Harpsichord lessons slow a frenetic soul

I had envisioned the challenges I might encounter as a Knight Fellow: An intellectually demanding class or maybe a technological roadblock for my project. But nothing prepared me for the rigor of a dainty baroque instrument in a tiny room on the second floor of the Braun Music Center.

I never planned on taking the harpsichord. I had my sights on the piano. Thirty years after my last lesson, I figured this was the year to shore up my once passable skills.

Yet when I went to look up lesson times, harpsichord caught my eye. I had to laugh. The father of one of my best friends had built harpsichords and I had attended what seemed like 167 dinner parties over the years where the harpsichord’s superiority over the piano was explained to me in excruciating detail, sometimes with a Bach accompaniment.

I paused. Wasn’t this my year to try something new? And let’s face it, relearning piano was really only a new old. How hard could learning harpsichord be?

Very. But it wasn’t the instrument that proved to be my biggest obstacle and now, one of this fellowship year’s greatest gifts. It was learning timing – and not the musical kind.

I’m someone who careens through life at top speed – a good friend calls me the human pinball machine. This racing started as function – I was building a career and trying to experience as much life as I could cram into every 24-hour day. But at 45, it’s become form: I rush through what I’m doing to get to the next event, the next meeting, the next day.

That’s true for reading a book or even playing crazy eights with my five-year-old. I get an awful lot done, but when you are speed racing, you don’t wind up enjoying or remembering much. You don’t even remember why you are racing anymore.

So when I sat down at my first harpsichord lesson, I was thinking about a point I wanted to make in my Chinese geography class. As my wonderfully patient and talented teacher Elaine Thornburgh gave me my first piece of music – a Dutch song called “Silly Simon” – I calculated I could learn it in a few weeks, check off the “plays a little harpsichord” box and move on.

I bottomed out in my first week. With piano I am still able to bang out songs from “Guys and Dolls” and whatever ability I lost over the years I can smooth over with the sustaining pedal, a popular melody and hitting the keys forcefully enough to give depth and emotion.

Harpsichord is downright naked. There is no shortcut to join the notes together, no catchy tune for most people to hum along with. There are only your fingers to express music through phrasing and articulation – the length of each note.

To do it even poorly requires enormous amounts of practice and concentration. That means to really, really slow down.

And I did. It was frustrating at first to play one bar of music 46 times over. But on that 46th try, magic happened. First, I got it right. Second, I really felt it. And third, I didn’t want the music to end.

It’s probably an exaggeration to say that harpsichord is solely responsible for the change going on for me in experiencing life. Realizing I wasn’t happy with such a frenetic pace is part of the change I’m experiencing. Having an unstructured year at Stanford with no firm obligations was another.

But harpsichord was the first time this year that I slowed down enough to really experience something deep. Being utterly engrossed made me happy. I didn’t want to get to the next event. Now that is true for playing cards or sitting in a yoga class.

I’m still a horrible harpsichord player. But I am a happy one.