Piano teachers, I realize now, have it really rough in some ways. Over and over again, they have to start at the beginning, teaching kids the very basics of playing the piano: how to hold wrists, curve fingers over the keys and keep your back straight (below are the great Rachmaninoff's hands), how keys in front of them match up to notes on the page and how to “play” those strange symbols, time signatures, scales, chords, the circle of fifths, all those Italian words that indicate speed and dynamics….They have to deal with kids who are only taking lessons because their parents make them, kids who are not prodigies, kids who are never going to grow up to be virtuosos, and yet they must show the patience of Job, trying to instill whatever the kid can learn. They take the time to pick out pieces that will challenge and match likes and abilities, only to have kids not practice – I was one of these kids, although now I have no idea what made me so busy in the afternoons that I didn’t feel I had time to practice. And they have to deal with kids stumbling through and mutilating some of the most beautiful music ever written.
It was my sister, inspired after hearing Natalie Cole’s Our Love, who wanted to learn to tickle and caress the ebonies and ivories herself. After showing sufficient dedication to asking my parents for piano lessons, she got them, and my family got a piano. Thus my fate was sealed: I too was going to have piano lessons one day. I may have wanted them initially, but by the time I started, around the age of 7, I wasn’t as enthused. But my mom never let me quit, partially because we had a piano and someone had to play it, and she was convinced that it would make us better at math. Ha! (My mom gets the last laugh – both my sister and I excel at math and have engineering degrees.)
I took piano lessons for 11 years, reaching the level of beginner’s advanced or so – I had enough knowledge of technique to play any piece of music, but still had lots of work to do on certain skills. But besides exposing me to beautiful music, my piano teachers accomplished something greater. They exposed me to the beauty of the Western classical tradition. They ended any intimidation I felt about classical art, any insecurity that such wasn’t “my heritage.” Indeed, it is probably largely through their indirect efforts that I’m able to speak fairly confidently about all sorts of art and my opinions of it. When you’re looking at music for the first time and picking your way through a Beethoven sonata, Mozart sonatina, or a Bach fugue, you see the bones of a piece and how a composer chose to add the flesh and blood, the dynamics, and as you can see the patterns for each composer, the process of art becomes a little less intimidating. No less remarkable a gift of the composer, you become tied to them in some ways – “Come on Chopin, let’s hold hands and you help me get through this Etude.” See, you can communicate with dead white males. Learning to play the piano was one of the most important experiences of my life.
Thank you, Mrs. Cherry and Mrs. Seagrave, for your dedication.
Now some highlights and lowlights:
Thus, I hate you Chopin’s Minute Waltz! (Think about playing the above in an interval of about a second.) It was a year of exquisite torture to learn to play you with modest success, and my dear piano teacher would clock the time it took me to play you. To this day, I can’t hear you on the radio without my right hand starting to tremor from all the “rotate your forearm and loosen your wrist to play the trills, don’t try to do it from your fingers!”
I hate every last one of your silly sonatas, Scarlatti!
I love you with a love that’s pure and true, Debussy’s Le fille aux cheveux de lin. I loved mastering your chromatics and playing all the black keys. I also loved your dynamics: playing you was like taking a beautiful stroll in the afternoon of a dream world.
I love you, Bach’s Prelude No. 1 (from the Well-Tempered Clavier). Used in Gounod’s Ave Maria, you are like a lullaby and you were my own favorite to end my practicing sessions. And for your Preludes, Mr. J.S. Bach, I forgive you all your Inventions, played with speed and deliberation in all sorts of keys. I'll even forgive your son.
You and I have a love-hate relationship, Mr. Chopin. I never enjoyed playing any of your Preludes or Polonaises, but I do love your Nocturnes (even though my sister way overplayed Op 37 No 1 and Op 55 No 2). Slightly melancholy, even at their greatest difficulty I felt the caress of a great pianist. I especially loved Nocturne in E minor, Op 72 No 1, with its 12/8 time in the left hand and 4/4 in the right, and none of your typical flourishes. Just beats within beats, like lovers who are parting. I always looked forward to meeting you again.
I must also give a shout out to Gershwin, Bartok, Schubert, Beethoven, Brahms, and other composers whose work I may have slaughtered, though I loved them. I see you trying to sneak in, Mr. Scarlatti. Go sit in the corner!