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Archive for July, 2009

It’s not unusual for fathers or mothers to have dreams for their children. The father may want his son to be an NFL football player, or his daughter to be a star student and valedictorian. Sometimes the mother wants her son to be a magnificent ballroom dancer or her daughter to be the most beautiful beauty queen. Some parents just want their kids to finish high school. My mother was the mother who wanted her daughter to be some sort of great pianist.  And that required my participation.

PianoUnfortunately, at the age of eight I did not share this dream at all. I would have much preferred to be outside up to my ankles in mud making my favorite “mud shoes.” Despite my resistance, each Tuesday, my mother dropped my older sister and I off at Mrs. Hill’s house for lessons.

Mrs. Hill lived in a large house at the top of a hill, a fact I secretly always found amusing. That hill made her driveway the sort that we wouldn’t even bother trying to drive up in the winter, no matter how much it was plowed New England’s snow and ice kept us at the bottom, forcing us to trudge miserably in our snow boots up to the shelter at the top.

When we actually got inside the house we had to battle her dogs, as they eagerly greeted us with rapidly wagging tails. I generally liked dogs, and she had two, a dachshund and a greyhound.  The ludicrous relative size between the two made them a comical pair. I liked her dachshund. Running in circles with excitement, his wagging tail would vibrate his entire rear end. But her greyhound scared me. Accustomed to being the smallest in every class I had ever been in, this gigantic dog was twice my size. When he greeted us, his wagging tail would move like an enormous whip, large enough to knock me to the ground.

After making it up the hill and past the dogs, I still had to live through the lesson itself. My sister would sit on the big, dark-green imitation leather couch in the formal living room doing homework. She would work until it was her turn to be taught. While she sat comfortably, I sat on the hard bench at the enormous grand piano ready to be tortured by my captor, Mrs. Hill.

Mrs. Hill reminded me a lot of my mother. She was probably a pleasant lady, but she easily became a villainous opponent in my mind. I didn’t think that she was a pleasant lady at all when she was trying to make me learn something. I never minded plunking out songs at the piano, but I did mind when someone watched over my shoulder telling me that I was doing it wrong. However, Mrs. Hill didn’t realize that I rarely knew what was right. I could barely read the music; I didn’t understand how the notes on the page somehow matched the keys on the piano. I could color in the lines, but I could not play by the sheet music.

Being a resourceful child, I found a loop hole.  I would play each song however it sounded right to me: by ear and using the numbers above the notes that corresponded to my fingers.  My system worked better than struggling to actually read the music; unfortunately for me it was not foolproof.  When there were no numbers, I had to guess.  Additionally, my scheme incorporated my own timing and rhythm, which rarely coincided with what Mrs. Hill wanted.

Poor Mrs. Hill was stuck trying to force me to play by her methods. Her favorite device of torment was a small, hand-held metronome that resembled a remote control. It was not like the pleasant ticking that you would hope, but an obnoxious beeping that felt like musical Chinese water torture. Rather than helping me keep the rhythm, it shattered all my concentration. Simply the sight of the dreaded device was enough to make me cringe with nervous expectation. Insisting that I would learn with practice, Mrs. Hill was sure that I would get used to it.

She might have been right, if I had practiced at all.  My mom would try just about every day to park me on the bench in front of the piano, and she would succeed for maybe five minutes, until I found a way to distract her and steal away.  Routine agony and torture kept us occupied for two years of lessons with Mrs. Hill.

It only got worse.  While I didn’t like the lessons to begin with, it was a little better because my sister and I were in it together.  It had always been the two of us. She was with me for every lesson. Obviously we didn’t play the same songs and were at completely different levels, she was much better than I. So much better that she eventually needed a different teacher. Recommended to a teacher in another town, she began to take lessons with her own teacher, while I continued to take lessons in the house on the hill -alone.

After enduring a what seemed a grueling lifetime of suffering, although realistically about two months, I was transferred to the other teacher when my mom decided that it would be easier to manage piano lessons if we both had the same teacher. I no longer had to face Mrs. Hill each Tuesday! Although I was relieved, the feeling was fleeting when I realized that I still had to play piano, and the torture would be continued by an unknown executor.

When the first day of the new lessons arrived, my mom drove us up to the front steps. There was no hill with a driveway like Mt. Everest; there was only a horse-shoe shaped driveway, to make turning around easier. There were no dogs to fend off; there were only chirping birds at the hospitable feeder outside, overflowing with seeds, tempting the squirrels and chipmunks as well. There was no grand piano taunting me as I desperately tried to find a note that sounded right; there was only an old, loved upright, like I had at home. There was no Mrs. Hill, waiting for me with her beeping metronome; there was only Mrs. Been, eager to meet her new student.

