My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Revisiting Bach - a tribute to my grandfather

So I'm going to play at a memorial service...again. I think this is the third time I've had the chance to do this for a family member and although it's never easy, it gives me something to do besides just feeling sad. For some reason, though, preparing for my grandfather's memorial service has been different and I'm not sure exactly why. Perhaps this post will help me weave back and forth between possible explanations until I come across an answer that satisfies my heart and mind.  

My grandfather passed away about a month ago in San Francisco. He was in his late eighties and had been pretty gracefully holding off Parkinson's for years while he continued to try and serve as one of the retirement community's most beloved residents. Throughout the time my grandmother was still alive, my grandfather struck me as a very quiet man, for the most part. As I was growing up a block away from them, I didn't really have many conversations with him - they were usually mostly with my grandmother, with my grandfather serving as her back-up choir. I didn't know a whole lot about him through words, but rather through the times I spent with him in his workshop or in his garden. It is in those places that I learned about perfection, persistence, and artistry outside of music. To me, he was an artist in his own right; spending hours trying to build the perfect picture frame for their most recent art purchase, putting up Playbill cover after Playbill cover in the walls of their guest bathroom to serve as a scrapbook for my grandparents' love of drama, trimming the trees and grasses in their Japanese-style backyard until stepping into their garden felt like setting foot in Japan itself.  One thing that always puzzled me, however, about the time when my grandmother was still alive, was that they didn't seem to understand my love for music.  They were often critical of my parents, thinking that they must be pushing me - why else would I be spending all of my energy on it, in it, and around it?  Yet my grandfather, in my eyes, was an artist himself.  Couldn't he see that same quality in me?  

After my grandmother passed away about 10 years ago or so, my grandfather seemed to become a new man.  I won't delve into the psychology of all that, but I will say that at this time, he became a bit more vocal about his support for me as an individual and as a musician.  My husband and I performed twice at his retirement community and each time we did, my grandfather put his heart and soul into it - he became our personal cheerleader and public relations manager, all rolled up into one.  He would call me and ask me about how he should word the announcement about the concert in their newsletter; he wanted to put together a perfect poster that he could proudly have put on display; he wanted to make sure that we had everything we needed when we got there.  After the recital, he would bring it up over and over again, asking when we might be able to do it again and telling us all about the folks at the community and their comments about the performance.  If he hadn't known how to support me when my grandmother was alive, he certainly had taken a few lessons after her passing - there was no question in my mind about whether or not he understood what I'm all about - music.

A few months ago, while I was preparing for my Beethoven concerto performance, my grandfather's health quickly began to decline.  He was tired, and that became quite obvious, especially to my father.  It took me quite by surprise when I came home one evening to find the message light blinking on our answering machine and to discover that the message was from my grandfather who said that he would call back some other time.  I panicked since I knew my parents, who were primarily responsible for him, were on their way out to visit us.  What if something was really wrong?  What should I do?  I ended up calling the health center in the retirement community and asking if there was something wrong.  They quickly assured me that he was fine and handed the phone over to him.  When he picked up, he said that he had heard about my upcoming performance and wanted to know all the details.  He also wanted to wish me the best of luck.  At the end of the short conversation, he added, "I may just have to call again after the concert, to see how it went."  He followed through with this second phone call and although it was a very short conversation, as many of ours were, it meant more to me than if he had actually been able to come to the concert himself.  

With these memories fresh in my mind, my father asked me if I would play at my grandfather's memorial service.  Of course I agreed.  But he threw a bit of a curveball into the mix by asking if I'd play Bach's B-flat minor Prelude and Fugue from book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier.  If you don't already know this set, here's a video of the pianist, Edwin Fisher, performing.

To me, this music signifies anguish, not of a public type, but rather at an intensely private way.  I had learned this prelude and fugue a long time ago, when I was still living at home and it quickly became the prelude and fugue I performed whenever I had an occasion to perform it.  It also became a favorite of my parents.  I know these pieces intimately and can play them in my sleep yet I felt convicted that in order to play them at the service, I had to do more than just review them - I had to re-learn them and in doing so, revisit both Bach and my grandfather's life.  After two weeks of this double reflection, I have come to see yet again, how powerful music can be, especially at the end of one's life journey.  In the end, my grandfather made it clear to me that he did know and understand who I was as an artist even though it seemed like such an understanding was virtually impossible earlier in my life.  He was also not afraid to express that understanding.  For a man that mostly seemed like a quiet man during most of my earlier years, the fact that he could communicate this to me reveals to me that he was a man not completely set in his ways.  He was a man that wanted to get things right, a man that wanted to understand what he could and at the heart of it all, he was an artist too, in his own right.

So I am relearning Bach in honor of my grandfather.  And in the process I am discovering, yet again, that music does indeed have the ability to transform.


  1. Erica,

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful gift. Both the story and the profound recording were a bright light for me today. May the music grant you comfort and meaning in this time of loss.

    With warmest regards,

    Paul Kenyon

  2. Many thanks, Paul, for your kind words. I wasn't sure whether or not to write this post in such a public way but I felt to need to write about it and to get my thoughts out "on paper." Knowing that it brought some light into your day brings me great joy. Thank you for taking the time to share that with me.


  3. The prelude and fugue are beautiful, as are your comments on the power of music. Playing J.S. Bach's piano preludes has always been a way for me to pay tribute to my father, in life and after his passing. Thank you for sharing your story.