Note by Note: A Celebration of the Piano Lesson

In Groundhog Day, the self-absorbed, cynical weatherman Phil Connors finds redemption in a number of ways, but I particularly like it when he pays $1,000 to a piano teacher to boot her earnest student out and get cracking. Chomping on gum, syncopated with bubble blowing, he plays away, hands not quite together — he’s happy as a clam. “Not bad,” says his bewildered teacher, pretty successful in not wincing, considering. “Mr. Connors, you say this is your first lesson?” “Yes, but my father was a piano mover.” When we last see Phil at the piano, he’s swinging along to Rachmaninoff, fully attuned to the people around him — including his piano teacher.

The other day, after a grown-up version of the piano recital (by the inspiring pianist Simone Dinnerstein), the subject of piano lessons came up. One of us amateur pianists asked, “Did you ever cry during your lesson?” Stories poured out, with a Proustian level of recall. One friend, now a poet, said her hatred of her piano lessons — with a teacher more interested in financing her ballroom dance career than young piano students — inspired her first poem, which she left on the piano for her parents to find when they came in from a night out: “Practicing is such a bore / I will not do it any more.” Two of us there had not only experienced many years of our own piano lessons but, because our mothers were both piano teachers, years and years of other peoples’ piano lessons too.

About a month before school started, my mother would start covering the living room floor in piles of music, selecting out just the right pieces for her students: the ones they’d love, the ones that were good for them, a mix of periods and styles, and let’s not forget technique and theory. She was amazing at matching people with repertoire. Jerry White, lolloping into his lessons at a black-Lab stage of male adolescent development, played a mean “Dizzy Fingers” by Zez Comfrey. Mary Farrell, with Susan Dey hair, tended to be overshadowed by her ebulliently rakish classmate Sandy Dillon, but when she played the little Brahms lullaby you often hear on music boxes, she owned that piece. Sandy, a proto-hipster in a small, preppy town, once flat out told my mother she just would not practice scales ever again. I couldn’t believe it when my mother, who bears more than a passing resemblance to the current queen of England, mildly agreed. Apparently, it was months before Sandy tumbled to the fact that all of the new pieces my mother had given her had scale passages in them, and they were all in different keys. Since Sandy’s turned out to be a pretty amazing punk blues singer/songwriter/pianist in London, my mother seems to have known what she was doing.

This outpouring of reminiscence — and I could go on and on — is due to a wonderful new book celebrating the piano lesson, Note by Note by Tricia Tunstall. She’s a pianist and a piano teacher, with a wealth of piano lesson experience to draw on. Admirable, but there are quite a few of those. Less usually, she is also a nuanced and amused writer, with a contemplative streak and a generous spirit. Her book — elegantly pithy, in little more than 200 pages — is filled with thoughts about teaching repertoire, dry sympathy for parents, the hurdle of the piano recital, and a good line in one-liners: “Talent is unfair and undemocratic; it’s also inarguable.” She mixes in some piano history and carefully judged personal revelations. Best of all, to my taste, are descriptions of lessons, from teaching a beginner how to find middle C to guiding someone through memorizing a Haydn concerto.

Tunstall’s book made me realize there has been a shift from my piano lesson days, and probably those of anyone reading this: the ubiquity of pop music. The world is “pop-saturated” now; even my gas station pumps it out. Problematically popular is hip-hop, which is “all about the spoken word and the electronically rendered beat.” There are producers and rap artists, but no melodies. Tunstall asks, “Do you see a songwriter in this picture? I don’t. And I certainly don’t see a boy at a piano.” So when Tunstall’s cute ten-year-old boy students ask to learn a hip-hop track or something by Metallica, what does the piano teacher have to offer? “I gaze at the serene black and white calligraphy of my Steinway keys. It is tempting to despair.” Instead, she gets to work. ” ‘Willy,’ I say, ‘what else do you have on your iPod?’ “

Walking Willy through analyzing and picking out a Dave Matthews song takes up a whole lesson and a number of pages in the book, but it’s a lesson well spent:

He’s gotten under the skin of music he loves, and discovered a little about what it’s made of and how it’s put together. He’s learned that finding and counting beats can be like a treasure hunt; sometimes you need a few clues. He’s become familiar with playing in a key that uses an asymmetrical jumble of black and white notes, a key his lesson books won’t introduce for another few years. And he’s done all this by listening, and by playing, instead of by deciphering notes on a page.

In a piano lesson, you learn intensively, one on one; you practice your piece note by note. Maybe you’ll end up mastering the piano, but with a teacher as astutely sympathetic as Tricia Tunstall you’ll learn a lot more, besides.