Mrs. Price, my piano teacher, did the best she could, but she was contending with a child who told a friend, later in life, “Sure, we could knits scarves, but, really, bamboo shoots under my fingernails would be more fun for me.”
Fine motor skills were never my strength, but either my mother felt she had missed something by not learning to play the piano herself, or, in spite of her solid good sense, had been reading some sixties version of “What Every Kindergartener Should Know.”
I was a good child, I liked music. I have a vague memory of saying the good sixties child version of “Why the hell not?” to her when she brought up piano lessons. I may have shrugged my shoulders as well. Yeah, Mom, up for anything. I was seven. What did I know? Up to this point my mother had been trustworthy. And how hard could it be, right?
Mrs. Price played the organ at our church and was one of maybe two piano teachers in our small town. She was short and comfortably round and had a certain “je ne sais quoi” that was probably the result of simple good grooming, but looked to me at the time as more sophistication than I was used to. She wore her gray hair in a lovely cinnamon bun knot high at the back of her head, soft and intriguing, Parisian even, with bangs of short curls framing her face. She had a round face made sweet and lively by her smile. She was perhaps in her late fifties, an in-between age, not one of the ancient ladies in fur coats that occupied the fourth row, right side, at church, or one of the mothers in their thirties. She, unlike those two groups, seemed to burst with a convivial energy.
I entered Mrs. Price’s house for my first lesson the second week of second grade. Like Mrs. Price, her house was small, warm and elegant. Such a house was new in my experience. Mrs. Price’s living room carpet was not graced with the streak of red crayon that was an intractable feature of my mother’s interior decoration for ten years. I was a senior in high school before Mom thought it might be safe to replace a few tired things without imminent danger of Kool-aid spills making it all for naught.
In Mrs. Price’s bungalow, I saw that a house could exist without two to four children underfoot, without model airplane decals on the bathroom cabinets, without G.I. Joes hanging from the bottle brush plants in tortured attitudes, and without diminutive plastic horses that caused fathers to curse (under their breaths, of course) when stepped on barefoot at night.
Instead, she had wooden floors with a patterned carpet, a glass-enclosed sun room off the living room (where I would later wait with her other students before approaching the grand piano to screw up my recital piece), delicate china figurines, a simple yet stylish marble fireplace, and Mr. Price. He was a small, bent man who was never seen at church, who toddled in perhaps once a year during my lesson, but who nevertheless added a tone. Mrs. Price’s house was calm, and smelled nice.
I suppose I could blame my lack of musical progress on the fact that, unlike Mrs. Price’s cozy cottage, my house held no expectant hush, waiting for music to start. My house didn’t ask for music. My house asked only for the screeching to go outside.
Unfortunately for me, in terms of learning to read music, I had a good ear. When Mrs. Price introduced a new song, she would play it for me. So in general, I would know how it was supposed to sound, and for the ensuing four years, notes on the staff meant not “play this exact note,” but “here’s a vague clue about where you put your fingers,” and “not quite; try again.” After I began to sing four-part, a capella music with some dedication at age eighteen, it was still about fifteen years before I looked at a score and realized “reading music” was actual reading. Yes, that exact note on the score is this precise sound released into the world, whether by your voice or an instrument. You could hear it in your head if you learned to read well enough, just like you could hear words when you read. I felt both liberated by this insight and stupid for the lengthy delay in learning it.
Poor Mrs. Price. She must have been bored out of her chignon-covered skull. I think I was in the first red John Thompson piano primer for a year or longer, and her attempts to teach me theory –- well, the least said, the better.
And I hated the music. I wanted to play the songs I heard on the radio, not the ditties that all sounded like “Country Garden.” Dee-DEE-dee-dee-dee dah-dee-dah-dee-dah. Over and over again.
Over and over again, of course, because it took me four times longer to learn them than it should have. And I only learned them, even in my minimalist fashion, because my mother had greater strength of will than I did and made me practice.
How did this go on for four years, you ask? You got me. I don’t remember a single enjoyable moment playing the piano until about year three and a half, when Mrs. Price, possibly with tears in her eyes, said I was “over the hump.”
Yet somehow I agreed to another year of lessons three separate times.
Maybe that’s why I got the pony I’d been asking for since the moment I could first breathe — to free my mother of the duty of asking.
“You have to choose,” she said.
“You won’t have time for both,” she said.
Gee, pony or piano? That was a tough one.
It wasn’t a total waste. Now and then, I still play, dumbed-down classical pieces and simple songs from the nineteenth century like “Ye Banks and Braes,” “Believe Me, If All Those Endearing Young Charms,” and “All Through the Night.” I’ll practice enough to sing to my playing, enjoy it for a few weeks, and stop.
Besides, I got to sit next to Mrs. Price every week for four years. It wasn’t what my mother was paying for, but it was good value for money.