For my tenth birthday my parents bought me a piano.
It was a Baldwin Acrosonic console with a maple “Early American” case to match my mother’s living room. It was a beautiful instrument, and expensive by 1956 standards–$750 dollars.
My birthday was on a weekend that year and the store did not deliver on weekends, so my mother tucked a picture of a piano into my birthday card, and I was beside myself with an ecstatic misery until Monday after school when it came.
It was December, biting cold and windy. When I saw the truck backing into the driveway, I threw open the front door and the storm door and ran outside to give the delivery crew instructions. My mother was right behind me, demanding that I get inside before I got pneumonia, and assuring me that these men knew all about delivering pianos.
I did not believe her, and I was certain that they would drop it or scratch it. But in a short time it was settled in the location we had chosen and the technician from the store was performing his perfunctory tuning.
Before the delivery truck was out of our driveway, I had one of the old undershirts that my mother used as cleaning rags and was eliminating the last vestiges of showroom dust and delivery crew fingerprints from my instrument. For the thirty years that I owned the piano, cleaning it was my own joyful ritual.
Music lessons were pending in January, but for the first month after the piano’s arrival, I had nothing to play. The only song I knew was Chopsticks and I was forbidden to play it more than five times in a row, not to exceed ten times daily. So, after reaching my limit each morning, I would dust the piano and admire it from every conceivable angle.
After school, I lay on the floor beneath it, staring up at the underside of the keyboard and imagining myself playing Chopin’s Military Polonaise for my admiring friends.
Exactly one month after the piano came, I had my first lesson. My parents had found a teacher who would come to the house because my mother didn’t drive. Her name was Miss Crist and I always called her Miss Priss. She was a large woman with dark hair coiled into a bun at the nape of her neck, dark eyes and very pale skin, on which she wore no makeup at all.
Miss Priss had lips so thin that her mouth seemed to be a straight line which I never saw curve up or down. When she spoke, it was almost a whisper, her face immobile. She sat in one of my parents’ Windsor chairs next to the piano, her legs crossed primly at the ankles, holding a pile of sheet music on her lap. In addition to scales and exercises, she gave me simplified versions of hymns and somber classical works.
She might have bored me right out of love with music, except that one day when I was having trouble with a particular passage, she slapped my hands and my mother witnessed it. Miss Priss was relieved of her duties on the spot.
My second teacher could hardly have been more different from Miss Priss. Mr. Schneider was a jolly Lawrence Welk wannabe. He was almost totally bald on top, so he made every hair do double duty by parting it down by his left ear and combing it up and over. His big, cratered nose jutted out above a mouthful of tobacco-stained teeth and he was always laughing and telling me stories about his grandchildren.
He was fond of plaid suits and Old Spice aftershave, and I can still see him, sitting in the chair next to me tapping his huge foot and chewing on a pencil. He liked polkas and marches, and did not believe in making children practice scales. To him, music was fun, and if you acquired any technique along the way, it was a happy accident.
When I was thirteen we moved from St. Louis to Chicago and the search began for a new piano teacher. After almost three years with Mr. Schneider, I had learned to sight read fairly well, but I had no technique at all. Neither my parents nor I realized that, however, because I was having so much fun.
In our new neighborhood, I quickly became best friends with Vicki, whose family lived two doors down from us. Her mother had heard about a piano teacher named Mrs. Mildred Meyer who was more expensive than most at $7.50 an hour, but who, it was said, could whip even the most recalcitrant student into shape in no time. And she made house calls.
The mothers conferred and, cost notwithstanding, it was arranged that Vicki would have her lesson on Tuesday afternoon from 4-5 p.m. and then Mrs. Meyer would come to my house from 5-6 p.m. On the day of our first lesson I waited nervously until my younger brother Jimmy, who was watching out the front window, hollered, “Here she comes! And she looks mean!”
