I have considered writing this many times – but I never felt it was ready. It would be ready, I thought, when my mastery of the piano was complete. Or more realistically, when my proficiency at the piano was deemed certifiable. Certifiable by whom, I was never sure. I now realize how silly that would be. The story would never be told.

Two years ago, during a period of prolonged illness, I spent two months in my native Washington State. Words minced: it was a difficult time. A time in which there were few relaxing moments. I was preoccupied, even obsessed with the state of my health, as were the family members who surrounded me in a big, fuzzy love net. One such family member was my nephew-in-law, L, who to this day feels more like a smarter little brother. During some of the most trying moments of my condition, he would by force of habit or tremendous intuition, settle at his family’s piano and begin to play. Improvise, really.

L has been playing since he was tiny, as the framed photo atop his family’s piano depicts. In it he sits – no older than 4 or 5, examining the keys with his grandfather. Due to his musical education, as well as an abnormally elevated intellect, L is a bit of a virtuoso on the keys. He sits at the piano when no one is really paying attention – when everyone is absorbed in work, or a book, or a Twitter hole. When it is the most quiet.

Yet during intensified phases of my malaise, when everything was far from silent, his stunning melodies would split the chaos and fill the room with loveliness. The sound would completely pacify me. It entranced me. L’s compositions are entirely improvised, but somehow sound like oeuvres that have been labored over for months. At the same time they sound effortless. The astounding thing about these arrangements is that they materialize from thin air. The devastating thing is that they are gone as swiftly as they are played – never recorded on paper or garage band.

L’s playing so moved me during those months; I wished I could hire him as my in-house pianist. Though I would never get anything done if he accepted the job. Piano hypnotizes me. If L begins playing while the rest of us read or knit, my activity halts when the first key is struck. My eyes slowly close. My chin drifts upward as if waiting for some higher revelation. I am bewitched.

It wasn’t simply a newfound fixation with piano music that sprouted from my time at home. There also grew an intense desire to play the piano – to command the magical instrument itself.

The latter infatuation lay dormant for months after I returned to New York. I can’t remember if I consciously thought about learning piano. But when I heard the dizzying compositions of Nils Frahm for the first time, I knew that was it. I spent my lunch breaks scouring Craigslist for keyboards, and an affordable teacher. Despite my highfalutin cravings for something fancy, like a Fender Rhodes or a Juno, my budget afforded me a $200 Kurzweil Ensemble Grande Piano, which is a pretty rudimentary model. Within two days of hearing Frahm’s music, the Kurzweil was mine. She’s a sturdy one, and I named her Girtha on the account that she weighs, oh, about 500 pounds.

Locating a compatible instructor seemed even more important; you only pay for the keyboard once, whereas each lesson will strip you of money. I came across a guy named Andrew. He was one of the few teachers who included pictures in their listing, which gave me a sense of ease. I could size him up a bit first. He looked lanky, and a bit like Tom Verlaine from Television – minus the whole heroin-chic thing. At $50 per session the price was right, plus, a bonus: he conducted lessons out of the gorgeous San Damiano Mission in Greenpoint. I was eager to start. New hobbies are a love of mine yes, but I also knew that learning piano would make me a better music journalist…because then I’d be a failed musician too.

On a sweltering August Wednesday, we began.

Andrew was in his early thirties, and hip to the music canon, but he eschewed all of the arrogance often associated with such traits. To pay rent he played church services and taught, the rest of his time spent on various musical projects and writing plays. He was patient, genuine, and kind – albeit a touch awkward. I constantly tried to distract from my musical inadequacies with jokes. This never worked.

I remember on one particular occasion Andrew was demonstrating a technique, and began playing Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” on the church piano to illustrate his point.

“You working that one up for church?” I asked.

“Whaa?” He looked genuinely concerned. When I assured him it was merely a joke, he laughed nervously and turned back to our lesson.

At first I learned piano quickly. The rush of a new pursuit – and a determination to achieve maestro status by the time I was an old lady – had me practicing for one to two hours daily. I was getting the basics down, and nailing my first song (Nick Cave’s “Into My Arms,” which ain’t that hard, by the way). I wasn’t quite a pianist yet, but I sure was learning piano.

But within months, practicing piano suffered the same fate of every discipline I’ve ever attempted, bar writing – it became a chore. I would halfheartedly cram the night before my lesson and resentfully play pages from the piano book; I much preferred improvisation, which always felt better than it sounded. At my lessons I would use tricks to skip playing from the book, as my sheet music literacy was declining. Asking a lot of questions typically worked.

