Unplayable pianos

On a December morning in 2019, I was pleased to see a new episode of Tim Harford’s podcast, "Cautionary Tales," in my playlist. The episode’s curious title, "Bowie, Jazz, and the Unplayable Piano," only increased my eagerness to listen to it.

As I bundled up for a cold winter’s walk to campus, I thought I was in for another of Harford’s entertainingly arcane stories. Through the metaphor of the unplayable piano, what I got was more like an entirely new way to see problems like switching mid-semester to remote teaching or, perhaps, teaching with an irreversible, progressive neurodegenerative disease.

A degenerative disease

I have Parkinson’s disease. Since my diagnosis in 2010, I have come to understand the degenerative part of "irreversible, progressive neurodegenerative disease."

Depending on my medication levels, I do not have the ability to write by hand in any useful way; typing is awkward and slow; my right hand and leg shake as if to the irregular beat of some silent song; I have become prone to uncomfortable cramping in my left leg that sometimes makes my walks to and from work an exercise in enduring to the end, and I have today a much softer voice and a much less nimble mind than I had just a few years ago.

Facing an unplayable instrument

As I listened to that podcast on my way to work, I learned that early in 1975, jazz pianist Keith Jarrett faced an unplayable instrument just hours before a highly-anticipated concert.

According to udiscovermusic.com, Jarrett "had arranged for a Bösendorfer 290 Imperial concert grand piano to be provided for the show. Unfortunately, the opera house staff wheeled out the wrong piano – a much smaller Bösendorfer baby grand. To make matters worse, it was a piano used for opera rehearsals and was in abject condition and badly out of tune.

For a renowned perfectionist such as Jarrett, who was fastidious about his pianos and possessed perfect pitch, the instrument was an abomination. When he was given the news that there was no time to get a replacement piano, Jarrett threatened to cancel the show. Making matters worse, Jarrett was not in good shape. He had been suffering from excruciating back pain for several days, a result of which was a run of sleepless nights. To cap it all, his condition was exacerbated by the exhausting five-hour, 350-mile drive he made to Cologne from a concert he’d given in Zurich. Given that situation, it was no wonder that the pianist was ready to call it a day."

Could I rise to the challenge?

After listening to Tim Harford’s podcast several times, my thoughts began to turn from appreciation for an interesting story cleverly told, to the realization that I, like Keith Jarrett, was faced with an unplayable piano. However, despite the unplayable piano on the stage, Jarrett had the deep skill and knowledge of his art to produce a concert that, "went on to become regarded as a classic and amassed sales of four million (to date, it’s still the best-selling piano album of all time)."

Would I - could I - rise to the challenge of not just teaching but thriving and even excelling on my own inadequate, even unplayable instrument?

Reasons to stop teaching

Just weeks after hearing that podcast, COVID-19 jumped from the news feed on my phone and into my life through an email from the university where I teach that stated, "All campus face-to-face classes are canceled beginning March 13 through March 17. Face-to-face classes will resume March 18 via remote instruction."

I imagine Keith Jarret running through the reasons why the concert had to be canceled: This isn’t the piano I asked for. This piano is too small. It is physically incapable of producing enough sound to fill this hall. There are dead keys that I would have to remember to avoid. It can’t even be tuned correctly. The pedals don’t work.

I remember running through the reasons why I needed to stop teaching: I didn’t ask for Parkinson’s disease. My voice is too small. I can’t produce enough volume to make myself heard. I look ridiculous, shaking as I do in front of a class. I just don’t have the chops to keep up with my students anymore. I don’t know how to teach remotely. The remote format will only accentuate my flaws and weaknesses.

My inspiration

It is hard for an ordinary teacher like me to fathom the depth of skill that a virtuoso like Keith Jarrett can summon up - or like some of the master teachers on this campus have - but Tim Harford’s podcast inspires me not to cancel the concert, not to call it a day, not to conclude that it can’t be done, but to get up and play my unplayable piano.

I think that you’ll enjoy the podcast episode as well.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The ParkinsonsDisease.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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