Thursday, March 16, 2017


Since this is a book about an instrument with 88 keys, I thought I'd use it for this particular day.  I also accidentally missed its day because I was up against an anthology deadline.

The author is Barbara Gilbert and the book is a relatively short one, in which a virtuoso (she refuses to be called a prodigy) is accepted into the finals of a high-pressure piano competition.  Her most likely rival is attempting for a third time to win the resulting scholarship and has given up everything (including his apartment) to make this last-ditch effort.   Meanwhile, the main character is unsure if she wants to win and questions why she is playing in the first place when an injury forces her to scale back her life as a musician.

I have an absolute obsession with books written accurately about musicians and their training.  I read a book last year that had a wonderful plot, but the piano teacher spent every lesson in the book in awe of her student's fluid arpeggios and the way her hands moved gracefully over the keys.  This, clearly, was not written by someone who has taught any kind of music lesson.  My piano teacher is my mother and while she will sit back and quietly take notes when I'm playing a Beethoven sonata or a Bach invention, she notices plenty.  She can tell when I am half an inch too far back on the bench and have collapsed wrists.  She notices a different in the sound when I play with the inside edge of my finger instead of the flat part.  I remember putting on headphones and playing a Haydn sonata on an electronic keyboard.  She could tell from the click of the keys that I needed to change my fingering.  That is the kind of expertise and attention to detail that I expect from acclaimed music teachers.

It might be snobbish to say that I wish more people got into the technicality of music in books and Broken Chords delivers.  In this, a disaster is caused by a person applying insufficient pressure to one of the pedals during the competition.  Clara talks extensively about the difficulty of relearning a section of a concerto with new fingering because she relies so much on muscle memory.  I relate to this book because I remember knowing the shape of the first notes of a piece, but forgetting the position on the keyboard so that I started playing it several notes higher than it was meant to be and having to readjust my hands when I hit the note that wasn't where it should be.  I relate to her frustration with her wrist injury because I sprained mine on Thanksgiving one year and had to give up any piece that made me do octaves for a month.

But this is not just a story for obsessive musicians.  The characters are extremely real, whether the daughter who struggles to identify when her parents are proud of her to the brother who feels overshadowed by his virtuoso of a sister, to the rival who plays Gershwin to relax before his critical performance.  It's a book for anyone straining to find true humanity in fictional characters.

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