Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Piano Lessons

She was tall and thin and pale, with a long neck and spaghetti fingers that frightened me. As a presence she was barely there. Only her clothes substantiated her - large hoop earrings, long skirts, boots, cowl-neck nubbly sweaters. Very seventies, and with a quintessentially seventies name: Denise.

She was my piano teacher, as vague in her teaching practices as in her person. I was twelve; she was thirty. But I had the upper hand, somehow. I didn't practice much, but I'd perfected the art of appearing to have practiced. Which piece do you want to play next?, she'd ask, in a voice as malnourished as the rest of her, and I'd make a show of studying the lesson book, only to choose the easiest piece, the one with no flats or sharps in the key signature.

Oh, that's a nice one, she'd comment, bland as pudding, rubber-stamping my choice every single week, and I'd feel the strongest, most peculiar urge to slap her. Why was she letting me get away with this? Why didn't she see through me?

I had an excellent ear (still do), and she marveled in her slow, absent way at my aural aptitude. She tested the strength and limitations of my ear far more often than was pedagogically necessary. Was she as bored as I was?

I imagined that she had a boyfriend who beat her. One Friday she fainted, right there in our living room. She didn't eat enough, that was clear, but the not-eating seemed of a piece with her willowy self. Oh, Denise, my mother sighed grimly, lacing her fingers together, She's a type. Artiste in her atelier. I nodded as if I understood, but I wouldn't understand until much later, after I'd done more living.

Each week I dared Denise to call me out, and when she didn't, my contempt for her grew, first formless but later taking shape, as if it were a third person squeezed in between my teacher and me on the black lacquered piano bench.

Eventually I decided to quit taking piano lessons. My mother fought with me about quitting. In so doing she uttered the same sentence I find myself spouting to my eleven-year-old, who wants to quit and has been playing at the very same piano that was the stage for Denise and me: You'll regret it someday. 

I do regret that I quit when I did. And I regret having a teacher I could so easily play. But mostly I regret not having compassion for Denise, who was the first adult I understood to be not as smart as I was. What an unmooring feeling it is for a child to recognize that adults, too, are weak and flawed!

Denise did educate me, although not about music, particularly. She taught me about what kind of woman I did not want to be - as important a lesson as any, though whether it's worth forty dollars a week is debatable.

In the fall, I will allow my son to quit taking piano lessons, and I will take his place at the piano. I will be an adult learner, you know the one: overeager, conscientious, driven, ever more aware of the preciousness of time and the sin of wasting it. I will not manipulate, or feign.

I don't know what happened to Denise. I see her fading out, like the money shot at the end of a film. I am sorry that I was cruel, even if that cruelty lived largely in my head. Before Denise, I'd believed myself to be a kind person. After Denise, I knew that under the right conditions, and with the right person, I possessed a deforming ugliness. Like I said: an education, of a sort.


ozma said...

Oh, that's a hard part of growing up. When you start to see inside people. I think my kid is already able to do all this. And she isn't that nice--but I'm trying to teach her to be kind and empathetic. I think it will be a layer on top of her ability to see people like Denise as they are.

And it's a drag. I don't want my kid to have those insights. I want her to be more innocent.

This is so brilliant because it's sort of one piece of a loss of innocence--when you see adults as they are.

alejna said...

This is such fantastic writing, Sarah, and such a fascinating coming-of-age story.

Reading this reminds me of myself at the same age, even though I don't have the same story. (Though come to think of it, there was teacher of a gifted program I was in who inadvertantly taught me that I could get away with not doing a lot of work. Not really an ideal lesson to learn.)

(I feel like I'm always gushing over your writing, but I really do love your writing. The way you put together words, the way you capture scenes and the complexities of personality, the way you always draw me in.)

V-Grrrl said...

That's a young age to learn that lesson, and it is easy to have contempt for others when you're 12. This is why middle school is HELL. For most, it's a phase we pass through and mature out of.

Would love to see you write a piece of fiction from Denise's point of view.

My children both quit piano after 3-4 years. I let them because I felt like they'd stuck with it long enough to know whether they liked it or not and because I was tired of piano practice being one more thing to fight about.

Kate Rivera said...

Music will be a wonderful outlet for your overflowing creativity. Playing for the sheer pleasure is music we all need to hear.