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Friday, June 21, 2013

By ear and by heart (2) by John von Daler

              We were waiting in a television studio for Oscar #Peterson to show up to play the piano in Palle #Mikkelborg's suite. One hour into our rehearsal Oscar's nephew arrived. Large, dark, and imposing, the young man looked so much like a mini-Oscar that you almost suspected the gods of acclimating us slowly to greatness. He had come to inspect the facilities, the piano, the bench, the lighting. The nephew spoke a while with the cameramen and lighting crew and seemed to reach small agreements with them. Finding everything in order he called to have his uncle sent on in, and indeed fifteen minutes later the real Oscar walked in.

                He was a huge man, garbed, nay packaged in a tremendous light suit. Around one of the middle fingers of his right hand he had a massive bandage wrapped many times in gauze and tape. The whole backing orchestra gasped at the sight of it. With that bandage how could Mr. Peterson ever explode into the lightning runs that were his trademark?
                We had not counted on the pride and dignity of the man. He sat down immediately at the piano and, as the great white finger glided bumpily along the wall above the keys, he shot off one incredible phrase after another. If you looked away you could not hear that he was playing with nine fingers and a white telephone pole.
                Palle Mikkelborg who is both a great musician and a humble man approached Mr. Peterson politely with a ballad written on sheet music. Apparently it had just been composed. Oscar Peterson took it and we accompanied him on a trial run with Palle conducting.
                After the run-through a cameraman approached Mr. Petersen. Could he possibly fold down the music stand at the front of the grand piano? The producer wanted pictures of the pianist's face taken across the length of the piano, strings and all.
                I had grown up with stories of the little Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart playing by heart some piece he just had heard for the first time. But I had never experienced anything like that in real life.
                Oscar Peterson did not hesitate a moment. He took the sheet music and handed it back to Palle who bowed, and put away the composition, which had been seen, comprehended and memorized in one sitting by the master. When we taped the program, Oscar Peterson played beautifully and by heart.
                Just to get the feel of the difficulty of Mr. Peterson's feat you might try right now to retell this story. No cheating!
                Let me repeat myself: How irritating it is that greatness actually is so simple.
                I guess you know what I mean.

My book, Pieces: A Life in Eight Movements and a Prelude (WiDo Publishing) is now available. Order through, the publisher or your local bookstore. Click to buy Pieces HERE. Please feel free to write a short review of the book in your own language at or GoodReads. Thanks for your support!

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