The Coolest Duet Ever

How marriage is like playing a piano duet.

By Marilyn Olson

I was THRILLED when Marilyn agreed to guest post on my blog because I knew it would be beautiful and humble and wise just like she is (and she does not disappoint).  Marilyn is the kind of person that when she raises her hand in Sunday School to make a comment you sit up a little straighter, lean your ear in and maybe get out your notepad because this woman….. she is wise.  So, get out your notepad.  You’ll see what I mean.          – Celeste


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Thirty-two years ago, Rick and I first met each other at a piano bench. My diligent guardian angels, seeing that I had pretty much given up all hope of ever being married, put the happy notion into Rick’s composition teacher’s head that Rick should ask me to perform a trio of piano pieces he had written on an upcoming recital of new music.  We had never met; though Rick was an extremely accomplished pianist himself, he had spent his time at BYU pursuing other talents, trying to decide whether to graduate in math, science, or English. The music composition class was a lark for him, a chance to see what those odd people in the fine arts building were doing.  He turned out to be a talented composer as well as a pianist, and in case you’re wondering why he wasn’t performing his piano compositions himself, it’s actually preferable to have another person perform your work so that you can sit in the audience and hear it with fresh ears.

Soon after this occasion, Rick asked if we could get together and play some duets.  We’ve been making music together ever since.

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Over the years we’ve had many people comment to us that it must be such an enjoyable thing, so much fun, they say, to make music together as husband and wife! It truly is. But there’s another side too–we’ve heard from other husbands and wives who are both pianists something more like this: “Jerry and I could never play duets together. We’d either divorce or kill each other.” This is because a seemingly effortless collaboration takes a lot of work. Two highly-trained egos must humble themselves so the performance sounds as though it were coming from one person who just happens to have four hands. There is no follower and no leader.

To me, marriage seems very much like trying to make music together. There are all sorts of things to work out. Becoming a “we” instead of a “you” and a “me” running on parallel tracks takes time, communication, and an awful lot of generosity from both people. What we desire, after all, isn’t to have a marriage that simply facilitates the needs/careers/desires of two individuals operating from the same household. We want to make music together. We want a marriage and an eternal family that is far more than the sum of the individual parts. Rick and I are Christians; our faith in God, and our firm belief that we are literally his children, motivate us to do all we can to return to him some day as a loving and united family. (for more on this subject, click here)

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Here are a few more ways that I think the work of building a happy marriage is pretty analogous to the work of making music together:

Two people who want to collaborate on a first-rate piano duet need to come to the piano with humble hearts, being willing to give up their more comfortable role as soloists. For professional musicians, this is harder than you’d think. You’ve spent years perfecting your own musical vision, and your ideas of how things should be done. Humbling myself as a duet partner was initially harder for me than for Rick; his musical ego is less ferocious. But after I made it over that hump, I loved floating on the energy of “we” instead of battling for my own territory as we played together.

In a good piano duet, there’s nearly always going to be a struggle for real estate in the center of the piano. Good duets aren’t written with one player taking the top two octaves of the piano and the other player taking the bottom two. This would leave a comfortable margin of space in between the two sets of hands, but the music would sound like a piccolo and trombone duet.   The rich, important notes in the center of the piano have to be shared by my left hand (I usually play the upper part) and Rick’s right hand (he plays the lower). When we first started playing duets together, my left arm would sometimes ache because of my unconscious efforts to maintain my territory.  When we have a situation like this where both of us need the same piano area, we have to negotiate our hand positions, taking into account our very different hands: Rick has large, solid hands, while I have flimsier (but sometimes more flexible) hands. We have to try out the passage in different ways, and when we find what’s most doable and comfortable, we write in the music “M-on top, R-below,” pr whatever the occasion requires. We also have to figure out page turns. We don’t attempt to divide these “fairly” between the two of us; we decide on the basis of who is more able at each location to do the turning. Rick is actually much better at turning pages than I am, so he does the bulk of them. We don’t keep score.

