Arnie Popkin says that people look at him funny when he tells them his ideas on playing piano. “I think you play 90 percent with your brain and 10 percent with your fingers,” says Popkin, who’s been playing piano for more than 75 years. True, he has a pianist’s long, slender digits—and people often remark on them—but a piano player is more than his hands.
“You have to have a conception of how [the music] sounds in your mind, and then you have to have the skill to produce that with your fingers…like how an artist has a conception of a painting, a sculpture,” Popkin says.
As Popkin hears the music in his mind, his hands move over invisible piano keys on the table. “Sometimes you feel like playing a little faster here, or holding up a little here, or playing this note a little louder,” he says. His eyebrows dance over the rims of his glasses and his shoulders shimmy and sway under a blue-and-white striped, short-sleeved button-down shirt.
First Presbyterian Church
3pm, October 1
Popkin, who turned 80 on July 11, has been carrying tunes since he was just a year old and playing piano since he was 3, though his earliest musical memory came a few years later.
When he was 8 or 9, he went to see A Song To Remember, a 1945 biopic about 19th century Polish composer Frédéric Chopin where, in the vivid final scene, Chopin, dying of tuberculosis, coughs up scarlet blood all over the piano keys during a concert. About a week later, Popkin was walking on stage for his own recital when he felt a tingling in his nose. Young Arnie knew a nosebleed was nigh—so he kept his head tipped back through his entire program, just in case blood started to drip. “Everybody must have thought I was so stuck-up.” he says. “It never did bleed, but it was an experience, because I’d just had that vision of me bleeding all over the keys.”
Popkin was (and still is) a rather skilled pianist, but even as a kid, he felt that if he were to become a professional concert pianist, he’d lose by winning—if a pianist is successful, says Popkin, he’ll travel all over the world, a new hotel every two nights, with no home life, no life other than piano. And while Popkin knew his life needed piano, he didn’t want his life to be nothing but piano.
He attended medical school in Philadelphia and went into ophthalmology. He practiced in Princeton, New Jersey, for 14 years before moving to Charlottesville with his wife, Phyllis, and racking up another 33 years in the field before retiring in 2013.
All the while, Popkin gave more than a dozen concerts at UVA’s Cabell Hall, plus countless concerts at local retirement communities, churches and in his living room, on his own beloved Steinway piano.
Now, Popkin wakes up at about 6 o’clock every morning and meditates for half an hour before hopping on his recumbent bicycle. While pedaling, he often listens to music on YouTube or one of his five 160GB iPods, which hold about 20,000 songs apiece. After that, he’ll go about his day with his wife of 58 years (“You can quote me on this: It doesn’t seem a day over 57,” Popkin says), sometimes venturing down to the Paramount Theater for a concert. He likes to take naps, and he sits at his Steinway, often with his Shih Tzus Romeo and Lacy, to play music for a couple hours each day.
On October 1, he’ll play a free concert of 11 Chopin pieces at First Presbyterian Church—he says it was difficult to choose which ones to play because he loves so many of them. He plans to include Nocturne in D-flat Major and the Ballade No. 3 in A-flat Major and end on the famous Polonaise in A-flat Major—“that’s everybody’s favorite,” with its fast octaves at the end that sound “sort of like a horse, like the cavalry coming,” says Popkin. It’s a little harder to play now that he’s 80, but he can do it, and so he will.
“Playing music makes you happier. It makes you better in the rest of your life.” And there’s something special about sharing that enrichment with others, says Popkin. “When I’m playing piano, when I’m playing Chopin, it’s a group thing between Chopin and me and the audience. I’m not a show-off,” he says, laughing, “but if people love music, and you’re good and can do it,” it’s nice to share.
Arnie Popkin was born the same day that pianist and “Rhapsody in Blue” and Porgy and Bess composer George Gershwin died: July 11, 1937. Popkin says when he shares that tidbit, the question of reincarnation immediately comes up, and he doesn’t have a “perfect answer.” Popkin plays some Gershwin pieces but says he isn’t “overly crazy about it.” There are a few exceptions, though: “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” is one of his favorite songs. “It’s just gorgeous” he says.