Guest contributor: Thierry Kauffmann

The Piano Lesson

categories: Cocktail Hour


Thierry Kauffman at the piano

[Today Bill and Dave’s International welcomes guest poster Thierry Kauffman.  Drumroll, please!]


I am a writer, musician, painter with Parkinson. I live in France with my parents. I spent seventeen years in the Midwest, first as a graduate student in science.  Then I taught for a few years before finding a job as financial analyst. After I was diagnosed, I lost everything except my family and my sense of humor.  I start my day at the absolute bottom, unable to walk, so I sit, take my pill, turn facebook on. I connect with a world of amazing friends, such as Bill Roorbach.

My life has been an Odyssey, between France and the US, science and art, love and healing. I have met exceptional people along the way, godsends, wishing stars, who appeared at critical moments in my life to guide its course, and help me reach higher. One of them was Madeleine de Valmalete, virtuoso pianist in her days, the 1930’s and 1940’s. She came to my hometown to teach, and I had the priviledge of being one of her students. Her story, along with others, are part of this memoir that I’m writing and finishing, for the second time.

I have projects for the future, one is to publish my memoir. The other is to be able to travel again, and visit my daughter, who works in New York City.


The Piano Lesson

The first thing I notice in the vast hall of the Music Conservatory, whose windows as tall as cathedrals are covered with dark shades, through which the light from the morning sun filters, is the piano.

I do not grasp its full size at first sight, and must turn my head left where the piano narrows, and then right to return to the keyboard. A woman sits erect on a seat next to it. Her blond hair is held together in a bun. She has the poise and dignity of a Greek statue and looks at me with intensity. An impression both of calm and of a storm contained, ready to burst, emanate from her. She is wearing an evening gown as if she were preparing to climb on stage to play. I step closer.

I am here for my first piano lesson with Madeleine de Valmalete. I am barely twelve; two generations separate us. Ms. Fiorina, my previous teacher spoke to my mother. “There are piano teachers, and then there is Madeleine. I’d rather not say anything about her, and let your son find out. This will be a total failure, or the encounter of his life.”

I am nervous, impressed, excited. Ever since Ms Fiorina told me that she could no longer teach me, but that instead I should go to the conservatory, I have lost sleep. I have been dreaming about this moment for all my life, which is short, but is all I have. I am determined not to fail.

Madeleine smiles, rises, and takes my hand. She examines it with her fingers as much as with her eyes. After a long pause she says, “You have fingers like those of Liszt.”

I start blushing.

“But do you also have his heart?”

The question leaves me speechless..

“You are surprised. You hadn’t thought of that. You should.”

I search in vain for an answer. I must look panicked, for Madeleine suddenly laughs.

“I didn’t mean for you to answer this question right now! There’s plenty of time for that.”

I feel like a fool. Of course she didn’t mean right away. I almost laugh at myself. I turn slightly toward the piano, expecting the lesson to start. Madeleine hasn’t moved.

“When you do find the answer,” she says “tell me. Or better still, don’t say anything. I will hear it.” She speaks as if she could read my mind,  my essence, everything I am.  “Do you understand what I’m telling you?” asks Madeleine. Her eyes are like embers. It is impossible to escape their grip.

“You want to know if I have a heart” I venture. I’m trying to buy more time, hoping my answer will appease her, at least for a while. I feel like my mind is on fire.

“I know you have one, otherwise you would not be standing here. I also know you have a “heart”, every young man your age does. The heart I’m talking about, the musical heart, is something else entirely. It is the one that tells your fingers how to sing. This is the one that interests me.  The point is not to try and copy Liszt. You would fail. It is about finding your heart, your voice. That is what music is about. That is why you are here.”

We have been standing next to the piano all this time. And still not a single note has been played. Our conversation defies gravity.

“Do you sing?” Madeleine continues.

I say yes and mention this choir I’m in.

“Very good. You must sing. The piano is nothing but a song sent by your hands. From heart to strings,” she says, as she rises.

I follow her.

“See these hammers, they are the ones that strike the strings. They are covered with felt to cushion the blow against the strings. Otherwise, the piano would sound like a harpsichord. Here lies the resonance table. Below, two pedals. One for … “Madeleine looks at me, awaiting my answer.

