as fear. Who taught him that kind of fear, I don’t know. His dad I barely knew, his mother seemed nice enough. She took Andy and me to an air show once. I was more impressed by the size of her breasts than the size of the planes.

Somehow, somewhere, Andy learned to fear those who were that and hence spent hours demonizing them.

His strategy backfired a bit.

But that look on Andy’s face, that pain in his voice and the fact that I unwittingly caused them…

That has been with me ever since.

Keeping myself honest, I cribbed the line from the an original Outer Limits‘ episode, The Sixth Finger. The full line ends with “Bach will probably outlast us all.” My love of Bach started there, I’m sure.