The Piano Lesson

Ch. 24 A Portrait...

They were talking that evening about how fortunate they were with such a good son. He was well ahead of his grade in reading, always interested in quiet and inventive things to keep himself occupied, never in trouble like many of the boys in the neighborhood who were full of unsociable thoughts and on the edge of getting reported to the police. He was polite and took criticism well, mowed the lawn regularly and picked up his room without being asked. And he was even serious about his piano lessons, which he seemed to enjoy although he was much more interested in devising his own impromptus at the keyboard than reading the easy ones of Chopin which he teacher had assigned. He seems so quiet and untroubled at an age when most boys are liable to the wildest kinds of thought and action, that we can only congratulate ourselves on our good luck with our well adjusted young son.

--- May, that is the way it seems but I can tell you from my own experience that for boys at the age of ten there is always a lot going on behind the scene, about which we as parents don't have the least idea. They are not miniature adults at all, they act and dress and talk the way we have taught them, they move around in our world easily and naturally, but there is another side which is quite different. If we knew everything that goes on in a boy's mind, we would be surprised and you, May, would probably be fairly well shocked. So I think it is good that the underground part of an adolescent boy's mind remains a closet for which there is a closely locked door. It is right for kids to have a degree of privacy, and it relieves us of the responsibility of worrying about the many things they think, which we could not possibly understand.

--- Bit Sidney, look at the way he is playing the piano, so serious about the lessons and reading the notes and getting to play accurately, and he is showing a natural talent not only for music but for learning new things. He concentrates well, not only when he is studying but when he is out taking those long walks afternoons, I think for him these are a time for serious consideration of his life and what it is all about. Don't you agree?

He was not sure he agreed but he felt there was nothing more to say, so he did the right thing when in question and said nothing. But he knew there was more going on beneath the surface, as there should be, even if some of it might become uncomfortable somewhere along the way.

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--- Yes, Mom, I remember about the piano lesson I'm getting ready will be down in a minute. No I don't want any breakfast, not hungry I know I should eat something but I don't feel like it. Yes I put the money for last week's lesson in my pocket, I'll remember to give it to her I won't for get like last week. OK I got to go now, Mom and I got the Schnabel with her notes for my practice. Why is grandma laughing so much, she says I should be playing the Beethoven sonatas not schnabeling about them, I don't know what she means and Mom says just get the papers together and get going, Grandma doesn't mean anything you have to know. She says she'll tell you later when you get back, she is still laughing. That screen door still gets stuck open and the flies get in for their breakfast, Dad said fix it and get a new spring when I go past the hardware store. I'll try to remember, don't I always remember (ha ha. . .) ? OK I am off. Got to mow the lawn again soon that grass keeps trying to get ahead of me, someone says they are developing a new kind of Indian Sword Grass so sharp that it mows itself. In California they just put down concrete and paint it green, not a bad idea but I'd lose my dime a week for mowing, always gotta face that. See if I can kick that stone ahead of me all the way down to the corner, yep bounced it off the post and still got it on the cross street and onto the bridge over the train tracks, a train coming along real slow going to stop at the station, why don't I aim the stone and see if I can hit the last car as it does past. Got it first time, shows I am getting pretty good at this, wonder what the passengers think when they hear a thump on the roof, probably saying some damned kid up there. I'd like to get over the fence and climb down the ladder on the wall and see if there is anything interesting on the tracks, maybe put a penny on the track and see if I can find it later crushed flat and twice as big. I don't think it would throw the train off the track, only one way to find out. Oh well, got to get moving to the piano lesson, sure ruins a Saturday morning when I could be out doing something fun like baseball even if I have to wear glasses and can't see the ball, I keep asking Mom to stop the lessons and let me have some fun with the boys but she says music is very important when you go to college and I say I would rather do the violin because I am nearsighted and could read the notes more easily there, but she says the violin is not an instrument I want you to play, the poor Jewish immigrants on Third Avenue have violin lessons for their kids because they can't afford a piano. And the clarinet it no good either, so its got to be the piano and . . . . . .That car almost got me, boy he sure was going fast and didn't see the light at all, that's what they mean saying look both ways. I found a can to kick and was getting the hang of it, very different from a stone and it goes different directions from that you thought, was fun until an old lady yelled out to me that I was littering the neighborhood and what was my name and she was going to call my mother, but I gave it a kick onto her lawn and walked away, why don't people mind their own business. Over here there are some houses set back from the street, I always like to look around the front of the lawn here, they leave all the branches and leaves as they fall and let them rot down to go back to nature, I like that and there are bugs crawling around in there and the birds are looking for the bugs, much more interesting than a mowed lawn where the lady is picking out the dandelions with a pointed trowel all through the summer, must be her hobby. I wish I hadn't lost that can, I'd like to toss it in there with the leaves and branches, imagine the anger of the lady when she spots it and says who in the world would be throwing an empty can in my woodsy garden, there are some people who have no feeling for nature at all. Oh well, do that next time. The Boulevard is pretty busy with cars and trucks, got to cross that one carefully, always some nasty old feller blows his horn and yells out the window what are you trying to do kid, you want to get yourself killed crossing the street like that, just a big mouth looking for something to complain about. Other side it is quiet, brick apartment houses, I think Mrs. Phillips lives in one of these, I wonder what she is like out of school, they say she has a boy about five she was divorced I wonder why that happened. She is a very nice looking lady, sort of formal but must have been pretty once when a girl, I can still see that. I wonder what she would do if she saw me from the window sometime, would she call down as I was passing and ask me to come up for a lemonade or a coke, that would be nice to sit and talk with her if her son as not there, sort of quiet and private and you never can tell. That would be nice to talk with someone who knew about these things, but OK to just think about it, thinking is free. Now at the corner turn right, I wonder what was in those little shabby storefronts that have paper inside the glass windows so nobody can tell what was there before. Maybe a candy store or some sort of repair shop, interesting to think if there might be some old tools in a box in there if you could get in when it was dark and prowl around with a match. No, Officer, I wasn't really trying to steal anything, I was just curious, my uncle Sam used to have this store and he said that I could. . . . . . Turn left again and down the street to Mrs. Morris' house and the piano lesson, too bad having a lesson on such a nice morning. Just walk along slowly to eat up some more time, stop at the dead tree by the sidewalk where they hung a fancy sign "THE MORRIS" which should probably be Morrises or at least Morris'. The French teacher said it would be chez les morris, much neater. Well, I am here, got to knock and go in and wait for the dumb girl who is always making the same mistakes to finish up her lesson, she shouldn't be playing piano at all, sort of good looking with her thick lips, she would be better with the clarinet.