My mother and I walked out on the front porch to greet her, and I glanced down the street. Vicki was on her front porch, both hands at her throat, her tongue protruding in mock strangulation. Dismayed but determined, I turned my attention to Mrs. Meyer as she offered me her hand, something no adult had ever done. Her skin was cool and smooth and her grip firm. I noticed that her nails were short, but beautifully manicured.
She was compactly built, like a trim little tree, and her fair skin was artfully made up. Her blonde hair was pulled into a perfect chignon, from which no stray wisps dared attempt to escape. She wore a grey suit with a double strand of pearls, a small pill box hat, and carried a pair of black gloves and a briefcase.
“Hello, Judith,” she said crisply. “Shall we begin?”
It was downhill from there. For the next hour, as my family eavesdropped from the kitchen, she pointed out all my shortcomings, including, but not limited to: bad posture, excessively long fingernails, incorrect position at the keyboard, sloppy fingering and nonexistent technique.
Sitting next to her, I felt fat and awkward, not to mention musically ignorant. She seemed oblivious to my discomfort as she drew a notebook from her briefcase with my name on it. In spite of myself, I was intrigued.
She sketched a rough wheel with spokes and assigned each one the letter of a major key. “I’m going to give you some basic theory to study each week,” she said. “That should help you understand the music.” Then almost as an afterthought, she added, “You do sight read very well.”
After she left, I cried and begged my parents to find another teacher, but they wouldn’t hear of it.
For the next two years every Tuesday at 5 p.m., I studied music with Mrs. Meyer. She sat in the same Windsor chair that Miss Priss and Mr. Schneider had used, but she sat ramrod straight, feet together. She held nothing but a pencil, and when she focused her attention on me, everything else receded into the background.
She showed me proper hand position (wrists level, fingers curved as if around a ball). She gave me sonatinas by obscure Italian composers instead of scales for technique. She taught me the use of musical phrasing, a term I had never encountered.
“Think of each line of music as a sentence,” she explained. “We can punctuate it and give it inflection, just like a sentence.”
Perhaps most importantly, she introduced me to the concept of musical expression. For, in spite of the fact that I had always loved music and had listened to it extensively, I played everything either very soft or very loud, and following the metronome’s lead, always at a constant tempo. I knew nothing of the subtle shadings that could shape a piece and give it meaning. Mrs. Meyer accepted this at first while I worked on the basics.
Then one day as I ripped through the second movement of Mozart’s C Major Sonata, she suddenly placed her open hand over the page I was playing. I stopped and turned to her.
“Judith,” she said, pointing to the measure I had just finished, “What do you think Mozart wants to do right here?”
I had no idea, but I hazarded a guess. “Segue into the development section?”
She looked straight into my eyes and said softly, “He’s trying to break your heart.” I must have looked blank. “Can’t you hear the longing?” she asked me. Without waiting for a reply, she motioned me to move over and she sat on the bench beside me. She then played the entire second movement as I had never heard it before or even imagined it. I tried to follow along, but the notes blurred and swam before my eyes.
When she had finished, she reached into her briefcase and pulled out two tissues, one for her, one for me. “I knew you would understand,” she smiled.
The following summer my father was transferred to Los Angeles. The prospect of living in California was exciting, but I was devastated to leave Mrs. Meyer. I cried for an hour after my last lesson, and my parents were totally bewildered.
“You can study piano in Los Angeles, honey,” my mother said soothingly. “I’m sure we’ll find another good teacher.”
And we did. I studied piano until I graduated from high school and I had several excellent teachers who guided me through an expanding repertoire from Baroque to Ragtime. I studied composers I had never heard of, composers I didn’t understand and some I was certain I wouldn’t like. I ended up loving them all.
But when I sit down at the piano of an evening and the house is still, I dig in the stacks of music for a dog-eared yellow book of sonatas. It falls open by itself to the Mozart C Major . I lift my hands to the keys. And more often than not I discern from the corner of my eye just a flicker, probably the curtain moving in the breeze.
And she says, “Wrists up, Judith. Fingers curved. Phrasing. And remember, he’s trying to break your heart.”