A Broken Piano

My favourite piece of music is Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert, an hour-long piece improvised, as all of Jarrett’s concerts are, on a solo piano in front of a live audience. You know the story, right?


For the concert, he’d requested a particular piano, a Bösendorfer. The Bösendorfer originated in Vienna early in the nineteenth century. It is said to be the first concert piano able to stand up to the playing technique of the young virtuoso, Franz Liszt, whose tough, unforgiving treatment of the pianos he played destroyed them in short order.  Perhaps the Bösendorfer’s durability was the reason Jarrett requested one for the concert. The 29-year old jazz musician was known for his eccentric stagecraft, his improvisations played with enormous athleticism and physicality. It’s fair to say he is tough on an instrument, that he plays unconventionally, even wildly, racing over the keys, standing up, sitting, leaning, panting, moaning. His performances move him—and anyone listening—through the disorder and miracle of creative endeavour.  Watching him is watching genius itself, that raw work that is cleaned up only by its imitators.


In short, he needs a good piano.


January 24, 1975. Jarrett arrives to the venue the afternoon of the concert, He is presented with his Bösendorfer. He stands with Manfred Eicher, the man who will one day found ECM Records and who arranged Jarrett’s sell-out concert tour. The piano he has been given for the concert is a Bösendorfer, all right, but it is puny, ancient, totally unsuitable.


Jarrett taps a few keys and finds it is not only the wrong size, incapable of producing enough volume for a concert performance, but also completely out of tune. The black keys don’t all work. The high notes are tinny; the bass notes barely sound and the pedals stick.


Eicher tells the organizer, a teenaged girl named Vera Brandes, that the piano is unsuitable. Either they get a new piano for Jarrett, or there will be no concert.


In a panic, the girl does everything she can to get another piano, but she can’t find one in time. She manages to convince a local piano tuner to attend to the Bösendorfer, but there isn’t much they can do about the overall condition of the instrument.


In the end, Jarrett agrees to play. Not because the piano was fixed up to the extent that he felt comfortable performing, but because he took pity on poor, young Vera Brandes, just seventeen years old and not able to shoulder so great a failure as losing the only performer on a sold-out night.


So he performs on the dreadful instrument. He does what he has to do, not because he thinks it will be good, but because he feels he has no choice.


Tim Harford, the author of Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Lives, describes what happened next better than I can, so I will quote from his wonderful book. “The substandard instrument forced Jarrett away from the tinny high notes and into the middle register. His left hand produced rumbling, repetitive bass riffs as a way of conveying up the piano’s lack of resonance. Both of these elements gave the performance an almost trance-like quality.”


Jarrett overcame the lack of volume by standing up and playing the piano very hard. He stood, sat, moaned, writhed, and pounded the piano keys.  You can hear him on the recording, the agony of the music, his effort at creating any sound at all. He sweated out what must have been an excruciating hour, and he triumphed. The Köln Concert has sold 3.5 million copies and is perhaps the most beautiful, transformative piece of music I’ve ever heard. It makes me cry to hear it, especially if I recall the courage it took for him to perform in front of a live audience on an unplayable piano with that desperate girl in the wings, wringing her hands, hoping beyond hope that he didn’t rise from the stool and walk out. Hoping nobody noticed her great failure to produce the right piano for this most important occasion.


Describing his performances,  Jarrett says, “Solo concerts are about the most revealing psychological self-analysis imaginable.” I’m willing to bet that’s true, but I would suggest that being confronted with a child with autism (or any serious disorder) is similarly revealing. In the same way in which Jarrett’s solo performances require him to take an enormous risk that unfolds note-for-note in front of an audience of observers—some cheering him on, even loving him, others waiting for him to make a mistake about which they can later comment—the parents of autistic children are fully exposed as they embark on the most difficult of endeavours: raising a child with autism.


I don’t want to draw too much on the metaphor—obviously, my son is not a piano. I am not a musical genius. But since the day my son was diagnosed, I have been having to improvise in uncertain conditions.   I’ve been doing my best, as do the parents of every autistic child I’ve met, confronting the whole situation with a defenselessness and exposure that would be taxing enough if a child’s life weren’t at stake. Contorting myself, standing up, moaning, and trying to muster a little more every day, trying to help my son do the things that most ordinary children do with an effortlessness that astonishes me.


I’ve performed semi-publicly, sitting uncomfortably in meetings with doctors and school officials, presenting my son’s case. I have reasoned with, explained, begged, and argued on his behalf.  I’ve stated aloud almost every year that I am not entitled to make “deals” with the education authorities or barter away his rights.  When I am not in meetings I am with him, teaching him one-to-one, hour after hour, year after year, from age 3 forward.  In turns, I have been disparaged and congratulated, ridiculed and praised. Those who told me I was wrong or misguided or pathetic or unreasonable came and went. The ones who thought I was doing well (in truth, that Nick was doing well as that was our only important measure) were kind and encouraging but also went on their way elsewhere, back “to the world”, as I’ve come to call it. They filled in their forms and annual reports, performed their audits on his language and skills, and added their paperwork to the files that tracked my efforts and Nick’s achievements.