“Mute.” I say. “Deaden the sound .. and the other to extend its duration.”

“Now you put your hands on the keyboard, ready to play. You bend your hand as if you were clutching a ball. Wrist down, almost touching the keyboard.”

I put my hands but they move, and I have to struggle to keep the original shape.

“The hand does not shake,” she says, readjusting my fingers. “It is relaxed, flexible, ready to pounce, to fly. It touches the keyboard, but does not rest on it. ” She puts her hands on the keyboard. “Elbows, free, shoulders down, relaxed, wrist connects the hand to the body. They are the anchor, the cornerstone, the backbone. Your turn.”

I think I know what she wants, but I soon find out otherwise. Madeleine corrects all my moves, one by one. I feel taken apart, examined, scrutinized. My self-confidence is washed away under a torrent of sharp rebuttals: “Don’t be content, nor complacent. Be right.” says Madeleine. Then she moves closer to me. She puts her hands on my shoulders and presses down and out. Her voice changes. It slows down, warms up the air around us. Light dances on the piano.

“From the center, the spine, to your arms, like a waterfall.” She takes my hands. “Be still. Be alert.” She is almost chanting. Her voice wells up like a storm.  Like a tiger, a fire, strong, never wild, fast, never hurried. You are the interpreter, the magician.” She takes my arms and makes them swirl like the wind on the surface of a lake. “You speak and your words are brushstrokes, meteors, a world is born under your hands, you speak a wish, a yearning, …”

Madeleine holds my arms in the air, hesitates “…a regret…” then falls softly, still holding my hands. Her eyes sparkle and she lifts my arms straight up. “But regrets, regrets never last, and soon life springs, hope, higher, always higher, and then darkness sets in. But it too doesn’t last, one last try, stand tall, rise, touch the sky!” Her arms are taut together with mine. Time stops, holding its breath. “and then silence. You take a bow. You always play for an audience, before God, never for yourself. Don’t try to play for God, art is in humility.”

All throughout the lesson, Madeleine distills her wisdom:

“Do not play the piano,  let it play. Listen first, then play. That is to say do both at the same time.”

“Your mind reads one bar ahead. Of course, when I say “read”, I mean read the essential. Take this bar, for example. What are the essential notes? ”

I start thinking.

“It’s very simple. Remove all notes, then put them back in until the song changes its meaning.

I isolate three notes as essential, and play them.

“Oh no! The direction is changing. The tone is drier, whereas before we had a plaintive melody. Do you understand what I mean by plaintive? The composer is not complaining, of course.”

I nod.

“Complaint is here in the sense of pain, grief, spiritual, sometimes physical, but still a pain of being, and can not be erased.”
Madeleine looks through the sheet music, as if it were transparent. Her eye is on other shores, far away from the life that I know. “Have you experienced this kind of pain?”

I shake my head, uncertain as to what she means.

“It does not matter, because you’re here not to express your pain, but that of others. It is your role as an artist. Your life will become real, when you touch a soul.”

She puts her hand on my shoulder. “Touching a heart is easy. But hearts break, they cannot handle pressure. But a soul, that is quite another responsibility. You cannot lie to it. Each note you play should lift it up, not down. And what happens when you end a piece, when you play the final chords? What is it that makes  the soul not die? You bring life but you cannot take it back. So you leave it. Your life. Like Christ. Only not to the same extent. When you end a piece, you die. It’s not real death, but it’s strong, powerful. And if you have faith, you live again, but not again. New. Wiser, closer to above. Now play.”

  1. Deb Gould writes:

    I had a piano teacher like that, too, back in 1958 when I was twelve years old and lived in Portland. Her name was Ocy Downs, and her apartment windows overlooked Congress Square and Hays Drugstore. She had two (two!) grand pianos in her living room, and when both lids were open, they were the wings of a bird, lifting, rising.

    “Hear it first inside you,” she’d say. “Play it for yourself inside your heart, then play for me what you hear.”

    • Hello Deb,

      What a unique and beautiful memory. Two pianos! And the same message, listen with your heart. I hope you still play. Thank you for leaving your kind words.

  2. George de Gramont writes:

    Wonderful essay. Hard to realize that english is not Thierry’s first language.