Through Doug, I realized, musicians and writers have in common an invaluable quality: We get better as we mature.
The Piano Teacher
Ballet culture comes from centuries-old traditions in French and Russian courts, which is why it might strike people who grew up with American democracy and reality TV (like me) as formal and inaccessibly high-brow. In class, I sensed an unspoken hierarchy that dictates who stands where in the room. Doug explains to me later, “Nobody with any sense of propriety would dare stand in front of a principal.” Then, every dancer in the room came up to thank Doug after class, which was nice. It all got me thinking about art and discipline, how sometimes there is more freedom in constraint. And also, somehow: About all the things that girls want but can’t have. “Art is meant to be looked at,” I wrote in my notebook. Art is meant to be seen. And it is lovely to be seen.
A lot of little girls admire ballerinas. Most don’t get to become ballerinas. Even in these classrooms, there are plenty of serious dancers who want the prima roles, but they will never get them. It takes an incredible amount of work, and even then, concert performers often retire young, due to the damage their bodies endure. Sitting next to Doug at the piano, I realize writers and musicians have one thing in common: We get better as we mature. For Doug, the tens of thousands of hours he’s spent playing piano have granted him a kind of confidence, which he is grateful for.
Writers and musicians have one thing in common: We get better as we mature.
I am grateful to be on this kind of trajectory, too. For all my awkward teenage years, and all the ways I sabotaged myself with devastating shyness in my twenties. All the boyfriends I never worked up the nerve to open up to entirely. It occurs to me that I feel lucky—just to be here, writing, writing words that will be seen. It is possible that after an hour and a half of dance class, the music was getting to my head.
For Doug, class is a place where he gets to sharpen his techniques, too—within limits. “I get to practice concentration and endurance,” he says. “I practice getting a good tone out of the piano. Good posture and carriage of the hands.” Doug is always working to acquire new skills. Especially if he hears an unusual syncopation or musical phrasing, he works to get this in his vocabulary.
“I love this job because I never get bored,” he says. “In a big class filled with professionals, you need to have high standards. I’m just grateful that people enjoy my music, and I get to be friends with these people.” Indeed, Doug’s wife is Gretchen Gunther, a retired dancer and teacher who also teaches at Steps on Broadway.
Doug’s first exposure to ballet happened when he was still a student at Bard, on a chance visit to Manhattan. His then-girlfriend took him to a performance of The Green Table, by the German Expressionist choreographer Kurt Jooss. On stage, a gun was fired in a way that coincided with the music, and the magic of this theatrical experience filled Doug with conviction.
“I had never seen anything like it,” he explains. “The ballet was scored for two pianos. In the pit, there were two pianos playing this amazing piece of music, and I said to my girlfriend, ‘Someday I am going to play that ballet.’”
Several years later, Doug did get the chance to play The Green Table. He played it all over the world while touring with the Joffrey Ballet. Once, he even played it in Athens, in an amphitheater at the foot of the Acropolis. He still remembers those rehearsals as one of the highlights of his career.
“I was lucky,” Doug says. “Young people today don’t have as many opportunities for mentorship.” He cites their addictions to digital life. Since TV became pervasive, people don’t go to the ballet or to the theater in the same numbers they used to. Since everybody switched to streaming, Doug says, sales for his CDs of practice music have also dropped. I checked Spotify, and there are hours’ worth of “Doug Schultz’s Ballet Class from New York City” available. Many tracks have been streamed over 150,000 times. It’s nice music. I am listening to it now.
“It’s a hard way to make a living,” Doug says. He also plays church services, weddings and teaches piano lessons. (Just get him started on the Protestant vs. Lutheran church hymnals of Bach, and you understand what a vast body of knowledge is at his fingertips.) One thing is clear, though: Doug loves what he does.
“I play the piano so much that I don’t even think about what key I’m in anymore,” he laughs. “Sometimes I’ll think about the chord progressions. It’s kind of technical. It’s a bit of math, arithmetic. You have to think about it really fast. So I’ll do the progressions in different keys. That keeps me in my seat.”
I understand entirely. As someone who spends a lot of time in my own seat, at a writing desk intended for good posture, next to open windows, with nice music playing—for no other reason than that I like to spend my time this way—I think I’ve found a friend in Doug.