Why I Play the Piano
by Phil Schoonmaker, Piano Consultant at M. Steinert & Sons.
Why I play the piano is mystery, miracle, memory, and motivation.
My mother had a beautiful soprano voice and often sang solos for church services and other occasions. She also sang popular songs and played the piano well enough to accompany herself. Undoubtedly I heard my first music while in her womb–both the sound of her voice and the sound of the piano. It is established science that the most significant sound a baby hears in the womb is its mother’s voice and that the baby can identify her voice in the third trimester. I believe even my taste in music began to form in the womb. Whether one plays, how one plays, what one plays may well be rooted in infant amnesia. This is both mystery and miracle.
As a toddler I would sit at the piano, push the keys down, and sing spontaneous improvised little songs. I would also listen to whatever vinyl records my parents had and memorize song lyrics. There was music on the radio too–both Indian and Western. My parents were Protestant missionaries to India during the final years of the British Raj and there was singing in church every week, both western Protestant hymns and choruses and North Indian Christian bhajans (Bhajan refers to any devotional song with religious theme or spiritual ideas, specifically among Indian religions, in any of the languages from the Indian subcontinent). So my pre-school musical influences were a daily blend of Indian classical, popular, and religious music with Western classical, popular, and religious music–a complex conglomeration of utterly different musical genres from opposite sides of the planet.
When on furlough from India at age eight by parents started me on piano lessons with a female piano teacher in Minneapolis. I don’t remember what I learned or how I did, but on returning to India I was privileged to continue piano lessons in my school with an eventual Grammy Award-winning vocal professor. The earliest piece I can still play from those pre-adolescent days is a Courante in the style of Bach.
At K-12 Woodstock School in the northwestern Himalayan mountains I was involved with all things musical–private piano lessons, recitals, church accompaniment and performance (hymns, preludes, postludes), youth Bible study hymn playing, musicals, choirs, madrigals, etc. On radio we listened to Voice of America, and on records at home everything from Rachmaninoff concerti to Mahalia Jackson gospel. Every night our family gathered around the old (no doubt out of tune) piano and sang a hymn in four part harmony. My piano teacher in high school was a former concert pianist from Johannesburg, South Africa, and my piano lessons sometimes exceeded two hours. I consider acquisition a privilege, inspiration a gift, coalescence a miracle; all three, in T.S. Eliot’s words, are “mixing memory and desire.”
When I eventually returned for college to the United States as a young man I became a music major for a year and continued to pay for private piano lessons out of my own earnings while in school. I then joined the U.S. Army and spent over a year in Vietnam. After Vietnam I continued college in the Pacific Northwest switching majors from English to Cultural Anthropology and finally to South Asian Studies, eventually earning a B.A. in South Asian Studies from the University of Minnesota. I continued with an M.A. in South Asian Literature and Languages, all the while continuing to play and study the piano privately. After college I needed work and started selling pianos in a store in Minneapolis. I continued to listen and learn. I spent many hours with piano technicians and piano teachers and professional pianists combined with a great deal of reading, taught myself how to tune and repair pianos, eventually making the piano industry my full-time career. I was driven by my passion for the piano as an instrument and my deep love for the music created for it over the centuries by the great composers. Today I continue unceasingly to learn deeper things about pianos, piano playing, piano pedagogy, piano history, and piano performance. I sell pianos, I work on pianos, I teach piano, I read about pianos, I listen to piano masterclasses from the greatest piano minds and listen to piano performances by the great masters of the keyboard. The Art of the Piano is endless and infinite; as Renoir put it, “There are two indices of genuine art: it is inimitable and it is ineffable.” Even though I am merely a serious amateur, this is my motivation, this is why I play.