Title: Piano Zen
Author: Thomas Rheingans
Publication date: February 7, 2022
One Sentence Summary: When eleven-year-old William Longfellow Emerson starts piano lessons with a reclusive pianist who instructs using an equally mysterious Piano Zen method, William not only learns how to play exceptionally well, but travels to a dream land to study with masters and explore with fascinating creatures and friends.
Piano Zen is a fascinating fantasy novel in that it’s less a traditional fantasy and more an introduction to a very intriguing piano teaching method. The story focuses on a young boy named William who discovers his natural talent for piano playing through a unique and secretive method referred to as Piano Zen. It combines piano teaching with mindfulness and a focus on the Four Elements. This novel delightfully allowed me to indulge in my love of music as well as some of my favorite fantasy elements. While it felt overly burdened with history, backstories, and repetition, it was possible for me to look past it for a unique reading experience that actually encouraged me to try out some of the techniques William learned. Overall, I found this to be a thoroughly fun read, and a great new piano teaching method I wish had been available to me when I was a young piano student.
In the City of Nightingale, young William Longfellow Emerson loves the piano, but ends up being a dismal student for renowned pianist Cecil Winwood. Unexpectedly, at their final lesson, Cecil lets slip the name of another teacher he has spent years disparaging: Rosa Carreno. An elderly, reclusive woman, Miss Rosa hasn’t taken on a new student for some time, but there’s something special about William, so she agrees to teach him using a largely unknown and secretive method called Piano Zen, a combination of teaching method and mindfulness.
William has little faith in his abilities, but he is young and his mind is full of imagination. At the sound of the Tibetan Bowl Miss Rosa rings at the beginning of every lesson, William is magically transported to the Whispering Woods of the Tall Pines where he meets a fun little marmoset called Densho who helps him meet the four Masters, one for each Element of Earth, Air, Water, and Fire. As he learns from each master, William simultaneously grows his natural talent.
Piano Zen is not the typical sort of fantasy novel. There are no big problems to solve, no crises to deal with. Instead, it’s completely focused on William, his youthful curiosity, and his journey of learning to play the piano through the Piano Zen method. Piano Zen is both a fun, lighthearted fantasy read that made me smile and dream as a fantasy lover and something of a beginner’s guide to this teaching method, which actually exists. It was quite a lot of fun, though it did often feel bloated with information and backstories that ended up not feeling terribly relevant to the story. I loved the creatures and masters William met and I adored his incredible curiosity and sweet sensitivity to those around him. I can definitely see this appealing to both music and fantasy lovers.
I was drawn to this novel for the music component. I went in fully knowing it would be more a story to help beginning Piano Zen students than a typical fantasy story, and that’s what really got my attention. It’s been quite some time since I took piano lessons, but I think I would have had a much more fun experience with a Piano Zen teacher! I loved how the music instruction and mindfulness exercises really seemed to work together, and there were many times where I could just feel the author’s love for music. There are technical terms sprinkled throughout the novel, which could perhaps be a little confusing to those who have never learned music theory or technique, but, in the end, understanding those details didn’t feel necessary for enjoying this unique story. Though it was a lot of fun for me to come across Alberti Bass since it’s been nearly 20 years since I first played it, and really haven’t heard that phrase since. Piano Zen clearly laid out the teaching process and I can see how reading this novel while learning the method can be beneficial to Piano Zen students. The mindfulness techniques were easy to understand and I even found myself following along with the instruction while doing nothing more than sitting. Piano Zen is an intriguing teaching method that really strives to connect the musician and the music on a much deeper level, and I thoroughly enjoyed learning about it through William’s eyes.
But Piano Zen isn’t just for music students. It still is also a children’s fantasy novel and can absolutely appeal to non-musically-inclined fantasy lovers. As it’s told from the perspective of an 11-12 year old boy, it’s easily accessible to young and old. There are no big problems, no issues that need to be resolved, and definitely no big battles or really any of those huge events one would expect from a traditional fantasy novel. But neither would I call it a slice of life story. It probably more closely aligns with Alice in Wonderland with William unexpectedly falling into a fantasy world full of incredible creatures and adventures and his sole goal is to learn to play the piano. On his way, he meets human masters who teach him as well as talking creatures, including the cutest marmoset and the most delightful bear, who accompany him and help him get around the world.