I became nervous even before practicing at home – afraid my fingers would betray my ears. What was once cathartic and inspiring had become a little prison, built with the absurd standards I hold for myself.

This past August I got laid off from the desk job I hated. It was a bittersweet thing. I was tickled to say buh-bye to the 9-5, but that also meant cutting all recreational spending: i.e., piano lessons. I’d stopped regularly practicing sometime before, but swore to myself that the second I could afford it I would get back in the habit and recommence classes. Andrew understood, but warned me that he might be teaching elsewhere when we next met.

“The friars are renting the church out for concerts and events more and more, so I might have to find a new spot.”

“Wait a minute,” I pressed. “Andrew, it sounds like you’re getting gentrified out of the church!”

“HA!” echoed high to the ceilings. I’d finally gotten him to laugh.

I must admit that the most piano I have “played” since then has been air piano. It was what saved me during some rough turbulence on the last flight I took. Like many, I am terrified of flying, and usually try to knock myself out with merlot as a remedy. But, seeing as my flight was at 8am, even I felt too dignified to get tipsy.

Fortunately, the good people of Delta Airlines now have free, decent music aboard. I listened to Olafur Arnolds’ latest LP Island Songs on repeat, as well as a Bill Evans compilation several times. The piano, once again, took me over and soothed me – especially when I fervently “played” along. I kept my performance underneath my blanket however; just so other passengers wouldn’t think I was a complete nutter.

When I was recovering in Washington, before my lessons ever began, L would sometimes invite me to join him at the piano. “Just play the white keys,” he would say as I fumbled with the naturals. “What happens when I play the black keys?” I’d strike a sharp before he could answer, wincing at its sourness. Eventually I shied away, feeling far too vulnerable in front of someone who has been playing most of his life.

You’d think after a year of piano lessons I’d be less timid, but nothing has changed. My sister constantly offers the piano for me to practice when I visit. A songwriter and music teacher, sis claims that no one in the house minds, and that she uses it for “mediocre piano hour” all the time.

But I can’t do it. I become rigid, stewed in anxiety. I am not proficient. I am not a performer. And I’m certainly not a virtuoso.

But I can play one hell of an air piano.

ONLY NOISE: A Love Letter to Nils Frahm


I like many used to work an insufferable desk job. To most people, it sounded very interesting, but it was not. It was bland, canned stew disguised as top sirloin. To paraphrase a brilliant Bruce Eric Kaplan cartoon: I grew tired of clicking things all day. My only refuge was that given the oppressively repetitive, brainless tasks I was to perform, I could listen to music for nine hours straight. So in a sense, without 40 plus hours of weekly tedium, it is quite possible I would have never heard the stunning music of German composer Nils Frahm.

It was Thursday, August 6th, 2015. I was dutifully at my desk, clicking away, and occasionally writing down the names of any great bands I heard on BBC 6 Music, which I frequently listened to. There was much talk on the radio about The Proms…it was Promming season after all. I remembered The Proms, as just two years prior I had been in attendance. The Proms is an eight-week summer streak of daily classical music concerts in London. Founded in 1895 with a heavy emphasis on strict classical, The Proms of today are far more hip, featuring contemporary composers and even deviations into the world of ambient/electronic music. When I attended, the compositions of Phillip Glass were the focus of that night’s performance at The Royal Albert Hall.

Although it sounds fancy, The Proms is one of the most democratic music festivals out there – an appraisal the world of classical music desperately needs. Provided you don’t mind lining up for a little while, you can snag a standing position on the Hall’s balcony for only £5, and hear some of the most renowned orchestras in the world.

Unfortunately, I was no longer in London for the 2015 Proms. I was at my desk, remember? But listening to the BBC broadcast, I pretended I was there. I closed my eyes, and smelled the musty carpet of the balcony floor, and tasted the less-democratically priced gin and tonics my friend Alice and I acquired at the downstairs bar. And as I drank in this memory, I heard something so sparkling and beautiful – the creeping in of quiet piano keys, building and turning over with waves of synthesizer crashing atop them. This was, as I later learned, Nils Frahm’s Proms performance of “Says.”

I was dumbstruck and intrigued, and as it goes with intrigue: I wanted more. I devoured everything I could find that Frahm had recorded. Having never in my life been this passionate about instrumental music, I surprised myself in this devotion. Writers find solace in words, and yet I had finally found something that was all the better for their absence.

