As a little kid, one of my jobs was to sit by the front window and wait for the blue Dodge Dart to pull up and park in front of our house. Then I would yell as loud as I could:
“MR. GLINKE IS HERE!”
Mr. Glinke (pronounced glink-ee) was my sister and brother’s unenthusiastic piano teacher. Neither of them ever practiced and came to be known around our house as “Glinke’s clinkers”. When I became old enough to start piano, Mr. Glinke didn’t want to take me on as a student. So I went to a bored housewife two blocks down. For a few years, I learned the songs in Thompson’s First Grade Book. In order. One song a week. I read the notes and played them. Each week I got a little sticker. When we finished the book, we went on to the Second Grade Book and did them in order. Etc. etc. There was no technique taught, no harmony, no scales or chords or music theory. I read the notes and played them.
This got old and I started practicing less and faking it more. I still got the stickers. But eventually the classic conversation happened – the exact same thing said in millions of households, for decades, and all over the world:
“If you are not going to practice, then we are not going to keep paying for your lessons.”
So I found a new teacher and started paying for my own lessons with babysitting and leave-raking money. I still didn’t practice. Then I quit and didn’t touch a piano for 30 years.
By then I had my own young kids and only one night a week to go out and do something on my own. The first thing I tried was a step-gymnastics class which was fun, but a one-off thing. When it ended I decided to try yoga and liked that too – except for the meditation part where we all lay around, trying to relax, while listening to the choir of our stomach gurglings. I did yoga for two years, but when I got the chance to start piano lessons with a really good teacher, I traded in the mats for sheet music.
My very first lesson with Mr. C. was not very spectacular. After hearing me play something – a few bars of a song I could still remember from my childhood lessons, he said,
“I’m sorry, but I have to tell you something that you won’t want to hear.”
Oh shit, I thought. He’s not going to take me on as a student. He’s going to tell me that it’s no use and I shouldn’t even bother trying.
Instead he told me that I would have to cut off all my long fingernails. Pianists have to hit the keys with the tops of their fingers. That was the start of five years of piano lessons and my new hobby. I got a lot better but nowhere near good in that time. I had fun. The best part was having something that was my own thing. The rest of the day was devoted to doing things for other people – my family, my students, my pets, my tax auditor . . . piano playing was only for me. My family – who had to listen to me practicing for five years – can confirm that.
I guess I enjoyed it too much, because my husband got ever so slightly jealous. He would repeatedly mention his suspicions to friends and dinner guests and people randomly passing by on the street. “Her lesson is supposed to be 25 minutes long, but she is gone for two hours and comes home in such a good mood. And her piano playing isn’t getting any better!” Aaahhh. Some jokes never get old.
Three years after I began, I asked Mr. C. if he would take my younger daughter Lily on as a student too. (He was a very popular teacher and so hard to get.) I watched her first lesson with fascination. He started right off with technique. How would an elephant play the piano? (Pounding slowly on the keys – adagio and forte.) How would a mouse play? (Scampering – allegro and pianissimo.) How would a snake play? (Sliding from key to key – legato.) How would a kangaroo play? (Boing! Boing! – Staccato.)
This teacher wasn’t going to give her a book and work from Page 1 through to Page 63 in order. She wasn’t going to practice “See the Sea Lion” for the first entire week (which was just hitting middle C over and over again – must have driven my family crazy!) And within 25 minutes, he had figured out how to reach my reserved little girl on a personal level. She even laughed.
After about 10 lessons with Lily, Mr. C. suddenly asked me what kind of piano we had at home. He asked if he could come by our house to check it out, you know, to make sure it was good enough for her. (Curious, I thought, he has never worried about our piano being good enough for me!) Our 80 year old Ehrbar just barely passed muster. For the time being at least.
Within two years, Lily passed me by. She was playing stuff I would never master. Once it became clear that she had a special talent and she started taking part in competitions, the quality of our piano was brought up as an issue again. After her second “First Prize”, the jury members also asked her what kind of piano she practiced on – and that was the clincher. Time for a baby grand and rearranging the living room.
Unfortunately, this was about the same time that my working hours and stress increased. With so little time to practice, I was in danger of turning into a Glinke’s Clinker. I had also started blogging. I decided to take a semester break from my piano lessons – which turned into a two year and still on-going break. I have a fabulous piano in my living room and hardly ever touch it. But I listen to Lily practicing daily as I sit in the next room writing my posts. It is a blessing.