My 3 Hands

Just to forestall any confusion:

  • I’m playing piano with two hands now; in fact I’ve returned to my daily practice of the pieces I keep in my “ready repertory.” Yay!
  • I don’t actually have three hands with which to play piano. I don’t have three hands at all. My surgeon was fab-u-lous, but not a miracle worker. Or: he is a miracle worker (that’s pretty much how I feel about where I am compared to where I might have been after the break), but he didn’t lose his mind and attach a whole extra arm. (Can you imagine the copay on that?)


Anyway, three-handed piano music has been in my repertory for years. This is the story of how that happened.

I remembered this incident because I’m currently attempting to notate What the Stars Saw on the Prairie (thanks for the nudge, Jason!). 

What the Stars Saw on the Prairie is the linchpin of the CD A Handfull of Quietness. (That story is here.) It has a section in the middle where there is a lot going on. (This is the challenging part to notate.) Really, a lot. Not too much, but a lot.

Some number of eons ago, back in the last millenium (I just love saying that) when I felt ready to record the CD, I had a friend who was wanting to be in the record business. He had been talking with a record producer in Austin, Texas, about starting their own label. Charlie liked my music a lot, and he flew me down to Texas to “put down tracks” for the producer.

The day we went into the studio, Charlie, the producer and his wife, and I think maybe another recording engineer were all assembled to hear my music. The studio layout had a window through which, if the piano lid was down, I’d be able to see them all, and they’d be able to see me. But of course, the piano lid was up.

This wasn’t the recording session for the CD, it was just an opportunity for me to play for the producer; but he wanted it recorded anyway. So we got into a nice groove where I was playing through all the music on A Handfull of Quietness, in the order I felt the pieces belonged.

After each piece, the producer — you know, this is awkward, typing “the producer” every time; but I forgot his name! Can I just call him... Cal? I don’t think I really know any Cals — the producer is now named Cal.

So, after each piece, Cal would speak to me over the sound system, telling me how great that was, did I want a break, did I want to keep playing, what was the next piece, etc. All the typical stuff sound studio people say to keep “the talent” calm and productive. I play this music as a concert, straight through, no breaks; so I always opted to keep going. 

All the Pretty Little Horses: “hey, beautiful piece.” East at Sunset: “wow, I liked that one, that’s really calming.” 40 Days of Desert: “interesting music, good playing.”

Then What the Stars Saw on the Prairie. I played through it, rather well, I thought. Got to the end. 

No reassuring voice issued from the speakers. 

I waited a moment; there are big rests right before the end that had confused engineers in the past & maybe Cal just wanted to make sure I was done. 

No reassuring voice issued from the speakers. 

Just silence, a lot of it, which seemed to drag on forever. I wondered if they had all left.

I finally spoke up myself, “Well, okay, that’s What the Stars Saw on the Prairie.”

At which point the engineer’s booth sort of exploded, and Cal spoke to me, finally.

“How did you do that? We could hear both of your hands and then there was another part! We thought you must have three hands! Or somebody hidden in the room with you!”

Turned out they were all freaked out by what they heard, without any way to imagine how I did it. I had them come into the studio and watch as I played the “3-hand” section of the music, so they could see that my two hands could take turns creating a third part in the middle of the piano. That calmed them down enough, and we returned to me playing through the music.

I didn’t get a recording contract out of it — my music was too “finished” for Cal. He was looking to create the music himself, as the producer; and a solo piano album where the music has already been created just wouldn’t give him an opportunity to do that. He was very sweet about it, and hey, I got an all-expenses paid trip to Austin plus a chance to be in a recording studio putting down tracks (which is its own skill).

And I also found out that I have 3 hands.

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