I couldn’t think how many years it had been since I sat and listened to a gifted pianist play classical music. I couldn’t see him from where I was sitting, so I alternately closed my eyes, then stared straight ahead. Holiday lights and evergreen swatches decorated the room. Beyond, you could see the view of downtown Austin from the 22nd floor — the lighted windows in hotels and businesses and condominiums, the small size of life at a distance, the black night.
The pianist, Anton Nel, performed selections from Beethoven and Debussy and Chopin. The music was crystalline and effortless, beautifully played. When I closed my eyes, I could almost “see” the music as written — or parts of it, anyway. I could see it, because I’d taken piano lessons when I was in the fifth grade till the ninth grade.
My mother, who hoped I’d be musical and cultured, drove me to a weekly lesson and weekly theory class. Like the rest of the students, I alternated between which member of the couple I took lessons from. Dr. Young was the husband, parchment-skinned, with light brown hair that clung to his skull. He was “old,” probably in his sixties, and his framed degree from the Eastman School was propped nearby. Since he was called “Dr.,” I assume the the degree was a Ph.D. But who knows? In a small West Texas town in 1960, lots of people got called “doctor.”
Dr. Young’s wife, Mrs. Young (if either of them had first names, I can’t recall them) was the pushier and more vibrant of the two. She was stout, with dark hair clenched into curls, and she presided over two grand pianos in the living room. For the five years I studied with the Youngs, she and I disliked each other a good four of those five. I was the kind of pupil no sane piano teacher would have wanted: smart, a bit careless and uninterested. Every fall, I’d begin my lessons by practicing relentlessly, showing up at theory class with my practice report of two or three hours a day. A month later, that number would have dwindled to half an hour a day, and even that minimal claim was an exaggeration. I had other, more important things to do, like reading.
Worse, in Mrs. Young’s rather jaundiced view, I was becoming an adolescent. I grew my fingernails. “They’ll scar the piano keys!” she’d say, pulling out clippers and chopping off my nails. This often took five of my 30-minute lesson, which was fine with me. What did I care? Then, even more appalling to Mrs. Young, I began to wear eye makeup. In my view, the more makeup the more glamorous I was — so I applied it as thickly as possible, with layers of shadow, eyeliner and mascara. “For our recital, we don’t want our girls wearing eye makeup,” Mrs. Young took to announcing at our theory classes, aiming her sharp eyes at me, as I slumped in the corner. “Eye makeup that makes them look … terrible, like actresses,” she continued, pronouncing the last word like it was strumpets, instead.
I’m sure I ignored her. I was always sitting next to my friend, Nancy, who claimed Dr. Young was trying to feel her up during her private lessons. Nancy was an unreliable, if entertaining, narrator. Somebody — from swimming coaches to everybody’s father to delivery boys — was always trying to feel up Nancy, according to her accounts. My mother said it was probably because Nancy was adopted; I wasn’t sure whether Mother was talking about the attempted molestations or the exaggerations, but I knew enough not to ask.
Week after week, Mother drove me to two classes a week. Once I got to be good enough on the piano, she always told me excitedly, I’d graduate to taking organ lessons at the church. I didn’t like organs and I didn’t want organ lessons, but it never occurred to me to say so. I knew it was important to Mother. Years later, when I wanted certain things for my own children that had nothing to do with them and everything to do with me, I finally understood.
Our family moved, deeper into West Texas, after my fifth year of piano lessons. I’m sure the Youngs didn’t miss me any more than I missed them. Mother spoke of finding another piano teacher for me in Midland, but she was halfhearted about it. She knew I’d never take organ lessons, either.
I thought about all of this, sitting in an attentive, well-dressed audience above a city 200 miles and 50 years distant from my old life. Elizabeth Edwards had died earlier that day and the next day would mark the 30th anniversary of John Lennon’s death. It was sad and haunting to think of both of them and their lives and how their brilliant beginnings had ended in tragedy. How could you explain any of this?
I couldn’t. I’ve gotten to the age that I realize how complicated even my small universe is and how little of life makes sense.
In fact, I only know a few simple things. I know 1) eye makeup can help your appearance, but you need to apply it sparingly; 2) I wouldn’t have appreciated the performance half as much if it hadn’t been for my piano lessons with the Youngs; and 3) I’m still glad I dropped out of lessons when I turned 15. Enough was enough.