At first, I merely listened and followed up with watching countless videos of Frahm performing live, which absolutely did me in. Watching Frahm play is almost like watching an athlete. What other pianist works up a literal sweat during their set? He is dynamic, often hopping between a grand piano, Juno synthesizer, and a Fender Rhodes keyboard, all of which he specially mics and prepares for each individual set. In this 2013 video performance of “Toiletbrushes” and “More,” Frahm is mouthing some unheard gestures, looking a bit like he is in pain…like he is not playing the song, but birthing it. His tendons and muscles are visibly strained as he plays like it’s an extreme sport.

But the most characteristic detail is that he plays half the set with actual toilet brushes, used to bang on the exposed strings of the open piano. This reminds me of two things. 1) That the piano is after all, a percussive instrument, and exploring that aspect can open a world of possibility, and 2) that Frahm is aiding in the democratization of classical music and the piano itself. His approach is curious, inventive, and entirely unpretentious. Whether he is melding the worlds of classical and electronica, or discovering that an overlooked household object can be the perfect mallet for a grand piano, Frahm is truly one of a kind.

At this point in my discovery, I knew very little about Nils Frahm the man. But his compositions so moved me, that within a week of first hearing him I had purchased a keyboard and booked my first piano lesson.

Few things have stirred me to such an extent. When I finally got a gym membership it came from a place of motivation, but not of inspiration. Watching certain movies makes me want to write a screenplay – but I never actually do it. At the most, I will buy up every record an artist has released within a short amount of time…but picking up a new instrument at 25? I was possessed.

After a year and a half of closely following Frahm’s career (and SLOWLY learning the piano), it seems as though the composer’s raison d’être is to captivate listeners to the point of great emotional response. As he told The Quietus in 2013:

“I’m interested in how human beings react in certain situations, and what music does to people’s emotions. How we can change people’s attitudes with tones. After I’ve played a good concert, people leave the room happy. This is something we can give back to the world. When people feel down and like it’s all going to shit, at least we can give them some music and change their attitude so people don’t think it’s all shit.”

It is rare to find such idealism spouting from the mouth of a professional musician. But Frahm’s optimism seems wholeheartedly sincere, and it is reflected in his actions. In March of 2015, Frahm gave us Piano Day, which celebrates his beloved instrument by sharing its immensity with the world.

In a statement on his website the pianist poked fun at his own fixation with the ebony and ivory:

“Beloved planet,
Don´t think I am completely pathetic, but I am here to tell you about a new holiday.”

Frahm proceeded to explain that Piano Day existed to celebrate any and all things Piano, and encouraged participants to create anything in that realm of possibility.

“Please dress up that day (don’t play any guitar) and prepare some presents for us all and don´t forget to share them with us. Any piano related creative idea will be honored and seen by the lovely people around here and myself. Thanks for your participation and spread the word, in a couple years I want PIANO DAY to me more important than Xmas and more stressful than Thanksgiving.

Anyways, enjoy this little present of mine, it is a snippet for more to come.

Nils Frahm (has lost it completely)”

Frahm’s “present” was a free release of his 2015 album Solo. I realize now, listening to his annual, hour-long Xmas mix, that Frahm often gives music freely to his fans. It is something he has always done and it has probably been a partial cause of his steadily growing fan base.

The mix is more wintery than Christmas-y, but cozy nonetheless. Snippets of recordings by Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Lee Hazelwood, and Marlene Dietrich seamlessly float in an out, enveloped in the warm crackle of a record playing…or is it a slow burning fire? Either way, it is toasty to the ears.

I’ve been sitting on this desire to praise Frahm in long form for quite some time now. “Should I wait for his birthday?” I ask myself. “What about a new release? How can I make this relevant without simply sounding like a wide-eyed, drooling fan-girl?” But it was the Xmas Mix that did it, because it seems to represent the simple, fervent mission Frahm has of sharing music, and that moves me as much as his playing.

It is evident that this is a man hopelessly in love with music, and devoted to sharing it, whose career reflects a monastic approach to “success.” In 2015 Frahm spoke to Resident Advisor of his booking process:

“I only want to play if someone invites me. Don’t ask for shows.” I don’t want to use the piano as a money-making machine. This is what I tell my whole team: when someone asks, be nice, but don’t try to push people with my stuff.”

He continues by telling aspiring musicians that they shouldn’t focus on getting successful; they should stay at home, get really good at what they do, and wait for someone to notice their hard work.

In his typical, philosophical manner of speaking, he wrapped up his Quietus interview by saying:

“The only thing we can try is changing people’s attitude, but not with words. I don’t want to be Bob Dylan, I can’t express it through words but I can express it through emotional experiences. All the answers you need to know you have inside yourself and all you can do is inspire these sorts of answers, perhaps by conversation or by music or by looking at a piece of art. I only have one lifetime to do it and it feels way too short!”