Saturday, February 4, 2012

Mr. LaRatta

At Davies Symphony Hall, Christmastime 

On Christmas Eve, a bright, chilly Saturday, I found myself in front of a large, white mansion-like residence with a tower(!) in San Mateo.  I could hardly think of the family gathering I'd be at only a few hours later, with Christmas tree, presents, and copious amounts of delicious food; I was here to play for Thomas LaRatta, in the hopes that I might gain a piano teacher.  I was a few minutes past noon; the outing had begun inauspiciously as I encountered an accident on the highway.  As a result, I was even more anxious now that I was late.

Dr. Hartwell from the music department at Foothill College, who had graciously made my introduction that led to this opportunity, had told me that despite Mr. LaRatta's octogenarian status, to not underestimate his clarity of mind and aural sensitivity for music.  When I met Mr. LaRatta, I was at first struck by his raspy voice; it is mid-tenor yet husky.  When he takes a breath, it's almost as if he's searching for air from someplace deep within; it's like a prolonged gasp.  I would learn later from him that this was the result of a battle with lung cancer some decades ago due to chain smoking - I cannot tell you how glad I am that he survived!  But, I digress.

He led me to his studio, a standalone structure away from the house - I have a feeling it must be connected to the garage, but if so, it's remarkably soundproof - it felt like a warm cocoon of carpet, books, CDs, more books, and of course, two grand pianos crammed right up against one another like giant, boxy sardines (if there ever were such sardines).  Its clutter and Mr. LaRatta's warm demeanor made me feel oddly comfortable, despite my not knowing what to expect.  He has a penchant for using endearments such as "dear" and "babe", which he apologized for, explaining that it was an old habit.  It didn't bother me at all; I found it rather fitting.

He began by inviting me to sit in an armchair hopelessly mismatched with the one he sat in, across from me.  He asked me to tell him about myself, my musical background, my goals.  He prefaced that this was just to get to know me a little bit.  He was being cordial to break the ice; I knew that this was a "nice to know" - what really mattered was my playing.

Finally, he sat me down at the piano on the right; it was a black Yamaha salon grand that was well worn.  My first reaction was, "Oh, no ... me and Yamaha have never been a winning combination!" - I've never cared for most Yamaha pianos, due to a prevalence of glassy, extroverted shiny sound; I always worry that the tones will run away from beneath my fingers as I helplessly played on.  I like warm-centered pianos for those Romantic and Impressionist treasures.  (Can you imagine requesting a piano for a recital or concert by saying, "Medium rare, please!"?  Neither can I, but it would be a good laugh.)  But my goal is to be able to play on any piano and in any situation, well.  And at the moment, I had no choice.

Before I could think any further, I shifted on the piano bench and lurched violently; the seat was giving way!  "Don't worry, you won't fall," Mr. LaRatta rasped, explaining that it was just old.  It was one of those concert benches that adjust by rolling a knob on the side.  It gave me such a fright - this was not helping!  My heart was pounding.

"Listen, I need to step out for a moment, dear, just play around and get to know the piano a little bit," he told me, and I nodded, bewildered, as he made his way to the door and left.

Uh, okay.  (Only later did I realize what a clever ploy this was.)

Tentatively, I played a C major scale - totally safe and harmless - eight notes, two octaves.  Then it was the relative harmonic minor in A, during which I botched a G-sharp in descent.  An arpeggio.  I hesitated.

Then, I figured, why not?  Let's see what this piano sounds like.  I launched into Schumann's Valse Noble from Carnaval, the same piece I'd played on the Steinway that now graces my home, when it was still in the front of the Sherman Clay showroom in San Francisco.  I found the touch a bit unpredictable, but I tried my best to shape the tones - rich with grandeur in the opening, hushed and mignon in the middle.  As I came to the repeat, the door opened and Mr. LaRatta came in, his eyes sharp as he looked at me meaningfully, his palms pressing downward, "Shh," he said.  I quieted down, swelled, quieted again, lingered.  Then onto the grandiose waltz and finally into a hushed ending as he guided me from across the soundboard.

The remainder of the hour was Mr. LaRatta asking me what I've played, what I was working on, coaching me on my hands ("You have small hands, dear, can you really play those chords?" he asked, when I told him I was working on Ravel's Valses Nobles et Sentimentales - I played the opening chords for him.  "You really can!" he said, with satisfaction.), and dispensing interesting nuggets about music: "You have to play three composers: Bach for technique and voice leading, Brahms for depth, and Debussy or Ravel for coloring.  And that's it!  You've got it all, you can play anything!"

When he asked me why I hadn't brought a notebook for him to write assignments in, I was speechless; I couldn't say that he'd told me this wouldn't be a lesson; it was an audition, after all ... but as he chided me about my not coming with one, it dawned on me that he was in effect saying that he would teach me!

WOW!  "I would love to teach you.  In fact, I think it will be rather fun to teach you," he told me.  He told me I was well trained and that I played quite well.

Did I say, "WOW!"?  My first official lesson was scheduled for January 7th, shortly after the New Year, and before I left, he said, "Now you take good care of those hands, you hear?"  I figured it wouldn't be a good idea to tell him that I practice tumbling ... but I don't think I do anything dangerous.

I was dancing on air, exhilarated and almost incredulous.  I had myself a piano teacher!  And not just any piano teacher, it was Mr. LaRatta!  I couldn't wait to tell Dr. Hartwell and Sheila Raleigh, my first piano teacher.  Ironically, I still haven't told my parents, because they will probably tell me I should focus on important things.  Sigh.  They love music, but it's not something to be serious about.  I will break the news to them when I have made more progress.

After all this, my stomach made Chewbacca-like noises to inform me that I was incredibly hungry.  It was on to Jeffrey's in San Mateo, where I proceeded to wolf down a burger and onion rings.  It was the best meal ever.  After all that initial doubt, I'd received some validation from a well respected piano teacher that I was a competent player!  I still have constant self-doubt to deal with, but I have to take things one step at a time.  For the moment I could revel: I'd received the best Christmas gift; a new start with a piano teacher!