Pitch Challenged: or, How I Discovered the Opa! in Music | Michael Coolen


By the end of my second semester as music major, I was very discouraged. Although I loved music, the study of it did not come easily to me. Unless some kind of miracle occurred, I was about ready to abandon my dream of being a musician.

Fortunately, an Older Woman, whose name I’ve forgotten, came into my life and provided that miracle. She was a twenty-four-year old English major and an artist, and I was a twenty-one-year-old ex-seminarian who was not only interval-recognition-challenged, but profoundly tone-deaf when it came to dating.

We met at a Danforth Fellow information meeting. Danforth Fellowships paid for four years of graduate school to any university in the United States. Universities were allowed to nominate two candidates each year. The Older Woman was only the second Seattle U. student ever to receive a Danforth Fellowship in the past twenty-two years. I had been nominated for the next year. I was smart, but she was a lot smarter.

After the meeting we stayed awhile, and chatted about our mutual interests and passions. I told her about learning to play piano at age fifteen so that I could win the heart of a girl named Maria. The hitch was that God had to provide a piano on the sidewalk where we passed each other every day. It never happened. Nietzsche was right. God was dead, or pretty inattentive. At least I learned to love the piano.

As we chatted, we discovered both of us liked Greek culture; food, drink, and dance. She began talking about a painting she had just finished, and invited me to her dorm room to look at it.

“Opa!” she announced as she waved me into her dorm room. She quickly poured each of us three fingers of ouzo in two not-washed-recently coffee cups.

“No germ can survive ouzo!” she proclaimed. She had very thick fingers, as I recall, so there was a lot of ouzo in my cup. She pointed to the painting she had mentioned, saluted it, and yelled, “Opa!” She took a long swig. I tried to sip around the lipstick stain on my cup.

It was a striking painting that I’ve forgotten completely, which comes as no surprise to anyone who knows me. I am the kind of guy who could “see” the entire Louvre in an hour and a half. In the words of a later, Danish girlfriend, I was a “brute” when it came to art. It was like I had some sort of art version of prosopagnosia, you know, “face blindness?” I’m surprised I recognized the Mona Lisa when I saw her.

The best I can say about Older Woman’s painting is that there were some reds and oranges and maybe a man’s face-or maybe it was something else, like a weird landscape or still life, and the theme was about something deep, or maybe shallowly deep-or maybe the painting was dark, and there some blues, too-or maybe that was black. I think.

However, I vividly remember Older Woman’s comment about her painting.

“It’s so ugly it’s beautiful,” she said. “Opa!”

To a twenty-one-year-old old ex-seminarian fascinated with philosophical contradictions in aesthetic theory, this was the kind of statement that got my juices flowing. Well, my intellectual juices. Here I was standing in a battered dorm room, drinking ouzo from a dirty coffee cup, while a pretty girl talked aesthetics. I felt a little like Rudolfo, the tenor in La Boheme, who is in love with the consumption-challenged soprano, Mimi. If Older Woman had started coughing because she had a tiny case of TB, I probably would have started singing “Che gelida manina,” during which Rudolfo takes Mimi’s hand and professes his love.

But Older Woman was interested in something other than my intellectual passions and operatic fantasies.

“Why don’t you come over, sit next to me, and get comfortable?” she asked, reclining on her virgin Naugahyde sofa bed.

She had lowered the back of the sofa so that it was completely flat. Wow! I thought. I’d have to lean back against the wall with my feet dangling over the front of the couch, and that didn’t look comfortable at all to me. It would probably cut off the circulation in my feet. At this point in my life, I was denser than the virgin Naugahyde. I had never dated in high school and went straight to the seminary, leaving a few years later after I became an atheist. I was twenty-one years old, going on sixteen.

Just the month before, I had driven up to visit an old friend in Port Angeles, Washington. I picked her up, and we drove up to Hurricane Ridge in the Olympic National Forest. We held hands as we walked along a trail, stopped to photograph the scenery, and then drove back to her cabin in the woods. After dinner we watched An Affair to Remember on television and snuggled a bit. When the movie ended, I began preparing my bed on her sofa when Jewel sidled up to me.

“The view of the sunrise from my bed is really wonderful,” she whispered.

Wow! I thought. What a wonderful hostess she is, offering to give up her bed to me so that I could see the sunrise. She was so thoughtful.

“It’s your home and your bed, Jewel,” I said. “I wouldn’t dream of putting you out like that.” Jewel was speechless. I thought it was because I had overwhelmed her with my chivalry.

Now here I was, a month later, in a dorm room with a new artist friend who was struggling hard to seduce a pitch-challenged virgin. Older Woman tried a new strategy.

“How about listening to some music?” she asked. She went over to her record player and gently lowered the needle onto a record. She sat back down next to me and for some reason-perhaps she was hot-she started to unbutton her blouse.

