by Lisa McDivitt
By the time Liz and Greg were able to get together to practice the Dukas, it was five o’clock on a Saturday night, a couple weeks before the recital. Liz had just been to the Juilliard dining hall where she used the rest of her month’s meal plan on a bag full of cartons of orange juice and bottles of water.
Liz and Greg strolled throughout the fourth floor hallways searching for a practice room. Most were occupied. Liz had already stuck a straw in one carton of orange juice and sipped on it as they passed each room, observing the exorbitant number of pre-college students. Pre-college students attend Juilliard from their single-digit years all the way through high school. They often commute into the city, and always have classes on weekends. According to Liz and Greg, they dominate the halls and practice rooms every Saturday. The only open room on the fourth floor housed a five-foot Steinway, the black paint chipped away from the wood. Greg snatched it up and called for Liz to join him. Plopping their books, backpacks, orange juice and coats on the closed lid of the piano, Liz and Greg settled onto the bench, and the two were ready to begin.
That night they planned to practice their new pieces, the Mozart and the Dukas. For every piece, Liz and Greg decide who will play primo, or the upper part, and who will play secondo, or the lower part. Liz and Greg refer to it as who is “on top,” or “on bottom.” Unlike some four-hand teams, Liz and Greg can play either position. Greg plays on top for their Schubert and their Piazzolla, and Liz plays on top for the Mozart and Dukas.
“Let’s practice it until we get frustrated,” Greg said of the Mozart, and they began. Several measures into the piece, they stopped. “Wow, this piano is not in good condition,” Liz said after enough missed notes had caused them to pause. Greg said that the piano was out of tune and sounded thuddy. “It doesn’t have a singing tone,” he said. “It makes noise, and then overtones come out of the piano that have nothing to do with what’s being played.” Greg laughed and said that he was glad he did not have to play in Liz’s register. But even a piano like that, when they play, takes you somewhere else. So despite the thuddy notes and the bizarre overtones, Liz and Greg practiced the singing tones and clear melody of Mozart’s sonata again. And then they played it again, and again, and again.
“Mozart’s music is really difficult,” said Liz. “It’s extremely exposed and transparent. Because [the C major sonata] is such a great piece, we need to work on every little detail.”
After about 40 minutes, the two decided to transition from the Mozart to the Dukas. Whereas Liz had already been practicing the Mozart on her own before that night, she had yet to lay eyes on the Dukas. While Liz folded up the Mozart book, Greg put his shoes on the wrong feet and swung his legs over Liz’s lap to show her what he had done.
“Greg!” Liz said, drawing out his name in mock frustration. Greg laughed hard and kicked off his shoes, sending them next to the pedal, near Liz’s feet. Now without shoes, Greg pulled out the sheet music for the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” “I have an easy opening,” Greg said, referring to the silence in his register as Liz played out the first few strands of the famous melody. Soon, Greg snuck in just below Liz’s hands and the piece began to expand and grow with the two of them. They began conjuring up more and more of the unsettling phrases. It was unsettling partly because of the nature of the piece and partly because they had never played it together before. Soon they stopped. Greg took a pencil to the score. “We just erased six measures,” he said. “Dukas is rolling over in his grave as we play,” Liz dryly remarked and they began the piece again. As they worked their way through the music, using what seemed to be every key on the piano, Liz and Greg took turns making notes, in pencil, on their respective sides of the score.
After they started into one section, Greg stopped, so Liz stopped.
“Was that early? Sorry,” Liz said, then added, “I got confused by your extra notes.”
“It’s a much bigger ritardando,” said Greg, “Much slower than we’re doing now.”
“But it’s not written,” Liz said. “Well,” Greg took the pencil to the paper, and he wrote it in, smiling.
“What’s this?” Liz asked, pointing to some numbers in the margins of her page.
Greg looked at it for a moment, confused, then laughed. “Oh, apartment dues.” He erased where he had done the math for what he owed in rent while he had been composing at home.