(Copyright 2010 by Ruth Pennebaker)
Read one of my favorite posts about how people are crazy if they treat writers badly
Sometimes I think you have lived a more interesting life than I ever will. Or maybe you just make the mundane interesting. Anyway, enjoyed this one very much. I never took piano lessons at all – I can’t even read music.
Hi Ruth, Your post reminded me how my parents would force me to take piano lessons when I was young. I rebelled and wish I hadn’t. But now I’m thinking of taking lessons again.
Ah, piano lessons. I’d say I remembered them well, but I barely remember them at all. I bet a lot of people are that way.
My gram taught me to play, which sounds like more fun that your experience, but I didn’t stick with it. That was fine with me, until I went to college, and EVERYONE was a master musician. I felt like a dolt.
But, like you, I know how hard it really is and can appreciate the work involved for people who are really good.
One of my fav pianists records CDs of classical music for DOGS that has been proven to help calm them down. How cool is that?
Piano lessons were my parents’ attempt to instill some culture in me. My father played a little, he would sit at the piano and work at one piece or another for months at a time. Now I wish I could play.
Someone gave us a piano when I was a teenager. I was intrigued and taught myself to play. By the time I went to college I was majoring in piano and 2nd pianist in the program at a music school. I found theory and all the rest of it incredibly boring. And, I could show up to lessons and bang out the music as if I’d practiced all week. This new teacher was ON to me. She yelled a lot and was disappointed regularly looking at me over her glasses. She did a lot of, “imagine how well you could play if you just…” and whenever someone does that to me I do a 180 and walk away. Sadly, that’s what I did. My daughter is very interested in the piano and I hope to get her one and teach her.. and remind myself in the process. I do love the music. This was a great story.
I still remember the name of my piano teacher, Mrs. Todd, and the smell of her house–musty carpet mixed with wood polish. I was a lousy piano student, but she was sweet to me. As soon as I could play Broadway showtunes, I stopped (my poor mother, first sitting through annual recitals and then at home having to listen to me pick through “The Hills are alive” belting it out as I went). I’m glad now I can play, I can even fake my way through playing the organ too. Thanks Mrs. Todd!
You brought back so many memories with this story, Ruth. I took piano lessons throughout my young – and adult – life. EAch time, I learned to play by ear before I learned to read music. When, as an adult, I finally decided it was time to actually learn how to read music, I tried and tried and finally gave up. I do mis the piano, though, and every so often walk by it, look at it out of the corner of my eye, and think, hmm…maybe I’ll be back again…
“I’ve gotten to the age that I realize how complicated even my small universe is and how little of life makes sense.”
Amen. I think I’ve gotten to that age too sister.
I had exactly three piano lessons when I was eight years old and never learned to play or to read music. My teacher, Mrs. Fowler, had twelve children and sat next to me on the piano bench with a baby attached to her naked breast. Between six or seven of the other eleven children chasing each other around the room, the hungry baby, and a miniature pig named Arnold (after the Green Acres pig) who sat in a chair and watched, I was hopelessly distracted. As I walked across Mrs. Fowler’s front porch after the third lesson, Ringo, their German Shepherd, knocked me down, snarled, and went for my jugular. One of the Fowler kids pulled him off. I can still remember thinking that I was about to die young. My mom did not succeed in coaxing me to go back for more lessons!
Delightful post! Funny, because I was thinking exactly the same thing earlier in the week, especially with all the crazy goings on in Washington: “I’ve gotten to the age that I realize how complicated even my small universe is and how little of life makes sense.”
On the other hand, guild rates for organists are $100 to $150 an hour. Maybe Mom was on to something!
Oh, this brought back memories of my reluctant piano lessons! My family first rented a spinet, then bought a baby grand to encourage me – actually, they bought the grand because my mother decided to take lessons too. The teacher my mother found was a middle aged European man, who played with the Chicago symphony, and was frustrated with a sulky, uninspired pre-teen. We didn’t get along!
Mom, on the other hand, did great. The teacher loved her. I think he carried a torch for her for many years.
Now I’m musing about that clarinet I never learned to play…sigh.
Piano lessons either make a lock or they slide right off. If kids take to those ivory keys, wonderful. I agree that most of the time it’s the parents who have a dream. My kids dropped out of playing, just as I did.