Piano Player: Memoir and Master Class

Pianist Ruth Slenczynska, 89, Shows No Signs of Diminuendo
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A memoir is not a journal or diary.

My Nine Lives: A Memoir of Many Careers at the Keyboard

A memoir is not a Christmas letter. A memoir is not a chronicle.

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Ever keep a diary when you were a teen? Remember how unbearable the thought was that someone might see it?

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Yet how potent, really, do you think it would be if someone saw it today? Most early diarists tend to a then-I-did-this, then-I-did-that account of the mundane and quotidian. The goal in memoir is to take one step back from the ordinary and give it enough perspective to include and engage the reader. The details immerse the reader further into your story, details you might not include if writing for just yourself.

Memoir may not arc over an entire life, but it still tells a story. Ideally, you want a clear start, a gathering conflict, a resolution, and a fundamental change in you, the narrator, as a result this last part is important. Can you identify these elements in a theme?

Break it down, and consider possible themes.

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Then pick one, or even part of one. Or … start priming the pump with brief stories, anecdotes, incidents, and accounts, especially those you can situate in a particular time and place. Be generous with your details. Work on each piece separately, each of those miniatures, those glimpses, stories, and reflections that come to you and resonate.

Large events are best brought to life in smaller sketches and stories. The more detailed and personal the episodes, however minor, the more effective and, ironically, universal they become. Think small, William Zinsser reminds us.

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But if this is something you want to do, and if you do not want your story — or that of a family member — to die with you or them, then get started. Before, as Zinsser warns, time surprises us and runs out. The first class, in which he discussed modulation, consisted of philosophical reflections on existence—being somewhere, going somewhere, returning to where you thought you were.

There was to be nothing routine about establishing a key and then changing it: these were matters of deep significance. Plato and Aristotle were invoked. One left class frightened.


During the first weeks he played the piano very little. Thus we were unprepared when, during a preposterously difficult ear training exercise, he tossed off the first Chopin Etude. We were expected to write down a Roman numeral analysis as he played.

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The virtuosity was so dazzling that no one could even begin. We had to ask him please to slow down.

Piano Lessons: A Memoir

I remember a sheepish grin of embarrassment that he had perhaps been caught out in a display of technique rather than something loftier; he seemed more human and accessible from that point on. It was the year of the premiere of Attis , his setting of the Catullus poem for tenor, chorus and orchestra. This astonishing work, filled with great chains of tritones that snarled and lashed out at the audience, created such a stir that the Christian Science Monitor reported it as front-page news, drawing a parallel with the premiere of Le Sacre.

So wrapped up in Neapolitans, augmented sixths and diminished sevenths was he, though, that he never once mentioned to the class his own music or the attention it had just received. This was so enthusiastically received that the second movement was repeated.

The tape of this performance would be heard many times around Harvard in the immediate years ahead, as when a delegation of Russian composers came to visit. They were conspicuously impressed; and so was Leo Schrade, the Norton Lecturer in , who pronounced it a masterpiece. The first and only assignment was to take the sequence Victimae Paschali Laudes and subject it to some suitable transformation so that it could form the basis of music in a contemporary style.

The chant melody was to give us a link to the past as well as a common starting point; but the six of us were each encouraged to go in our own direction.

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Stylistic coherence and consistency—this was after all the sixties and he was a Boulanger pupil—were to be our aims. Only one member of the class resolutely resisted the notion of what was then considered a contemporary idiom: he preferred to write songs in the style of Schubert. This did not distress Robert: he took the effort seriously and gave advice about accompaniments and word setting. But what he was increasingly interested in at that moment was serial technique.

Janet is available to present to diverse groups. Her piece is suitable for private events in your home, places of worship, community centers and gathering places, as well as at colleges and schools. An upright or larger piano and screen and projector are required. Send a messag e to Janet to schedule a presentation. Download flyer for more information.

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