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The comparisons to marriage are fairly obvious. In a good partnership (not a piccolo/trombone duet) there will be limited resources in the center (time, money, opportunity, limelight, whatever) that need to be shared, and different personal strengths and weaknesses that have to be taken into account in the allocation. Both partners need to approach the situation unselfishly, but they do need to speak up.  If you find yourself thinking, “if he/she really loved me, they would . . .,” you have some communicating to do, because I don’t think love operates this way. Love is best expressed in an atmosphere of good information and generosity. When I’m a martyr, I don’t encourage love in my spouse, only insecurity and resentfulness.  And I may very well miss seeing the acts of kindness right in front of me, if I view them as entitlements rather than gifts.

A curious thing sometimes happens when Rick and I work together on a piece of music: It’s easier for me to notice his mistakes than my own. My own mistakes, after all, are just temporary and meaningless! But Rick’s errors just might need to be fixed! I have to keep my sense of humor when this happens, because pretty frequently when we take a closer look, it turns out to be me who is causing the problem. When I’m thinking “Rick is rushing those dotted eighth notes!” and we rehearse with the metronome, it’s often me who is over-stretching the rhythm. If he’s leaving out important notes, it’s often because my hand is in the way.

In a similar way, the mess that I leave around the house becomes invisible to me, because in my mind it is temporary and meaningless, all ninety-seven piles of it, and I have plans to deal with it eventually. So it’s simply hilarious when I bristle at that pair of dirty socks Rick left in the living room. Am I even noticing the four cardboard Amazon boxes and the the laundry basket he had to step over to get to the couch? The ability to laugh at yourself is one of the most important skills you can bring to a piano duet, or to a marriage.

I believe it’s important to let go of the illusion that things need to be “fair.” What is fair? People have such non-comparable strengths. When I consider my parents’ marriage, how is it possible to compare the contributions of my father’s organizational skill and his ability to whiz through piles of work, and my mother’s endless patience and good humor, her willingness to stay up half the night listening to distraught teenagers?

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Good music is not just a matter of successfully typing out a series of written notes onto a keyboard. All notes are not equally important. Certain melodies need to be lovingly brought out; certain bass notes need to be especially savored. You have to decide where the music is going, and how it’s going to get there. You need to study out the whole piece and give your soul to the arrival points, and let other passages blend into the scenery.

Likewise, in a good marriage, both partners have to decide together what they want most for their family. What endeavors will you give your heart to? What moments in time will you make a point of savoring? What truths do you cherish and build upon? How will you plan for special times together?

In a good piano duet, individual accommodations can make the whole experience more enjoyable. Rick might say, “I have this wonderful melody here, but when it gets up to the most delicious high note of the phrase, the composer gave it to you to play. Please can I have it back?” Or I might request a stretch in the tempo to let me give an extra lilt to a phrase. We talk about these things constantly as we rehearse. Accommodating each other makes it more fun for both of us.

Many of our accommodations in marriage have turned out to be surprisingly win-win for both of us. Who knew that Rick would much rather put away the left-over food and clear the table after dinner, and I would much rather wash the dishes? The silliest example is probably also the best trade we ever made, from both of our points of view: Rick makes the hard phone calls, and I clean up the cat barf.

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Nearly every piano duet has an unequal division of labor. In some pieces, Rick has to play a fairly boring “oom-chunk-chunk” throughout, while I blaze away on top. In other compositions, he clearly has what we call “the teacher part” while I play the simpler part meant for the student. We trade off when it seems like one person is getting all the fun.

Rick and I chose a traditional division of labor in raising our family. It’s what we both wanted. I loved staying home with our children; I didn’t want to turn over raising them to someone else. There were days when I envied Rick’s high-profile work and important contributions, and there were plenty of days he envied my freedom to be at home and in charge of my own schedule. But it worked well for us, and we wouldn’t do it differently if we had it to do over again.

Marriage is the school of love. In January Rick and I will celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary. What a grand adventure it’s been! There’s no one in the world I’d rather be with. I can’t think of anything better than spending eternity with him.

That will be the coolest duet ever.

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