In a quiet suburban corner of Soddy Daisy, piano music emerges from a modestly elegant house, flows across the front yard like a warm breeze and touches the ears of a woman who’s walking a dog along the edge of the street.
For all she knows, someone is listening to a recording of classical music or a radio program. However, the pianist is actually playing the rapid flurry of melodies live.
Inside the home, practiced fingers are dancing gracefully over the keys of a Steinway grand as they string together the notes that make up one of Alexander Scriabin’s 12 etudes.
The digits belong to attorney Christian Lanier, who loves music by Scriabin, a Russian composer of the Romanic period, as well as many of his contemporaries.
“Sergei Rachmaninoff is my favorite composer,” Lanier says as he gives his fingers – and the 88 keys that stretch across half of his and wife’s small living room – a brief rest. “But I like whatever catches my ear.”
Lanier says this includes pop, country, Latin and more, as well as songs that might surprise those who are familiar with his passion for classical music.
“There are things you wouldn’t expect me to enjoy,” he grins. “[Rapper] Nicki Minaj’s ‘Starships’ is one.”
Some attorneys entomb themselves within stacks of case files, but Lanier is up to his chin in sheet music. The stand on his Steinway is barely holding up several open works, while tall, sloppy piles of more printed music occupy nearly every reachable flat surface in the room.
Even this is just a portion of Lanier’s collection. “I have two 8-foot-tall book shelves of sheet music in another room,” he confesses. “It’s everywhere.”
Rachmaninoff to Beethoven
Lanier has had a lifetime to learn to play this music. (As an attorney, Lanier knows he can refuse to incriminate himself, so he takes the Fifth when asked his age.)
A Nashville native, Lanier first sat down at a piano – an old upright he remembers being grossly out of tune – at the age of 3. After his aunt taught him a few of the basics, he convinced his parents to pay for lessons.
When Lanier reached the age of 9, his mother and father allowed him to choose a piano for them to buy. In a decision he bemoans to this day, he selected a Wurlitzer spinet similar to the one at which Archie and Edith Bunker croon the theme song to “All in the Family.”
“Never let a 9-year-old pick out a piano,” he advises, shaking his head. “They don’t know what they’re doing.”
Lanier’s father also purchased a house across the street from his son’s piano teacher to bring an end to the long Saturday afternoon drives to lessons.
The teacher, whom Lanier calls Miss Sawyer, taught him everything but jazz. Although Lanier wasn’t fond of Beethoven – even after his instructor required him to learn all 32 of the composer’s piano sonatas – he fell in love with romantic music while viewing the film “Doctor Zhivago” (1965) in ninth grade.
“I was struck by [Maurice Jarre’s] score and wanted to learn to play it.”
The event that had the greatest impact on Lanier’s musical taste, however, was a televised concert featuring famed Russian pianist Vladimir Horowitz.
“I’d never seen or heard anyone play like that,” he gushes. “It was extraordinary and very difficult. I went to a music store the next day and purchased every one of those pieces.”
Lanier stopped taking lessons when he graduated from high school and started his undergraduate studies at Vanderbilt University. He become interested in political science, and his parents discouraged him from pursuing music professionally.
Lanier agreed that his financial prospects would be poor if he tried.
“Two of my latter teachers were geniuses but couldn’t make a living performing,” he says. “And I’d grown up interested in classic music, which was not what most of the people who were doing well in the music industry at the time were performing.”
Despite setting aside piano lessons to focus on the law, Lanier continued to play. While earning his Juris Doctor at the University of Memphis, for example, he and friend would steal away to the music building and perform show tunes in an empty studio.
Music has been such a constant in Lanier’s life, he can use the purchase of new pianos to mark important milestones. When he moved to Chattanooga in 1976 to work for an insurance defense firm, for instance, he purchased a Baldwin upright, which he says was a “decent piano.”
His next upgrade came after he married his wife, Pam, whom he met while serving in the Hamilton County Young Republicans Club in 1981. After the pair exchanged vows two months later, he traded in his Baldwin for a Kawai.
This pleased his new bride, he says. “She liked to listen to me play and would never complain when I did.”
Goldwater to Atwater
Lanier can trace his interest in the law back to when he caught the political bug in eighth grade.
“I was the only one in my history class who’d speak up for Barry Goldwater,” he recalls. “I argued that we didn’t need all the entitlement and war on poverty programs [Lyndon B.] Johnson was adding because they were going to be very expensive.”
By the time Lanier’s high school political science teacher made him Richard Nixon’s campaign manager in a mock election, he was hooked. After Lanier joined the College Republicans at Vanderbilt, he decided to go to law school.
“If you were interested in politics, you became a lawyer,” he explains.
One of Lanier’s favorite stories to tell from his stint with the College Republicans involves a political showdown between him and future political consultant and strategist Lee Atwater, who ran against him for Southeastern U.S. regional vice chairman.
