Sloppy Joe at the Keyboard

I have both looked forward to — and, have dreaded resurrecting this story about an incident that occurred approaching fifty years ago, during my freshman year in college (1969-1970) at Birmingham Southern College (Birmingham, AL, USA). I have challenged myself to write this and to avoid sounding angry, discouraged, defeated or vengeful. I am afraid that I have failed because I may still be angry. This has not been easy — even, after all these years… Much of my editing while preparing this post, has been to remove negative remarks about my freshman piano teacher/professor, Christopher Czaja Sager, the giver of my title, “Sloppy Joe at the Keyboard.”

I called him “Mr. Sager” then. He was and likely, still is a diminutive man who was w.r.t. candidate piano literature, limited and restricted in his choices because of his correspondingly diminuitive hands. During those days, he actively competed in various national and international piano-competitions. He had attended the esteemed Julliard school and told stories of having studied piano from/with the legendary, Russian-schooled pianist-teacher, Madam Rosina Lhévinne. I remember him telling that Madam Lhévinne addressed him as “Sasha.” While writing this post, I finally realized that “Sasha” was my interpretation of Madam Lhévinne’s pronunciation of his middle-name, “Czaja…” He was rightfully proud to have been a student of the great Madam Lhévinne.

Mr. Sager periodically arranged mini-recitals, featuring his current selection of students that were usually packed into his small (diminuitive, like his stature and hands) teaching-studio in the music building on campus. Also, “featured” at these events were post-recital comments by Mr. Sager, describing and/or criticizing the performance of each performer.

Regarding the title of this post —

At one of these recitals, I played this piece, the 2nd (Eb major) of Schubert’s “Four Impromptus, Op. 90.”  After I played, in front of this particular selected group of my “peers,” with other significant criticisms of my playing, he called me “Sloppy Joe at the Keyboard.”  That nomination stung for a too-long-time. It has now become a source of significant amusement to/for me.

As a result, for years I’ve tried to disallow such pronounced “sloppiness” in my performance. Because the music I now create/perform/render/record is more like sculpture than my more juvenile diminuitive-college-studio-performances, it is easier to avoid the dreaded descent into that particularly sloppy musical abyss, so reviled by “Mr. Sager.”

I created the Blender animation above, to accompany my recent 2016 repeat-performance of this piece. I transcribed Mr. Sager’s notes that were often difficult to read, into the screen margins of the animation. I find it amusing to strain to read the nearly illegible instruction on the first page of music: “don’t be so sloppy.” That warning evidently foreshadowed my nomination as, “Sloppy Joe at the Keyboard.”

I hope that you have enjoyed this tale from long ago and my updated performance with its accompanying animation.

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