Piano lessons : music, love & true adventures

by Noah Adams

Paper Book, 1996




New York : Delacorte Press, 1996.


Piano Lessonsis Noah Adams's delightful and moving chronicle of his fifty-second year--a year already filled with long, fast workdays and too little spare time--as he answers at last a lifelong call: to learn to play the piano.  The twelve monthly chapters span from January--when after decades of growing affection for keyboard artists and artisans he finally plunges in and buys a piano--through December, when as a surprise Christmas present for his wife he dresses in a tuxedo and, in flickering candlelight, snow falling outside the windows, he attempts their favorite piece of music, a difficult third-year composition he's been struggling with in secret to get to this very moment. Among the up-tempo triumphs and unexpected setbacks, Noah Adams interweaves the rich history and folklore that surround the piano.  And along the way, set between the ragtime rhythms and boogie-woogie beats, there are encounters with--and insights from--masters of the keyboard, from Glenn Gould and Leon Fleisher ("I was a bit embarrassed," he writes; "telling Leon Fleisher about my ambitions for piano lessons is like telling Julia Child about plans to make toast in the morning") to Dr. John and Tori Amos. As a storyteller, Noah Adams has perfect pitch.  In the foreground here, like a familiar melody, are the challenges of learning a complex new skill as an adult, when enthusiasm meets the necessary repetition of tedious scales at the end of a twelve-hour workday.  Lingering in the background, like a subtle bass line, are the quiet concerns of how we spend our time and how our priorities shift as we proceed through life.  ForPiano Lessonsis really an adventure story filled with obstacles to overcome and grand leaps forward, eccentric geniuses and quiet moments of pre-dawn practice, as Noah Adams travels across country and keyboard, pursuing his dream and keeping the rhythm. From the Trade Paperback edition.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member TadAD
At age 52 Noah Adams, former host of NPR's All Things Considered, gave into his secret desire to learn to play the piano and went...pretty much on impulse...to Steinway and bought an upright. This book recounts his first year after the purchase.

There are a lot of things that make this book fun. It's full of little anecdotes from his years of interviewing performers. It has plenty of humorous moments, both at the piano and away from it. It's written with an engaging style that makes the pages fly, clearly communicating his love for piano music.

Perhaps most of all, this isn't some tale of overwhelming inspiration or secret genius that leaves you feeling terribly mortal in a world of giants—he's bad about practicing, he freezes up in recitals, he's overly ambitious ("there's this piece Horowitz plays that I'd like to learn this first year"), he can't decide on how he should learn (self-teaching course?, workshops?), he gets discouraged a lot when gratification is slow. In other words, he comes across as a completely real everyman.

I had a lot of fun with this one.
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LibraryThing member pilgrimess
This is the review I wrote for Amazon, hope it's OK that I post it on here.

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I am confused and disappointed by other reviews of this book that claim Noah Adams went about learning the piano all wrong. Readers who were hoping for hints about practice and technique have missed out on a thoroughly good read, all because of their misguided approach to this wonderful story of one man's musical quest. This is not a "how to" book, and nor should it be.

What makes this book such a treasure is the exact same thing as what one reviewer callously calls "banal fluff": talking about his wife, his love for a piece of music that he longs to play but fears he can't, his experiences of meeting and talking with other musicians, his knowledge of pianos and of music in general, and his passion and appreciation for music of many styles. The process of learning a musical instrument is a journey, and Noah tells us of his. From the first chapter, when he talks of the secret desire he has held for years to buy a piano, to the last chord of Schumann's `Traumerei' which he plays as a Christmas present for his wife, this book entranced me with the joys and the struggles of learning to play an instrument. Yes, he may have got there faster if he'd spent more time practicing and less time procrastinating, but chances are the results would have been far less rewarding, and the book would certainly have been far less interesting.

Ultimately, if you genuinely have a passion for music, there is no right or wrong way to go about learning. Noah did it this way, and he got there in the end. Who are we to criticise?
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LibraryThing member sarahlouise
This book would drive piano teachers crazy as NA spends most of a year trying to learn piano without a teacher. What I remember about reading it when it came out in 1997 was how it allowed for a man in his fifties to try something new, that you're never too old to chase a dream. This time around (2007), I thought, by gosh, when will he get a teacher? But I was grateful for the information like heat is bad for a piano. And I will probably read most of the books he refers to. Someday, I know, I will learn again to play the piano (more than my current repetoire of "Lightly Row.")… (more)
LibraryThing member TimBazzett
I LOVED this book. How come, I wonder? Lemme see, maybe it was an early reference to the resonant bass chords from Jerry Lee Lewis' fifties recording of "Whole Lot of Shakin' Goin' On" which really hooked me. Or it could have been Adams' casual remarks about growing up in southern Ohio (which, as everyone knows, is ALmost Kentucky), with the jacket flap photo of his 13 year-old self w/ a modified DA and shades - a persona that I once went through too. But most probably it was his self-professed life-long fascination with music and musicians - music of ALL kinds; there's no evidence of musical snobbery here, although Adams obviously knows a helluva lot more about classical music than I ever will. In fact the piece he picks to try to learn in the course of a year of studying the piano is Schumann's "Traumerei," a composition which I don't know at all (did I spell that composer's name correctly?), but it becomes evident in the course of the narrative, that it is NOT an easy piece to learn, and certainly not for a beginner. So it wasn't the classical part that drew me in. No, it was the all-music-is-good attitude that Adams displayed that attracted me. And maybe his nearly year-long attempt to learn to play (by ear) "Misty," an old jazz favorite of mine (and yes, I do know the Eastwood film too). His talks and interviews with music teachers - in downtown NYC and on a mountaintop in Vermont, as well as a whole family of piano teachers in a music camp for adults - are also arrestingly interesting, as are his talks with Minnesota pianists Lori Line and Butch Thompson, who talked of his truck-driving father, who taught him to love the big band and jazz music of the 40s, while Butch tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to introduce his dad to Jerry Lee and Elvis.

"He did like, my dad, to hear Elvis sing 'Peace in the Valley'."

Glen Gould, Horowitz, Mancini, Eubie Blake, Pinetop Perkins, Teddy Wilson - so many piano players and "pianists" are mentioned here that it's hard to remember them all. But the thing is, Piano Lessons is really mostly a love story. It's about loving music, of course, but it's also, at least peripherally, about how much Adams loves his wife and how he keeps on plugging away over the course of a busy year, trying to make time to learn the piano, so he can play this one beautiful piece ("Traumerei") as a special gift to her. And he succeeds. Admittedly, he makes mistakes and falters, but it's a gift that matters. And this is a book that matters too, especially if you are a music lover. Bravo, Maestro Adams!
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