When we entered, my sister sat down, not on a dark couch with imitation leather in a living room, but in a wooden chair at a homey table that was covered in a sky-blue tablecloth with pretty fake flowers in a basket in the center of the table. As my sister settled down with her homework, I settled down on the piano bench, curious to see how my new teacher would try to make me learn.

An older woman with short curly white hair, Mrs. Been was quick; she had been teaching kids for longer than I had been alive.  She taught music lessons for students at the local school, as well as privately.  The private lessons she gave in a small, sun-porch type of room, devoted to teaching piano.  There was just enough space for a few bookshelves near the piano and her desk, where she kept her students’ records. During the lesson, Mrs. Been sat near the piano bench in a swivel office chair, ready for action.

This chair was very attractive to me; I was very fond of spinning chairs.  When Mrs. Been had me move from the bench so she could demonstrate a song, which had little resemblance to the original when I had attempted to play it, I naturally sat in the twirling chair.  As I took a seat in her chair she chuckled, telling me that I was the only student to sit in her chair, the others would stand respectfully as she played.  While she played, I twisted gently back and forth, enjoying the sound of the song and the motion of the chair.

MusicNot surprisingly, it didn’t take Mrs. Been long to see that I knew almost nothing.  Whipping out her set of musical flash cards, she proved that I could hardly read a note. By the end of the lesson I had been sent back to the previous difficulty level of piano books. I had to get a set of new books that she said she liked better than the ones I had been trying to play. She also gave me a planner where she wrote down my assignments for the week. Under the assignments there was a row of boxes, one for each day of the week. This is where I was supposed to record the amount of time that I had practiced each day.

When we went back the next week, the first thing Mrs. Been did was examine my planner.  She looked at my practice time pleased and surprised, and after writing “195” in large triumphant print, she had me pick out a sticker to put next to it.  I didn’t understand at first why she was so delighted.  Suddenly, it occurred to me: that number was the total time I’d practiced that week.  I had practiced for a total of three hours and fifteen minutes that week.  It hadn’t occurred to me that I had been practicing very much, although I had noticed a feeling of satisfaction each time I had written down how long I’d spent in front of our piano.  Mrs. Been was thrilled, and wrote my name and the number again on a long list, with stars and stickers, that was posted on the wall.  My name was at the top of the list, because I had practiced the most out of all of her students that week.

Strong enforcement from my mom continued to be necessary for a while, but that day became marked in my mind as the day I realized that I could play piano for myself. After that I began to practice more and more; it became a competition to keep my name reigning at the top of the chart. I still couldn’t play very well, but now I had a been given a goal to achieve. I became very fond of Mrs. Been, anticipating my lessons with her each week and becoming more inspired to play. She began encouraging me to play songs I knew and loved, even taking field trips to the piano store where I could pick out any music I wanted. I began to play for hours, loving feel of the keys flowing under my fingers, each note vibrating deep from the heart of the piano.

I can’t say that I became my mother’s inspiring pianist, and patient Mrs. Been had to exert constant perseverance to help me develop my fingering and timing. While my mother’s dream may never be fully realized, I found that I had taken her dream for me to play the piano like a concert pianist, and made it into my own dream – to simply play piano.

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Black holes in time

BlackHoleToo often we think about what we did yesterday and we just can’t remember. Or last week. Or last month. Or last year.

I might remember I was at work yesterday, but whatever I did there is largely lost into the depths of completed and finished projects.

I love finding some item  or note from long ago that brings back a thought that would have been lost to me otherwise. I love going through old pictures or the trunk of useless objects and certificate I’ve acquired over the years. I’ve kept small toys, poems and stories I wrote, drawings, awards, and so many miscellaneous items that I am always discovering something forgotten.

Recently, I came across a journal that I kept for a writing class when I was about ten. I think that class may have inspired me more than perhaps any other writing class that I’ve taken. And that inspiration has stuck and grown over time. Reading through it made me think of so many different things: the ways I’ve changed and matured in a decade, the similarities… the arrogance of youth.

You think you know everything when you are ten.

I remember loving the teacher, Mrs. Curtis. She was patient and gave us broad categories, and knew how to give us a task but leave room for plenty of creativity. We were supposed to write about what we did each day, describing actual events and things we observed. My observations were full of childishly sincere thoughts. My journal is covered in her notes, encouraging me and chiding me for not doing something right.

More than once I wrote a poem instead of an entry. She would call me a little poet and scold me for not writing an actual journal entry. She taught me to read and write poems, and I loved finding words that rhymed and forming phrases. I loved using the words to make amusing and nonsensical verses and limerick.

That love of words has matured too, and translated into a love of pleasing prose more than those little rhyming ditties.

No more than some paper in a folder, that journal is a record of so many lost thoughts. When you think about there are only some events that we remember, with those filed away until something recalls them to mind, like a key that unlocks a cabinet. Like my little journal. That note, picture, smell, or place can bring back memories that have been long lost in time.

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