In most middle class family homes in the 1960’s there was a musical instrument that existed in the disguise of a piece of furniture. It was The Piano. I was told a story about a very accomplished woman who had made her way up from poverty to a very significant place in public education. Her accomplishments included the acquisition of white baby grand piano that had a place of honor in the living room of the woman’s penthouse apartment. The person who told me the story explained that she asked the piano’s proud owner if she knew how to play. The woman, answered “no” but she had always wanted such a piano and now she had one.
I had more of a love/hate relationship with the modest console style spinnet piano that lived in our family living room. As all small children are wont to do, I climbed onto the piano bench and began gleefully banging away at say age 3. Inspired by my interest, my mother took me to her piano teacher who declined to accept me as a student. I was very young and this person was not inclined to take on such a little one. She did recommend a teacher and thus began my occassionally fraught relationship with “classical” music.
The teacher, Mr. Arnold, and the Kroeger School of Music would be great features in a 1960’s indie film set in the neighborhood that would become Soho. The school was located on the upper level of a commercial building adjacent to one of the nicest parts of mid-town St. Louis. It was an apartment outfitted as a music studio and chamber type recital hall. My lessons were at 8:00 a.m. on Saturday mornings. I was brought there faithfully for the hour long lesson by my father for five years. I would continue my piano studies at the St. Louis Institute of Music, instructed by Ms. Kopecky for my junior high school and most of my high school career.
I won’t say how it is that I happened to stop playing piano. Maybe there’s a movie in that. What I will say is that those grudging hours of practice, beginning with one, then two and then three octave scales, followed by arpeggios in all keys both major and minor, taught focus, manual dexterity and a certainly level of cussed determination. If I was going to be stuck in the house banging on the piano for an hour on a sunny day when everyone else was outside, then it was going to be a good practice session, period.
This is a skill set that of course serves any child once she or he achieves adulthood. Music lessons also involve a lot of math and learning to read a code, in Italian no less. I got two great gifts from people who loved me because of my piano playing: a metronome from my godfather and a hand-made note reading board from my father. He even cut a yellow piece of plastic in the shape of a note to attach to the string so I could practice my sight reading skills. I have no idea where the much polished piano and metronome are, and I am sure the note reading board vanished into a trash can years ago.
But in this moment, listening to Haydn, remembering playing Mozart and Beethoven, I am actually quite happy. That’s the real reason for making a kid take piano lessons.