May 21, 2011

Classical Ricky

Usually more classic than classy, the side of me most people don't know is Classical. At last year's "Who Knew" i surprised the community with Rachmaninov, and this afternoon i once again don the suit and tickle the ivories in a benefit concert.

Growing up as an extremely active, athletic boy, piano provided a balance and artistic expression i somehow knew i needed. While still in kindergarten my parents declared me too young for lessons, so i walked 3 blocks down to johnny hannah's teacher and asked her to teach me. "How are you going to pay me?" asked the stern Dutch woman. "I'll cut your lawn" answered the determined blond boy. And so began the piano career (she then called my parents and convinced them to relieve me from child labour).

I loved playing, singing along, and mastering. I loved performing and being part of the bi-weekly chamber music concerts - a group of older musicians and music-lovers who helped me grow up as a musician. I loved tug-o-wars with her crazy dog Flip - a necessary distraction for a boy who could rarely sit for more than 10 minutes.

Then one afternoon - i remember the exact moment - i started to love the music. After playing Chopin's Valse in G Flat, my beloved Mrs. Verkirk (who like most Dutch people I've met since, have a heart of pure gold under that gruff manner) had tears in her eyes and said I'd played it "with feeling." I didn't know i had - was just letting it flow - but from that moment i defined myself as a person who played with feeling, and learned to share my emotions freely.

Decades later, while courting Sarah by email from Africa, she casually asked what I was like as a lover. In an inspired and earnest line that pretty much sealed the marriage deal, I wrote, "Like my right ring finger lingering on F-sharp in La Sarabande by Gabriel Grovlez."

Piano's been useful for many things in addition to picking up wives. One high school ski trip I was excused from all dishwashing duties if I'd play during clean-up. I earned much of my college money playing in Vancouver restaurants and fashion shows, and regular meals at the Holiday Inn in Costa Rica. Stuck in Windsor Ontario after my first time (of many) being refused entry into the US, i played in the student lounge until a group of girls took me home for the night then smuggled me across the border the next morning.

But mostly it's been useful as an outlet, a connector, an explorer. I get deeply lost in music, freely floating between my fingers and soul, dancing through a new musical world and trusting my fingers to somehow follow. I love to look at a new piece and hear it singing in my head, then let it unfold as i learn the mechanics of playing it. Other times, especially in adolescence, a good pounding of Beethoven was the only way to let it all out, and a gentle stroking of Chopin the only voice of my awakening.

This afternoon i'll share Chopin's Valse in E Minor, long one of my favourites. From when i learned it at age 15 to when i finally mellowed ('matured') as a performer/man, i'd be literally shaking by the climax, and needed every one of those final ten "colando" bars to bring myself and the music back down to a resting place. I'm a bit less of a method actor these days, able to bring true emotion balanced by enough control to make the performance a bit less naked and more musical. But playing piano is still a unique and intimate exploration and expression of my Self, every bit as surprising to myself as to those who haven't met that part of me. So come on out to Duncan Reformed Church at 2:00 and share an afternoon with Classical Ricky.


  1. my little musician (I knew when he was six months old he would be one), just graduated from IU with his BA in music composition. He plays guitar and sax, but like all music majors, he does play the piano (and is never satisfied with his ability to do so). He started the violin at age 4.

  2. I love this whole post, Rick. On the drive home last Monday, I asked a car load of related-to-me kids a "would you rather" question- would they rather be an art historian in the Louvre, researching and writing on the greatest art in the world and presenting it to people, or a concert musician. Only K. choose art, everyone else - music. Mavis

  3. ah mavis, but were they choosing between art and music, or between curating and creating?