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wags - Polly and the Piano

  By: Angelle Bergeron

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Polly and the Piano - The musical world of Carol Montparker

Even if you’ve played piano since the age of three, when you are about to perform a solo concert at Carnegie Hall, the fear of failure can be monstrous. “It’s extremely stressful to be a pianist, particularly a concert artist, and it’s a very lonesome thing to walk out on stage all alone and be the sole focus of attention,” said Carol Montparker, an accomplished concert pianist, painter and author. “The pianist is all alone on stage, which makes it the hardest kind of musician to be.”

In Montparker’s fantasy world, and in her latest book, Polly and the Piano, her beloved canine companion makes the walk with her to center stage and so captures the hearts of audiences too large to fit into the famed venue.

Montparker never played Carnegie Hall, but she did play a concert at the smaller Carnegie Recital Hall (now called Weill Hall).

And she did have a shelter dog named Polly, who was a constant source of companionship, inspiration and security that any dog-lover will recognize.

“Polly died about 12 years ago, and it has left a void in my life,” Montparker said. A shelter dog, Polly quickly adapted to her new home beneath Montparker’s piano, where she developed a refined taste in music and an unbreakable bond with her piano-playing mistress. “She was like my muse, always under the piano,” Montparker said.

Polly was, like countless pound puppies seem to be, a medium-sized mixture of black and tan. “She had those two brown markings above her eyes that would dance around with her various expressions,” Montparker said.

“You could tell what she was thinking because those eyebrows were moving around. I loved those eyebrows as much as her popcorn-smelling paws.”

Polly and the Piano is the story of Polly and Laurel, a younger version of Montparker, who happens to be a concert pianist and instructor. While Laurel whiles away her days tirelessly rehearsing and giving piano lessons, she dreams of playing in Carnegie Hall. In the meantime, Polly works to remind her hardworking companion that part of life should be enjoyed frolicking, romping and reveling in the multitude of moments that make up a day. In the book, Polly howls along with the tunes she enjoys and leaves the room when less-promising students take a turn at the keys. Polly offers herself as a furry footrest during Laurel’s long hours of practice, and reminds her when it’s time to play.

Although the real-life Polly was playful, she exhibited a great deal of “repose and respect” for her mistress’ work. “She would insinuate herself against me to remind me to take a little time off of my practicing,” Montparker said.

Did she really howl along with the playing? “Yes, and I loved that so much,” Montparker said, laughing.

“Sympathetically, I bought a wolf record and she had a marvelous time with that.”

Polly was a faithful, well-trained dog, who would wait by the front door when Montparker made trips to the market. And she was good with the piano students, Montparker said. “Polly had an intuition about when the lesson was drawing to a close and she would look at the door anticipating the next student.”

Basically, everything in Polly and the Piano is true, Montparker said, except the Carnegie Hall performance and Polly’s trip on stage. “It’s just my fantasy,” she said. “Maybe because I loved Polly so much, this is kind of a tribute to her.”

The 40-page book is filled with Montparker’s watercolors, many of which she painted during Polly’s lifetime. “I had a lot of them in a drawer and the idea of the book evolving, but couldn’t put them all together,” she said.

Then, while backstage a few years ago, very nervous and waiting to go on for a performance, Montparker looked out of a window and saw a child playing with a puppy. “I watched them play and it took every bit of nervous tension out of me,” she said. “It put me in such a wonderful mood and it occurred to me at that moment that if I could ever take a dog with me back stage and even onstage, that I would never be nervous if I had my Polly with me.”

Montparker is no stranger to writing, having previously published three books. “The piano is my profession, but writing became my second profession,” she said.

Montparker had amazingly easy success with her first book, “The Anatomy of a New York Debut Recital,” which was just that, her personal diary of the joys, fears, self-doubt and fulfillment during the process of preparing for such a pivotal event. “It fell into the hands of a publisher, was an instant success and was the easiest book to write,” Montparker said. After receiving hundreds of letters from closet pianists, who were inspired to perform, she began to realize her writing about music was inspirational to others. “That’s what attracted me to writing, and it became a tangential career,” she said. That first book was published in 1977, the year following Montparker’s New York debut. Then she took a job as senior editor of Clavier, a magazine geared to pianists. She held that position for 15 years and remains on the editorial staff. “I wrote many feature articles and interviews of world-famous musicians,” she said. “What I have found is that the same ups and downs are shared by performing artists, whether they have careers with a big huge capital C or a smaller c.”

“Polly and the Piano was an easy sell to her publisher, Amadeus Press, even though the company had never before published a children’s book.

“When she approached our publisher John Cerullo and editorial director Carol Flannery with the idea, we enthusiastically signed the book because of Carol’s longstanding, solid relationship with Amadeus Press as one of their best-selling authors,” said Caroline Howell, assistant marketing manager. “We have published two of her previous books: A Pianist’s Landscape and The Blue Piano and Other Stories.”

The publisher and editorial director thought Montparker’s story and illustrations were the perfect vehicle for spreading the company’s philosophy, which is to bring the love of classical music to as many new listeners as possible, including children, Howell said. “They both felt it would strengthen this mission and it would be further enhanced by the CD of Carol’s live performances of classical piano music, which Polly herself heard played and practiced.”

The accompanying CD includes live recordings of selections by Mozart, Schubert, Chopin and Ravel. “You can hear the audience sounds in the background,” Montparker said. “You can even hear people coughing, which Polly mentions in the book.”

Although it’s too soon to gauge how sales are going (the book just released November 1) both Amadeus and Montparker expect the book will have broad appeal.

Pianists, music lovers, animal lovers, children and adults will all enjoy the book, Howell said.

Furthermore, both the publisher and Montparker are hoping to spawn interest in classical music and foster future audiences. “When we go to concerts, most of the people are gray or bald and I am concerned with who the audiences will be,” Montparker said. “I am concerned with bringing classical music to kids whose parents may not listen to it.”

On the heels of this first foray into children’s literature, Amadeus will soon be releasing Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts. “This book brings back into print a classic collection of the best of the best of these Emmy and Peabody award-winning lectures (a total of fifteen lectures are presented here) from the maestro and the New York Philharmonic,” Howell said. “This was an internationally renowned series that was broadcasted on CBS from 1958-1972. Bernstein explains, clearly and cleverly, the joy of music in a way that grasps the attention of all people.” That book will be released June 2005.

Since the publication of “Polly and the Piano,” Montparker has realized another dream. The book has given her entrée into her local school system, where she gives educational concerts. “I play music and talk about classical music and also talk about the special relationship people have with pets,” she said.

This tribute to Polly has opened many other doors for Montparker to share her passion for music and the story of one special relationship in her life. “She was my constant companion and I really did put my bare feet on her when she was lying under the piano,” Montparker said in a sad, reminiscent tone. “The most important, beautiful thing about Polly is she sensed the serious work I was doing and she was absolutely respectful about it. She wasn’t annoying or distracting and that felt very good.”

Photographs by Cami Johnson,