Where Piano Zen really shines as a fantasy novel is in the world building. The Whispering Woods of the Tall Pines is a truly incredible world. It’s divided into several areas and the masters of the Four Elements each have their home and teaching center in a different area. There’s a history to the world, giving it depth and interest, and a lovely attention to detail that both highlighted the various locations and paid homage to the beauty of nature. The world, both this fantastical one William finds himself in as well as the City of Nightingale, truly focuses on the natural world as much as the music. The fantastical world was lovely and serene with so many fun elements, though my favorite part had to be Densho. He was the perfect companion to William and I loved that, as William grew as a student, his reliance on Densho also faded. Though I wish there had been more of Densho in this novel. The City of Nightingale is a fictional city in the Pacific Northwest and it really paid homage to the natural world around it. William both has a fascination with the history of the city and the beautiful and lush nature all around the city. The way it was described made me feel like I was there, and the city itself felt unique and lively. While much of the book was focused on Miss Rosa’s home and one particularly area of the city, I loved being in both areas and got a sense of how incredible and unique the city and it’s interest in incorporating so many cultures.
William himself is a fascinating character. At such a young age he shows a remarkable interest in things most kids his age would not be, but it made me really identify with him. I loved his curiosity and his sensitive nature. He’s very much in tune with the people around him and tries very hard to not make any missteps. Through him and his intense curiosity, the reader is introduced to the history of the city as well as given something that felt like a crash course in the arts. William is a voracious reader with a curiosity that does not seem to know boundaries. For someone so young, he felt remarkably versed in key figures in art, music, and literature. Usually, name dropping irritates me, but I felt reverence in the way it was done in this novel, and I think that was largely helped by William himself. He was really a remarkable character and I absolutely loved him.
The only thing that dragged for me was the incredible wealth of background information and the constant repetition of the names, which were almost all at least three names long. Very minor characters had full backstories and parts of the history of the man responsible for making the City of Nightingale into what it is were repeated several times. It made the narrative slow down and drag a little as it became cumbersome to connect the information to the larger story. In the end, I could have done without a lot of the history, though some of it was important. I just wish it hadn’t been quite so repetitive and maybe thinned out a little.
But it was quite fun to meet many of the secondary characters, whose histories were included, but they added an interesting depth and highlighted the incredible acceptance of many of the characters. My favorite was Anthony Burns Montgomery, a blind musician who frequently plays in the market place William frequents. He was really very integral to William’s story when he was very much in the City of Nightingale, though some of his story was also a little repetitive and I could have done without so many reminders of the names of some of his family members. But I loved how his story and his family story really spoke to how accepting some powerful people were, and he was really something of a great father figure to William. Miss Rosa actually remained quite mysterious to me throughout the entire novel even though her history is just as repeated as Burns’s. Her time with William felt quieter and it felt more like she was letting William figure things out on his own and she was just a guide, though I loved her cat Misha and would definitely like to pull her from the pages and cuddle her myself. I wish to have seen more of William’s mother as it turned out she had a bit of an interesting story, but the love William had for her was just absolutely beautiful and just what any mother could wish for from her children.
Piano Zen is the sort of story that encourages readers to think and learn. I did not find it to be a fast read and instead wanted to take my time, especially since William never hurried through anything. It introduces a very interesting teaching method and I loved how it wove music and mindfulness together. This is quite unlike most stories I’ve read, and I loved it for that reason. But I also loved it because it allowed me to indulge in my own love for music, both listening and playing, and offered some of my favorite fantasy elements. Overall, I found this to be quite entertaining and instructive.
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Thank you to Thomas Rheingans for a review copy. All opinions expressed are my own.
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