Michael Abelson has been studying piano with Elizabeth Babor since 2005, right around the time he started his law firm. He has since retired, but his passion for music is still going strong. Michael recently shared about his musical interests, his time at PCM, and how his retirement is going.
PCM: When and why did you start learning the piano?
MA: We had a piano when I was a kid. An old Baldwin baby grand. We inherited it from my grandparents. It was an anniversary present from my grandfather to my grandmother. Years later, I found the price tag wedged inside the case: $148. My younger sister got the lessons and hated it. The only thing worse than hearing her excuses for not practicing was listening to her practice. Real torture. When my folks down-sized, my sister wanted nothing to do with the piano, and I couldn’t bear to see it sold. So I got the piano.
For years it sat in our living room filling-up space. Occasionally, I’d poke at it and, eventually taught myself some real ditties: Here We Go Up a Road to a Birthday Party, Wigwam, and The Farmer in the Dell. Mind you, this was quite an achievement. Up until then, my only formal musical training took place in elementary school. In the third grade. On a flute-a-phone. Finally, at the ripe old age of 42, I decided to get serious. I had just started my own law firm and I craved something (other than law) to serve as a creative outlet. That was 15 years and thousands of scales ago.
These days, the Baldwin has been relocated to Santa Barbara (it’s great for ragtime) and I’ve graduated to a Steinway here in our Pasadena home. Unlike my sister, I actually like practicing. There’s a special solitude to it, and I really enjoy the process of trying to figure out each piece: Left hand, right hand, patterns, rhythm and that damn counting – always the counting! But here’s the best part: Unlike litigation, no one is on the other side trying to engineer your defeat. There’s only you, your time, and your effort. And at the end of it all, a song!
PCM: Do you have any favorite pieces you’ve learned over the years?
MA: My teacher, Elizabeth Babor, is going to kill me, but I love playing Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Yeah, yeah, I know. But, honestly, I can’t get enough of Rudolph. Especially the dog-eared, xeroxed version I have that makes me sound great. I can’t play it enough. It’s my warm-up. It’s what I play when I have only a couple minutes before dinner, and I love to open all the windows and play it in July when it’s totally out of place. I’m sure it drives the neighbors crazy – good.
Runner-up: I really love learning Mozart’s Zwölf Variationen über “Ah, vous dirai-je Maman” (KV 265) – essentially 12 versions of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” Backwards. Forwards. Upside down. Inside out. Very clever. Starts simple and takes off. Guy’s got immense talent. I predict great things for him.
PCM: Elizabeth shared that you recently retired from the law firm you started. Congratulations! How is retired life treating you? Any new hobbies you’re exploring?
MA: Retirement has been interesting. By happenstance, we closed our law firm right at the end of 2019 and I had exactly 45 days of retirement before the pandemic hit. After that, the rest of the world retired alongside me. Travel plans went out the window and, suddenly, I found myself with a lot more time to practice. Goal number one: Learn to Count!
The other hobby I’ve been pursuing is biking. My wife (Nella) and I have done a couple trips together (Majorca, Croatia, the Dolomites), and most weekends we try to do 50+ miles either around here or in the mountains. Nella’s a much better rider than me. I’m constantly chasing her. Once the pandemic lifts, we’re hoping to do a bike trip up to Canada and, soon thereafter, New Zealand. Like all lawyers, I also have a (secret) writing project/screenplay I’ve always wanted to pursue. Progress there has been slow. I fear I may learn to count dotted eighth notes correctly before my writing project comes to pass. Maybe.
PCM: Who is your favorite musician and why?
MA: Growing up, my brother was a Deadhead. He still is. Over the years, People tell me it’s wonderful – some who weren’t even stoned. I just don’t see it (hear it?) and, as a kid, I wanted no part of it. I’m all about order. Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Handel. Patterns, patterns, patterns.
PCM: What is your favorite musical experience?
MA: Notwithstanding my affinity for classical music, my wife and I fell in love at a Jimmy Buffet concert. Enough said.