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Silent Sounds

May 2024
1min read

Paul F. Boiler’s article on the sounds of silent movies (August/September 1985) certainly triggered memories for me. In the summer of 1928, when I was eleven, I visited my grandparents in Oskaloosa, Iowa. One afternoon my grandfather took me to the one movie theater in town for a matinée. Since the owner was his friend, we were guests, but I wound up paying anyhow. The piano player had not shown up and the owner was considering canceling the show (a Western), but my grandfather volunteered my services. After all, I had had piano lessons since age four, he explained, and I could just play everything I had ever learned.

There were no music books and there was no light, except from the screen, but there was a piano facing the screen so that the player could suit the music to the action. My musical education had been classical, not popular or even semipopular, and stage fright erased every memory I had of countless recital pieces. I wasn’t sure that Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Chopin, Grieg and company would be much help anyway for a Western. Good old Czerny came to my rescue! Czerny’s exercises were as natural as breathing to me. Those, I could play in my sleep; practice finally paid off. I played the exercises fast, slow, loud, soft—mechanically, eyes on the screen. I didn’t miss a frame of that movie, and I don’t think I repeated an exercise, either. My fingers went through the book in my kinetic memory without my having to think.

No one left the theater humming a tune, but no one complained: the owner gave me a season pass, and my grandfather was proud. Until today, reading your article, I had never known that professional players for the silents had scores and traditions—even unto clichés. My one performance was certainly different. (No, I don’t remember the title of the movie.)

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