August 13, 2009

Piano Lessons

Music has been a lifelong love, though I have minimal ability. In 1966, my parents decided I should take piano lessons. We always had music in our home – from hymns and preludes to waltzes and show music and Andy Williams on the hi-fi.

My businessman grandfather gave me a black leather binder for my music books, imprinted in gold letters with my full Baptismal name. I still have and use the portfolio. A leather portfolio may have been over the top for a nine-year-old with an orthopedic shoe and shiny, new metal bands on her upper teeth.

My mother drove me weekly to Miss Akers big square house in the county seat. Walking up the three steps to Miss Akers porch and the heavy wooden front door was scary. On my first visit, I turned and watched Mom drive the Chevy down the tree-lined street to do errands, and wondered if she was coming back.

Miss Akers house smelled of great literature and fresh roses. The front room had large floor-to-ceiling windows with damask curtains over sheers, and let in minimal light. Beyond the first room was the piano -- not just any piano but a glorious parlor grand piano, black hardwood with real ivory keys. The brand escapes my memory.

The diminutive Miss Akers invited me to the piano. She sat on a straight-backed chair next to the piano stool. Not a bench, but a real piano stool. She whirled the stool until it fit a fourth grader.

Her metronome sat on top of the piano, click, pause, click, pause, soon my breathing mimiced the time.

She placed my hands on the keys in the Middle C position, and complimented me on my long, thin fingers and "excellent" reach. (Later my hands were perfect for holding a vintage Schaeffer fountain pen, and not on a keyboard. Long fingers and "excellent" reach don't necessarily guarantee a good pianist.)

My long legs actually reached the thick, rounded floor pedals.

I was enchanted by the sound this piano made. I learned about Middle “C” in my first lesson. Miss Akers taught me how to appropriately “play” a piano key, not press, not tap, certainly not pound, but “play.” Playing a scale on that piano always felt different from playing my spinet. When depressing the ivory keys, the sound was fuller and more resonant than the spinet, and one note filled the room.

I was in awe of Miss Akers but I was also terrified of her. She felt popular music was inappropriate to play in music lessons. She told me that I could only play Bach, Beethoven, and someday, Chopin. I wanted to play show tunes from The Music Man, West Side Story, Oklahoma, and The Sound of Music.

As an adult I am so grateful for that early schooling in the basics of classical music. When I’m not listening to show tunes, I frequently listen to the Goldberg Variations or my absolute favorite, Toccata and Fugue in D minor (familiar to any fan of Don Knotts’ movies.) I like Albinoni, Rachmaninoff, and sometimes I'm even in the mood for Mahler.

Despite this glorious build-up, I must tell you I did not last long with Miss Akers. Within weeks, she confided to my mother that music was not to be my vocation. I lasted a year and made it through several books of easy Bach preludes, scale books, and written exercises.

My parents moved me to a neighbor, Mrs. Reese, a skilled church organist who felt I might practice more eagerly if she mixed in a little Rodgers and Hart with Rachmaninoff and Haydn. I like to tell people I had “six years of piano lessons, except it was one year six times in a row.”

Dear Miss Aker and Mrs. Reese, thanks for your patience with the little girl who liked listening to show tunes more than practicing. You gave her more than you know. While I still find sitting in a theatre and listening to a musical heaven on earth, you whetted my musical appetite for new adventures. Thank you.Quoth the raven.

As I am the family collector of treasures, I have many pieces of sheet music back to the 1920s. Shown above with my own music portfolio and early books is an original Hoagy Carmichael Stardust. Carmichael is an Indiana legend.