Mondays with Martin: Beethoven or Baseball?

David Martin

When I write at a computer, I often hear instrumental music with a piano leading the melody. I never notice words or lyrics. As I place my fingers on the keyboard, I sense a concert hall and a quiet audience, waiting. I hear a symphony in the background, and I see Ludwig van Beethoven in my mind.

Why music? Why the piano? Why Beethoven? More importantly, why at the computer? After years of wondering, the answer became clear to me one night, as I tied sentences together and coasted into the 3 a.m. darkness.

When I was young, my mother and I argued weekly about how much time I should practice the piano. There was a nice Baldwin in the house, and she wanted me to play it.

One day, I heard Mother talking to her friends about classical music. The name “Beethoven” came up in their conversation, and I paid attention every time his name was mentioned. “He was the best German composer,” she said.

At first, I was curious if I could make my fingers please Mom, and I was serious with my lessons for awhile. I practiced, diligently, so I could perform at a planned student recital a few months away. Would she think I was a little Beethoven? The stage fright I experienced at that small gathering killed my interest in playing. I knew Beethoven was beyond my reach.

However, the biggest competition for my piano playing time was baseball. I wanted to play centerfield for the New York Yankees when I grew up. Mickey Mantle, I imagined, was my big brother. I was the oldest child in my family, and I needed a brother to look up to, so I picked him. Fast, strong, able to hit on both sides of the plate, and unstoppable chasing fly balls that would be hits against other outfielders in Major League Baseball, he was my hero.

I loved the grass in “my office.” It smelled good. I thrived on the isolation in the outfield and knew it was my job to manage the players on either side of me. I dared batters on the other team to get a ball past me. That did not happen often.

The respect I got from the coach and the rest of the team motivated me to concentrate on the ball coming out of the pitcher’s hand on each throw, so I could get a jump on the batter’s swing, as he made contact. I had to cover more ground than any other player. I wanted to be the best I could be, and I felt excited when I caught a line-drive on the run, grabbed a pop fly out of the sun, and threw a frozen rope from deep center field to home plate before the opponent on third could score.

My fingers were meant to throw baseballs, not find middle “C” on the piano. I liked the feel of my hand around the leather ball. I felt the gift of strength in my arm, and if I kept practicing, I would receive more praise from my coach and teammates.

Every Saturday at 10 a.m., God bless her, Mother would make sure I was seated on the piano bench doing my scales to warm up before practicing the new piece my instructor assigned for the next session. Weekly, this routine took place. My desire to improve was not as great as hers. While she dreamed of “Moonlight Sonata,” I dreamed of the Chicago White Sox visiting Yankee Stadium.

In the spring, one Saturday morning, my life changed. As I sat on the piano bench absorbed in a new piece of sheet music, three of my closest friends knocked loudly on the front porch door, only a few feet away from me, as I was lost thought.

Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom.

I nearly fell off the piano bench in fright.

One of the boys yelled, “Hey, Dave, we’re going to the baseball field, and we need you to practice some plays. We want to win that first game of the season. Come on.”

Quickly, Mother said, “Tell them you can play in about an hour, after you finish your piano practice.”

“But, Mom, they need me now,” I replied.

“Your promise to me comes first,” she whispered.

The boys on the porch were all older friends from the neighborhood. They played infield positions, because they did not like the outfield. They thought playing there was boring and too much work. They felt better on the dirt, and they needed me to back them up in the outfield.

I was not going to win this contest. Either my friends or Mom would not like my decision. I could always do piano practice later, like my friends said. They would not wait forever. I knew I would be grown up soon, and the Yankees would call me.

Mom’s hands slowly folded across her chest. Her eyes filled with tears.

Beethoven or baseball? I knew that I loved centerfield more than the piano, so I made my move. Fifty years later, I still feel my legs slowly sliding off the piano bench and moving toward the front door.

“Mom, I’ll be back after baseball practice,” I reassured her, but I did not hear her say anything.

As I reached for my leather glove, she reached for the music pages.

When I stepped through the door onto the porch, the oldest boy put his arm around my shoulders and said, “We need you, buddy,” and the other boys agreed.

As I started down one of the many roads I took to reach manhood, I imagined my piano music being torn in half.

Today, in my mind, I sense a bust of Beethoven behind me when I type, and I always write with his music in the background. His powerful notes calm me and let me find inner paths to explore with words. I have no fear of him, anymore, so I write on.

I find time each day to type a little “music,” and sometimes, I talk to him. The music of reflection is a solitary tune. I roll through the storm clouds of life listening to “da-da-da-dum,” as I hear notes coming from the keyboard. The letters that make my words become piano keys, and I don’t look over my shoulders anymore.

Composing my “music” on paper shows me I learned to listen, while playing the piano and running in the sun. I learned the most in both activities when I did not talk, because there is power and strength in finding silent spaces during the day.

The secret of composition is to not think of the ending and what comes before the last page. The best plan is to write one sentence at a time and measure the steps, thoughts, and days in key strokes.

Today, when I watch a ball game, I recall all the fun, challenges, and respect I received at such an early age playing with my friends. Those days defined who I would become many years later. I liked sports, and I could not get my fill. I would love to return to those games and play them one more time.

I raise my hands above the keyboard, once more, and hear Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with those famous four notes. I am still practicing, Mom. This time I hope to make music, as I struggle to form complete sentences and developed paragraphs. I listen to Beethoven’s notes, but I write my own internal rhythms and play my own tunes.

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