A Personal Saga
But in the summer of 1958, when I was ten, they finally relented and enrolled me in class piano lessons at Wichita’s East High. The venture was probably an experiment. And it was probably cheap, if not free. The teachers had crammed eight or ten studio pianos into one large room, circled up like a wagon train, four little cheeks plastered to each piano bench. There I fell in love with that eighty-eight-key marvel.
Yes, at once I began to make sense of those keys, ebony and ivory. I learned the scale for the key of C with no flats or sharps. Each digit on each hand was assigned a number, the thumb being designated as one. Fingering patterns would become a part of the roadmap I would follow on each piece. Each additional scale, from one sharp or flat to seven had a special pattern four octaves up and back—not that I mastered them all. I had a slothful streak that’s never completely disappeared.
When the summer session was over, my parents, sufficiently convinced that I could learn to play, I guess, bought me, for $150, a reconditioned piano. The technician who rebuilt it—a junior high science teacher—had taken an old upright, sawed three sides off the top, and created a new front, leaving the strings intact against the soundboard. Then at the top he placed mirrors perpendicular to one another on three sides, giving the illusion that the piano was shorter than it really was. He then painted the surface a pinkish beige and cleverly applied those multi-colored flecks so aptly dubbed Fleckstone. That delicate instrument which may have weighed more than half a ton was later given to our church, and I know Mom was happy to reclaim the space in our wee living room. It was not a felicitous situation to have that heavy instrument weighing down the floor of a tiny house with a basement, yet I must say the thing never fell through!
I had to practice when no one was watching TV or needed the living room for something else, so I would grab time when I could. My parents used to tell me, many years later that I would nab thirty minutes here, thirty minutes there. And I always seemed to be prepared for my lessons as well as if I’d sat for two consecutive hours a day. I seemed to progress quickly, soaking up one piece after another. That’s what a learner, particularly, is after: to be able to play something that communicates to those who are in the audience.
I began to take lessons from our church organist who lived across the alley from the church six blocks away. Eleanor, who became a lifelong friend, had two pianos in her front room, and sometimes we would play duets. I advanced so quickly that I passed through two Michael Aaron books in one year. I took lessons for two more years from yet a different teacher and continued to study piano when I took up the organ at age thirteen. When I fell in love with that instrument, my heart turning somersaults, the piano fell by the wayside—in one way, at least. Learning to read music and playing an instrument had been like learning a foreign language, an international, universal language, really. And its gifts, I sensed, might remain with me for the rest of my life. At the time, they seemed to make my life.
Yet the practice of playing piano remained with me. When I taught elementary for seventeen years, I was often assigned to teach music to my grade level, standing behind a Baldwin studio model as I goaded every throat in the room to sing the same note (or three-parts, even more challenging). When I left Kansas for my life in Texas, my parents gave my Fleckstone piano to our church. I never saw or played it again, and I’m not sure I really cared. The right pedal would often malfunction, and I would have to open the bottom panel and secure the dowel that connected the pedal to whatever dampened the strings—it would become someone else’s problem.
Otherwise I had no access to a piano until 1990 when I had the opportunity to acquire a baby grand, the smallest at forty-eight inches. The Vose and Sons model, probably built in Boston, had spent, I was told by the piano technician who’d reconditioned it, more than forty years in the band room of a college in Plainview, up the Interstate about forty-five minutes from Lubbock. His father-in-law had refinished some of the larger surfaces, but a few nicks existed here and there. It was sort of like the speckled piano of my childhood; I ignored its flaws and accepted it into my life with joy as one would an adopted child. To shore up my decision, however, I had priced brand new ones at around $8,000. I reasoned at the time, that unless I could fill it with gas and drive it to work, the cost would be too dear.
I began to buy musical scores and attempt to teach myself pieces I might have learned when younger. As I had when I was a child, I would spend maybe thirty minutes to an hour practicing—after grading papers for a couple of hours. When I taught English at Lubbock High School for ten years, I decided to volunteer to play one of those pieces in a faculty talent show. When the principal who organized the event placed me at the top of the program, I realized the event was to be more of a comic revue, and he wanted my performance to have serious attention. When I released the last chord, the applause flooded my ears, and as I met my fifth-period (class of ’96) the next Monday, they too clapped for me as I waltzed through my door to take roll and perhaps address (who can recall?) the literary concerns of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. It was a gas for my pupils to know that I had more than one dimension to my life, that the dude who was always harping on the passive voice could also memorize Chopin’s “Military” Polonaise, Opus 40, No. 1 and play it with one small error in front of 2,000 high school students.
This child of which I speak, my Vose and Sons, is probably well over sixty-five years old now, but an acoustical instrument can have a long life if it is cared for; its value can increase. That’s why I am at last passing along my piano to the Unitarian Church in Lubbock. I didn’t arrive at this decision with a lot of thought. The writing group to which I belong meets once a month in the church’s main room, and we gladly pay an annual fee for the privilege. More than once in ten years I’ve glanced over at the sad little spinet in the corner and rather cringed whenever someone would sit down to play. They need my piano, it finally occurred to me.
After four months of consideration, the church leadership accepted my offer. They engaged a piano technician to evaluate the instrument. Even though its innards had been replaced in 1990, after twenty-seven years, there was some wear and tear that had to be addressed. It had to be tuned!
On Thursday, November 17, a professional piano mover* transferred my Vose and Sons to the Unitarian Church less than a four-minute drive from our home. I will be able to see it each month, caress its keys if I wish, even play a bar or two. Or maybe I’ll merely wave. And if all goes well, in a short time, I will have acquired a new electronic piano that itself does some amazing things. Stay tuned.
NEXT TIME: New Yorker Fiction 2017