We started all this seventeen years ago. Some of the people who worked with him have left their jobs, retired or died. That’s how long its been. And I’m still here with my piano, which turns out to be a far more robust instrument than anybody imagined. And it plays something very beautiful if given the right circumstances, too.


Every so often, I listen to the Köln concert.


Jarrett is quoted as saying, “I was due to go onstage soon, we’d had so many hassles, and the piano was such a terrible instrument. And I hadn’t slept anyway. So I was in almost hell—” He was then served late at a restaurant and when the food came it was terrible. He went on stage exhausted and ill-fed and had to invent a way to make things work.


Which he did.


Which I did. And I am willing to bet anybody with a child with autism reading this has done, too. In the middle of the night, when they are frightened of something ubiquitous and unavoidable (birds is one example; my friend’s daughter is scared of birds), when they can’t write a sentence or speak intelligibly or find their shoes, pen, phone, money, ticket….and they are eighteen.


Jarrett expected a working piano. He didn’t get it. However, the concert ended up being perfect because of the piano and all its faults and idiosyncrasies.


Living your life with a child like mine, though not always easy, is a transformational experience. I’ve moved from the initial shock that Nick’s brain wasn’t “neurotypical” to getting to grips with helping him develop and learn in whatever way he could, to watching him do it all himself. A long time ago, we taught him, sound for sound, word for word, how to speak. In a diary I made columns for words he said that day and words he tried to say. I had columns for words he responded to, as well. To give you some idea of where we started, my first task for “receptive language” was to teach him to respond to his own name. Every day we made sure to repeat the words said, the words he responded to, then added some more. Progress was slow, then faster as he made the necessary connections between speech and controlling his environment. If he wanted a toy, he could say it’s name. “Thomas,” he said (or a near enough approximation), and then pointed to the train as we taught him to do. He got Thomas the Tank Engine. “Gul,” he said, his word for “milk”. And he got milk.


We taught him how to play by videoing ourselves playing with his toys and then showing him the video. It sounds crazy, I know. But we were dealing with his brain, an unusual instrument that preferred to learn in 2-D.


And then, he took over. I’m no longer in charge of developing his abilities, he is. I still work with him, but I recognise that my role isn’t so much about helping his mind to develop as helping him adapt to adult life. I have come to appreciate his mind with all its unique features and unusual movements of thought.  While still “on the spectrum” and demonstrating any number of obvious traits to that effect, he is nonetheless a sound thinker with an imagination. He watches the news in several languages, including Chinese and Arabic, produces videos and comic strips, stays in touch on-line with people all over the world.


It’s “the world” that I am worried about, however, his transition to independence, if that is even achievable, that worries me. I am hoping that I live long enough to finish the work here, to watch him live a life of his own, as happy and fulfilled as can be reasonably expected of any person. He’s so close, you know. Autistic people vary greatly, with some being considered “low functioning” and some being considered “high functioning”. But it seems to me that there is one hell of a difference between “high functioning” and able to live an independent life.


I’m hoping he makes the leap. I tell myself to be brave, move forward boldly and with confidence. After all, I’ve already seen him achieve greatly despite his many challenges, and he’s not done yet.


About the Köln concert, Keith Jarrett said, “What happened with this piano was that I was forced to play in what was — at the time — a new way. Somehow I felt I had to bring out whatever qualities this instrument had. And that was it. My sense was, ‘I have to do this. I’m doing it. I don’t care what the f*** the piano sounds like. I’m doing it.’ And I did.”


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  • Reply
    January 25, 2017 at 1:32 am

    I needed to read this right now, from one mother who is really just starting the hard journey (although it feels like it’s been a long time already) thank you for this, for the hope.

    • Reply
      January 25, 2017 at 9:32 am

      Thank you so much for your kind comment, Chez. I’ll be posting a lot about autism as I’ve returned to teaching my son pretty much full time now that he is an adult and–inevitably–facing the challenges of preparing for adult life. He’d just about figured out how to be a student and a kid when suddenly he was all grown up! 🙂

  • Reply
    Richard R Leimbach
    July 30, 2017 at 10:18 pm

    The Köln Concert has been a favorite of mine since the mid-70’s. I never knew about the piano but what you say makes total sense now. The sound was unusual, somewhat tense and forced but ultimately delicate and beautiful.
    I discovered early in my 50 years of guitar playing that a great player will sound better on a $20 Sears-Roebuck model than a mediocre one on a $2000 Taylor.
    I have young grand-children and I see their mother rising to make their lives far better than might otherwise be expected (complicated to explain).
    Thanks for the story, my Friend.
    Richard Leimbach

    • Reply
      August 17, 2017 at 9:44 pm

      Thank you for th lovely comment, Richard. Love the guitar…I don’t play well but I do go to a folk group on weekends to sing and play with much, much better players when I can. Looks like we have guitars and a name in common! 🙂

  • Reply
    August 12, 2018 at 9:44 am

    Thanks for post this great. I’m a long time reader but ive never commented till now.

    Thanks again for the awesome post.

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