When I was very young, I had a strange obsession with the piano. We didn’t have one when this all started, probably when I was four or five years old, but every time we visited a friend with one, I liked to sit at the long bench and stretch my fingers across the keys. I liked the sound–that much I remember. But there was a certain feeling I had face-to-face with the magical instrument. It felt like home in a way I can’t attribute to anything other than sounds from a radio or record player. My parents had wildly different musical passions, my dad’s country and my mom’s classical, but they came together with the standards of their time, and I can remember them once dancing to “Laura” at a restaurant. Piano was one instrument that they all had in common, so everyone was happy that I wanted to play.
My mom had had a somewhat tortured relationship with her own mother. I don’t remember my grandmother, who died when I was three, but I always knew that my mom was not the favorite child. Her brother, a life-loving good-ole-boy who moved from southeastern Missouri to Memphis after college, was the golden boy of the family. My mom adored him, but she also knew that she never stood a chance at gaining her mom’s undying love, simply because, she said, she was not a boy. Eager to avoid this sort of favoritism between her own son and daughter, she indulged me at times. I had a beautiful princess-like bedroom set with a canopy bed. And she bought me a piano in second grade.
Second grade was the year that my grade school offered piano lessons before school, and I was devoted to the teachings of Mrs. Miles. She was a kind woman who had me spend my first month of lessons learning basic music theory. I can’t remember if this was standard practice for her, or a good use of my time while we awaited the new piano’s delivery in October, but what I learned in that time has proved invaluable to my entire understanding of music, even now. I had a foundation, and I was ready.
My first year of piano was a dream, and a good thing during my awful second grade. I hated my classroom teacher that year, and remember to this day the horrible assignment of copying all the numbers from one to one thousand on a sheet of graph paper. Day one of this exercise, I sped along happily enough, challenging myself to finish first. But by the second day, I was bored, and just stopped, earning myself a trip to the principal’s office. Apparently, this and my desire to go back to reading the chapter books that my first grade teacher had allowed me to have, had made everyone think of putting me directly into third grade right then. Ultimately, my mom decided to keep me in my own grade with a pretty nice group of kids, and she probably was right, even if I stayed bored throughout most of school. Third grade was relatively fun, though I hid in the bathroom during our weekly viewings of The Electric Company. But this year, the piano year had its highlights, too. I made some friends. I got to play a Steinway for our concert, where I played the song, “Sing Robin, Sing” to what I remember as roaring applause, even though I couldn’t get the last note to play.
My second year, though, Mrs. Miles was replaced by Sister Alice. I was frightened by the change, and confused. I remember crying at one point as I told the crabby nun that I didn’t understand what she wanted me to do. The exercises were totally different from the ones I had before, and I nearly gave up practicing.
My mom saw my distress, and soon found me another teacher, a kind but dreary woman named Miss Moline. She taught in Mrs. Bolsterli’s house, a house devoted to the teaching of piano, bedrooms converted into lesson rooms. Each month, we had a club on Saturday mornings where we practiced the formalities of playing for concert. We were allowed to play only two non-classical pieces for club throughout the year, and almost everyone at some point played Scott Joplin. I still have my own sheet music from The Entertainer, and I imagine the swelling interest in piano at the time had a lot to do with that movie. I enjoyed my lessons then. Miss Moline sometimes dozed off, and often ran very late. I remember a few times that she gave me a quarter and sent me across the street for ice cream at Velvet Freeze, a thrill to cross the street alone and present my money in exchange for a wonderfully bitter mint chip cone. We practiced mostly classical, but also standards. I loved these songs, and still remember the lyrics from reading them after I had memorized the keys to play. I was not much for creative expression, though, a little afraid to make the notes on the page my own.
Miss Moline had some health problems, I think, and probably some cash-flow issues. She disappeared for some time, and I took a few lessons with Mrs. Bolsterli herself. She was more impatient and demanding, and seemed shocked that I had not learned the methods I heard her students playing sometimes during club. I kept trying, though, and learned her techniques.
Still, lessons had become a little less interesting, and I was lazy about practicing by the time I was eleven or twelve. My last concert, I had prepared to play Boccherini’s Minuet in E Major, but days before the concert, I panicked. I couldn’t do it. I had to go in person to Mrs. Bolsterli to tell her. She was furious, had sent the programs to the printers already. I felt so ashamed that I never went back for lessons, and that was it, the end of my piano days.
Occasionally, I surprised people by playing a few songs, but I was no virtuoso. I could sight read and play by ear, but I knew the kids who were truly talented. I worked hard for a few years, but the truth was that my last year was the one that I saw that hard work was something, but not everything. Years later, some of the best musicians I have ever known told me they had loved Sister Alice.
My daughter is a painter, and from a very young age, she was thrilled at scenery we passed driving along on ordinary days. I am, too, but her descriptions are of light, and color, and surfaces that I cannot see. At at a certain point, I realized that she talks exactly as she paints. I think Sister Alice saw music in a similar way, and so do my musician friends. For me, though, this is a way of hearing that I could only study and appreciate. And that’s not nothing, but I always wanted to be a contender.
But that’s the way life is sometimes, isn’t it? I love music, and understand far more than I would have without those lessons, and I feel it vicariously, at least–a pleasure I am glad to have. The piano bring me home in ways, but it’s bittersweet, saudade, the separation between what I wanted to be and who I was. I wonder sometimes if my frustration in that separation gave me the drive to figure out other ways to express it. I tried and tried to fill it with the right words, and I am still discovering that there are numerous ways to fill that space between.