Lanier lost by one vote in a credentials committee.
After Lanier and Pam married, he left the firm he joined when he moved to Chattanooga and began working alone. Although he’s been active in several areas of the law, he’s best known for representing defendants in federal court.
Lanier says this work is best described as a sentencing practice. Instead of endeavoring to secure a not guilty verdict for his clients, he mainly does what he can to minimize the amount of time they spend in prison.
“I’m always focusing on the best result given bad circumstances,” Lanier explains. “In federal court, the government has not only dotted every ‘I’ and crossed every ‘T,’ but it’s also hammered a nail into the lid on the coffin every two millimeters. It’s very difficult to attack the prosecution’s facts.”
Instead, Lanier continues, he maintains a deep understanding of the government’s sentencing guidelines and looks for openings that might benefit his clients. He says the untold hours he’s spent studying the rules both on his own and during seminars he’s attended have made him “something of a sentencing expert.”
That said, Lanier does have a few war stories that end with his client receiving a not guilty verdict in federal court, including a crack cocaine conspiracy case over which Judge Curtis Collier presided.
“Ninety-nine percent of the people who have cases in federal court plead guilty. Of the ones who go to trial, 99% get convicted. But my client still wanted a trial,” Lanier says. “I told the court he couldn’t have been much help in furthering a conspiracy. Hearing the verdict felt like winning the Super Bowl.”
Digging up roots
Somewhere among the stacks of sheet music in Lanier’s home is the work that pulls him away from his keyboards, which includes a Yamaha Montage his wife purchased for him as an anniversary present.
The piano and synthesizer will lie silent when a case is pressing in on Lanier, as was the occasion during a recent weekend he devoted to preparing a long and complex brief for a federal case.
But when the smoke clears, Lanier can be found back in his living room, recording electronic music on his iMac or learning to play Bach on his piano. He says the famous composer’s music, which preceded the romantic era he loves by over a century, is more formal and rigid than he prefers.
“When I play Bach, I feel like I’m solving a math problem. It’s not as expressive and emotional as music from the romantic era.”
Lanier also enjoys researching the history of his family, which is primarily detailed in a 700-page volume by Louise Ingersoll titled “Lanier: A Genealogy of the Family who Came to Virginia and Their French Ancestors in London.”
The titanic tome, which Goetz Printing Company first published in 1965, reveals that Lanier’s flair for musical performance could very well be in his blood.
“There was a court musician named Nicholas Lanier in France,” Lanier notes. “He worked for King Henry II until he and his family fled to England to escape the persecution of the Huguenots.”
After arriving in England, Nicholas served as a musician in the court of Queen Elizabeth I. His grandson – also named Nicholas – became a court musician and composer for King Charles I and Charles II. Some of the younger Nicholas’ music survives to this day and can be heard on YouTube.
“It’s not something you’d want to listen to while driving,” Lanier suggests.
Lanier’s family arrived in Virginia in the 1600s and dispersed from there, according to Ingersoll. A mere 400 years later, Lanier carries on the family tradition.
After nearly seven decades of playing the piano, Lanier continues to push his limits.
In addition to tackling Bach, he’s still learning some of the Horowitz pieces he purchased and is taking lessons again. David Walters, a music instructor at Chattanooga State Community College, is teaching Lanier the only genre of music Miss Sawyer didn’t – jazz.
Lanier says jazz is hard. “I grew up playing the notes I read on a page; now I’m trying to improvise. It’s like learning a new language.”
Lanier welcomes the challenge, though, because it will improve his performance of other styles of music.
Whether or not anyone will hear the music remains to be seen. Lanier has performed live only a handful of times during recitals, local Lincoln Day dinners and Park(ing) Day events. He also has never recorded and released any performances commercially, although some of his electronic music is available on SoundCloud.
For Lanier, music is a personal pursuit. He plays because he loves to and he shares his passion with his wife, who still likes to listen to him play and never complains when he does.
If Lanier will leave a mark on the world, it will be through the years he’s able to shave off the sentences of federal convicts and the occasional not guilty verdict he’s able to secure.
Lanier still talks with the client he represented in his “Super Bowl” victory and says the man is leading a productive life. If Lanier had chosen to pursue music instead of the law, the man’s fate might have been different.
For this reason and others, Lanier says he’s content with his decision to practice law instead of play piano professionally. It was the practical choice, he says, and he and his family have benefited from it.
At least the people who step within Lanier’s personal space are able to hear him play. This includes his neighbor and her dog, who have long since returned home from their afternoon walk but might pass by again tomorrow as Lanier is playing.
Perhaps instead of assuming she’s hearing a recording or a radio program, his neighbor will sense that she’s listening to practiced fingers dancing gracefully over the keys of a grand piano as they string together the notes that make up a beautiful piece few people in this day and age experience.