But when the music started, I jumped up and ran over to the look at the record jacket.

“This is Beveridge Webster playing!” I said. “He’s one of my favorite pianists. Look, here’s a photo of him. I want to be just like him.”

I showed her the photo of Beveridge Webster. She looked at it for quite a while without saying anything.

“So,” she started, “you want to be just like this guy?”

Suffice it to say, B.W. did not have movie star looks.

“Yes,” I replied. “He teaches at the Juilliard School. He’s incredible.”

I heard her sigh, and, out of the corner of my eye I saw her re-button her blouse. Then she took out a sketchpad and poured herself some more ouzo.

Opa! Mr. Beveridge Webster,” she said.

I barely heard her,. I was so entranced by the music. The record contained several compositions by the 20th-century French composer Maurice Ravel. Some I had never heard before. The first piece was Jeux d’Eau (“Water Games”), and Webster performed it as if he were spinning aural silk. I could hear how the hands needed to interlock to create the shimmering effects of water falling and dancing up and down the full range of the keyboard, at tempi that left me breathless. Virtuosity permits a composer or performer to create combinations of sounds never heard before. So beautiful.

Next Webster played Gaspard de la Nuit, and I had never heard it or anything like it before. It was incredibly demanding technically, and yet still so beautiful, and…well, describing music in words is a lot like giving a lecture on physics using a trumpet. It’s incomplete at best. The music itself is the answer to questions like “Why is this beautiful?” or, “How does complexity create beauty?” Or even describing something as simple as “Why is this tonic?” One can throw handfuls of words at the definition of tonic, but really, tonic is a sound created within the context of other sounds that define it aurally. It is “arriving back home.” Often, it’s arriving back home after a long journey, and hearing it again for the first time.

The other side of the LP featured Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, which is a six-movement homage to the early eighteenth-century French composer François Couperin. Ravel didn’t write specifically with Couperin himself in mind. Rather, he was more interested in exploring the Baroque French keyboard suite.

It is a dazzling composition that Webster played brilliantly. The “Fugue” was so delicate and touching, voices overlapping in powerful counterpoint. When he started to play the final movement, the brilliant and energetic “Toccata,” I started to dance. When the final note died away, I stood in the middle of the room with tears in my eyes, struggling to catch my breath.

I remember whispering to myself, “There are dues you have to pay if you want to be a musician, Mike. The greater the dues, the greater the rewards at the end. That means working even harder on every aspect of your musical training, especially listening skills and practicing piano-starting right now!”

Opa!” I yelled, startling Older Woman, who was three Greek sheets to the wind by now.

I bounded across the room and put on my coat. Older Woman stared at me in disbelief as I thanked her profusely for sharing her music with me. Then I told her I had to go practice. As she tried to form some words in her mouth, I hustled out of her apartment without even saying, “Thanks for the ouzo” or “Great painting!”

I saw Older Woman later that week in the converted World War II Quonset hut that the Fine Arts Department called home. She was in a classroom, stretching a new canvas on a frame. When she saw me at the door, she ripped the canvas off the frame, threw it at me, and glared me back down the hall. In retrospect, I tremble to think what she would have ripped off me if I’d disappointed her in bed.

Had it not been for that evening of beautifully ugly art, ouzo in a dirty coffee cup, and the soul-saving music of Maurice Ravel, my life would probably have turned out quite differently. I might well have abandoned my dream of becoming a concert pianist.

My brilliant but unsuccessful seductress went off to graduate school at the University of Chicago to study Middle English Literature, never knowing what a profound effect she’d had on my life.

I never became a concert pianist. I switched to Ethnomusicology in graduate school. I travelled to Africa several times, taught at the university for over thirty years, and still play piano every day. Several times over the past four decades, I have tried to find out her name and where she lived so I could thank her-but with no success.

So, I’ll say it here. Thank you so much, Older Woman. I owe you my life in music. I hope you don’t still want to throw canvases at me. By the way, I’m ready now?



Michael Coolen is a pianist, composer, actor, performance artist, storyteller, and writer living in Corvallis, Oregon.

His written works have been published in Ethnomusicology, Western Folklore, Oregon Humanities, 50wordstories Online, The Gold Man Review, Best Travel Stories: Volume 11, Crooked/Shift, Clementine Poetry Journal, Creative Writing, and elsewhere.

He has also published music for various ensembles, as well as soundtracks, plays, experimental films, and documentaries, including the award winning documentary, Freedom on the Fences, about Polish poster art after WW II. His compositions have been performed around the world, including at Carnegie Hall, the New England Conservatory of Music, MoMA, and the Christie Gallery in New York. An African marimba group he formed performed around the country, even opening for The Grateful Dead in Oakland for New Year’s Eve. A CD of their music reached #14 on the Billboard Crossover List in 1991.

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