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--- Come in Billy, why don't you warm up at the piano while I answer the phone, I'll be back in a minute. Yes, I forgot you like to be called Bill, I'll try to remember that. . . . . . Now will you open to the Sonata we were working on, and go right ahead play the start of the slow movement, will you, Billy?

--- (She'll never remember, might as well forget about that. It's my mother's fault, she always thinks of me as Billy, probably the same when I am twenty one. But at least she doesn't call me Willi like her uncle, got to be glad for that. )

--- Very nice, er. . . .Bill. . . .you did it with a nice feeling, you have a sensitive touch when you think about it, I liked that very well. But you tend to run the notes together too much, legato is nice but it should not be on every measure, so why don't I remind you what I said before, that each finger should go down and come up right away, like a set of little trip hammers so it can make a clean passage instead of a muddy one. If you think that is a little too bright, you can use the loud pedal with it, softens the sound somewhat at least if you don't overuse it. Why don't you give the passage a try now with that in mind, make it sound like a harpsichord if you know what I mean.

--- (I think she would like me to play like on of those player pianos which are completely mechanical, everything even and in its place, that is the way Mz Mars thinks of music. I'll do it her way for now, but when I get home and do some of my own improvisations in the style of Mozart, I'll do it my own way. In the meantime. . . . . . Yes, Mz Mars, I understand.)

--- One thing more, Billy I mean . . . . .forgive me, we are all creatures of habit! You are playing it very well but your tempo is uneven, so I would like to you to play it again slowly and count out the time. You know how we do it: ONE and TWO and THREE and . . . . It's a wonderful way to get everything even and right, so why don't you practice that first page counting it out like that while I talk to the next student about how she is coming along. I'll be back in a few minutes, just ONE and TWO and THREE and you can do it all by yourself.

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The hour was up and after a few words of meaningless conversation about how was school and are you getting good grades now and then he was going down the walk past the MORRIS sign and heading home again past the papered-over-window storefronts and the brick apartment house where he looked up for a wave from a window just out of habit and he was already a block from the Boulevard.

--- That is a nice looking stick, I'll use it for a cane and walk along like one of those gentlemen in the British film, can tuck it under my arm and saunter a bit, stylish Why don't I stop at the avenue where the cars are busy, lean on the stick and make believe I am lame, look across the road hesitating as if trying to find a good place to cross. I'll bet in two minutes people will come up to me and say how awful it is to see such a brave little cripple trying to cross the avenue alone, here take my arm and let me help you along, I'll go slowly and we'll wave to stop the cars while we cross. When we get to the other side I'll throw down the stick and march straight ahead, looking back at them with a big laugh in place of a thankyou. It would be fun, maybe I'll try it some day just to see if it works like that. Wait a minute, if I can find an empty can in that garbage pail by that house, I can kick it along for a while and leave it in that lady's woodsy garden by the sidewalk if she isn't looking. She'll sooner or later spy it, drop her dandelion weeding spade and come over in a rush to nab it and tell her husband later how rundown the neighborhood is getting. Maybe Henry we should think of moving to a better area one of these days. Over the railroad tracks, still thinking of tin cans, maybe that would be better than a rock on the passenger car roof, might bounce few time and make an interesting clatter for them to wonder about, think something is wrong with the train. Should have picked up two cans while at it, oh well can do that next Saturday.

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--- Billy, did you have a good piano lesson, and did you give her the envelope with the check for the lesson? Oh you forgot, well I should have mailed it to her. I don't know why you couldn't remember that small thing that I asked you, after all you had nothing on your mind while walking from here to there, ambling along with not a thought in your head. Someday you'll realize that your are getting really absentminded, and then it may be too late to change. Bad habits stick with you, I have told you that before.

He said he was very sorry and would be better remembering the next time. Grandma told him that she felt Beethoven would be angry to have someone schnabeling over him in a printed edition, which she still felt was very funny, so he smiled and said probably so. Anyway Saturday morning piano lesson was over and he could practice any way he wanted for six days until the lesson in the following week.



Aaron Seligmann
www.middlebury.edu/~harris