When I was at UCLA, I auditioned for and got into an Advanced Piano class. This was the highest level of piano performance study in the Music Department, and I was honored to have been accepted.
It was a salon, held from 2 – 5 pm once a week. Students wandered in, waited their turn while others played, and then when it was their turn, played the piece they were working on, received criticism, and then left. It was taught by Joanna Harris, who was the wife of the great American composer Roy Harris. Joanna was by that time white-haired, flamboyantly dressed, and thought of herself as absolutely gorgeous despite her age, which was probably 75. She would listen, critique, rhapsodize, and essay on her students’ musical assets and shortcomings.
The students were possessed of a wealth of musical talent, I must say. Advanced piano students are truly la creme de la creme. The best and the worst by far, however, was a man named Howard.
Howard was Nerdus Maximus. He had unfashionable curly hair, a big, block-like head, and an ability to block out everyone else’s conversations except his own. He never listened. He would barrel into the salon, sit down, and play the most extraordinarily difficult musical pieces. They required incredibly fast and nimble fingers and contained extraordinarily complicated passages, but as a kind of display of skill, Howard would play them faster than they were meant to be played. I remember labyrinthine pieces by Liszt that nobody else could play. I remember them being banged out like mathematics. And once he hit the last note, Howard would lean back on the piano bench with a smug grin on his face and wait for his praise.
But Joanna didn’t play along. To her, the nerd had no clothes, and she would criticize Howard mercilessly. She would rant at him. She would pick apart his performance measure by measure, and then send him on his way.
Once, after Howard had left the salon, Joanna held forth on him to the rest of the class.
“He comes in here and plays these incredibly difficult pieces,” she said. “Well, of course he can play these pieces because he practices eight hours a day. The problem is that he has no soul. He has no feeling. He doesn’t do justice to any of those pieces, and it’s really just such a shame.”
It was amazing to hear a professor criticizing a student so severely, not for his skill but for his very soul, and it seemed like she had stepped over some sort of line. On the other hand, it also seemed that she had expressed some universal truth that I could not have received except at an extraordinary university like UCLA. I was extraordinarily grateful that I had been in that room at the moment, and in fact, most of what I remember from that salon were those words. It was an important truth: Feeling matters. Sometimes, it’s the only thing that matters.
I quit piano playing in my sophomore year and pursued writing with a vengeance. Strangely, I discovered that feeling is important in writing,, as well, in pretty much the same way. I’ve read authors who have no soul, for sure. That’s one of my problems with The Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, by Michael Chabon. It’s the way I feel about Anagrams, by Lorrie Moore. Writing isn’t some intellectual game that one plays in order to show off how attractive their cerebrum is. It’s the mother’s milk on which starved people suckle. It’s truth for searchers. It becomes the fabric of our lives.
Fifteen years after that original piano salon, I was in a party store in Santa Monica buying glitter for my New Year’s Eve party. My roommate had suggested that, to make things more festive, we should buy bags of glitter and toss them onto the carpet. It turned out to be a great and a poor idea at the same time. It was great because it made the place look like a funhouse. It was poor because in the three years I lived there, I could never completely vacuum it up. I was always finding little bits of glitter in some corner or other.
Anyway, that December 20, I had in my basket that glitter, plus paper streamers, paper cups, paper plates, paper flatware, and the like. Suddenly, I realized that I knew the curly hair in front of me. It was none other than Howard.
I tapped him on the shoulder.
“Are you Howard?” I said.
“I recognize you. We were in Joanna Harris’s class together back at UCLA.”
“Yes, I was in that class.”
After all these years, there was still no warmth in his voice. He didn’t ask what I was now doing because he didn’t care. However, I asked him what he was doing.
“Do you still play?”
“Oh no, I haven’t played in years,” he said. “I’m a surgeon now.”
Hearing that, it all came together for me, and in the days and weeks afterwards, it helped me explain the world. He wasn’t able to channel deep feeling through his fingers, but in surgery, that frigidity was an advantage. His soul was cold and calculating. It recognized nothing but complex patterns. Although he would never have been able to move the hearts of an audience, he was at last able to do something that fitted his skills perfectly.