Getting up on stage before an audience to perform as a soloist in front of a full orchestra is daunting. It’s even scarier when you’ve never done it before and are making your pianistic debut at the ripe age of 79. Add to that a traumatic injury that prevents the use of the right hand or foot, and you have the experience of Norman Malone.
Malone’s story is the subject of For the Left Hand, a new documentary from Chicago-based Kartemquin Films that premieres on WTTW on Friday, November 5 at 9:00 pm and is available to stream. It’s a story that was first told in the Chicago Tribune by Howard Reich, who is the writer and a co-producer of the film. “When I met Norman, I was amazed,” Reich recalls. “I spent the whole summer interviewing him, and the story kept getting deeper and richer and more profound. What I thought of as a small story became a three-part series on the front page of the Tribune. I thought that was the end of the story; really it was the beginning.”
Because of the attention from the Tribune series, Malone began receiving invitations to perform, including that orchestral debut, which is the culmination of For the Left Hand. Malone had long been drawn to Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, and was offered the opportunity to perform it with the West Hartford Symphony Orchestra, a community ensemble in Connecticut. Despite being a public school music teacher in Chicago for 34 years and harboring a lifelong love of the piano, he had never played solo with an orchestra.
There is a small but significant repertoire of piano music written for the left hand only, much of it commissioned by Paul Wittgenstein, a pianist who lost an arm in the First World War. (He was also a brother of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.) Composers from Sergei Prokofiev to Richard Strauss to Benjamin Britten wrote concertos for Wittgenstein, but Ravel’s is considered the pinnacle of the bunch. (Paul Hindemith also wrote for Wittgenstein, but the pianist rejected the piece. Reich was the one who announced the existence of a manuscript of the work when it resurfaced amongst Wittgenstein’s possessions decades after his death.)
Malone devoted himself to the left-hand repertoire, even writing his thesis about Wittgenstein. By the time he made his debut with the Ravel concerto, he had been practicing the piece for 60 years. Now, he himself commissions composers to add to the body of work.
Reich himself played the left-hand repertoire, including the Ravel, while studying piano at Northwestern University. “When I played it, and this is not an exaggeration, my fingers always bled, because you’ve got these gigantic glissandos,” he says. “And if you’re literally a thin-skinned critic, your thumb bleeds. So that’s when I thought, ‘I really should write about music.’”
Asked what he finds most admirable about Norman, Reich answers, “His courage or audacity. Not only does he play the Ravel with orchestra, he plays a brand-new piece of music written for him”—a rag by Reginald Robinson that Malone premiered in Chicago when he was in his 80s. “At a recent screening [of For the Left hand], someone stood up and asked, ‘After all you’ve been through, where do you find the source for doing all this?’” Reich recalls. “And Norman answered this very tersely. He said, ‘I am a survivor,’ and that is a fact.”
Malone’s father suffered from mental illness. He committed suicide when Malone was 10, and attacked Malone and his two brothers with a hammer as he did so, injuring all of them for life. Despite suffering paralysis on his right side, Malone was determined to study piano, and eventually went to DePaul University for music before becoming a beloved high school teacher.
“If you know nothing about music, you’re going to relate to the extraordinary tragedy that Norman faced at such a young age, and the even more extraordinary way that he transcended that,” says Reich.
“The beating heart of this film is who Norman is: that beautiful face of his, his experiences, his warmth. I often tell people that, if I introduce you to Norman today—you’d never met him, you didn’t know his story—you’d say nothing bad ever happened to this guy in his life; he’s led a charmed life. And in a way, he has led a charmed life—because he’s decided to.”