For readers who possess the mildest interest in reading about music or how the mysterious process of learning to play a musical instrument is transferred from teacher to student, this well-composed narrative will be a joy to read. Those so inclined will undoubtedly revel in Tunstall's elegant prose based on her 15 years as a private music teacher. She offers graceful discussions of tonal music, how the "pull of pop" music has altered the musical environment and why the "astonishingly hardy phenomenon" of the recital endures in our culture. But for those tempted to dismiss this slim volume because they've never had a music lesson or read a score, this too short memoir offers a rare glimpse into a fascinating world. Tunstall cites her students, "the endlessly interesting and varied young people who have sat on my piano bench for six days a week for many years," as the inspiration for the story. She weaves together her insights into the role music plays in the development of self, why teaching kids how to practice is a "central preoccupation" for piano teachers and what advanced piano students have discovered about themselves. This is a gem that deserves a wide audience. (Apr.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Note by Note: A Celebration of the Piano Lessonby Tricia Tunstall
In this luminous book, Tricia Tunstall explores the enduring fascination of the piano lesson. Even as everything else about the world of music changes, the piano lesson retains its appeal. Drawing on her own lifelong experience as a student and teacher, Tunstall writes about the mysteries and delights of piano teaching and learning. What is it that happens in a piano lesson to make it such a durable ritual? In a world where music is heard more often on the telephone and in the elevator than in the concert hall, why does the piano lesson still have meaning in the lives of children? What does it matter whether one more child learns to play Bach's Minuet in G?
Note by Note is in part a memoir in which Tunstall recalls her own childhood piano teachers and their influence. As she observes, the piano lesson is unlike the experience of being coached on an athletic team or taught in a classroom, in that it is a one-on-one, personal communication. Physically proximate, mutually concentrating on the transfer of a skill that is often arduous, complicated and frustrating, teacher and student occasionally experience breakthroughs-moments of joy when the student has learned something, mastered a musical passage or expressed a feeling through music. The relationship is not only one-way: teaching the piano is a lifelong endeavor of particular intensity and power.
Anyone who has ever studied the piano-or wanted to-will cherish this gem of a book.
"This surprisingly moving meditation on learning comes from a veteran piano teacher, who explains the process in such stylish prose that even musically inept readers will be charmed.... A stirring account of teaching's rewards." -- Jonathan Durbin, People
"A joy to read.... This too short memoir offers a rare glimpse into a fascinating world.... A gem that deserves a wide audience." -- Publishers Weekly (starred review)
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Read an Excerpt
Jenny sits on my piano bench. Her feet swing freely; they will not reach the floor, not to mention the pedals, for another year or two. She stares at a note on the page of music in her open lesson book, her eyes wide, her tongue caught between her lips. "A," she whispers to herself. The seconds file slowly by, and then at last the third finger of her left hand presses a key. A furtive glance at me; was it right? I nod. She nearly smiles, and then her eyes return to the page. More seconds, loud with silence. "G," she murmurs.
For a six-year-old a piano lesson can be an act of courage. Every note is an occasion for worry, a tiny drama involving risk and consequence. Fingers perch awkwardly on the keys, so likely to be the wrong keys, or the wrong fingers. The black circles of the notes caught in the implacable grid of lines on the page are so easily mistaken for other notes tangled between other lines. There are numbers that mean fingers and there are numbers that mean beats; it is hard to know which is which. Sometimes I have to remind Jenny to breathe.
Do you remember your piano lessons? Most people do. There tends to be a visceral immediacy to these memories, a sensory sting. "Caramels," says my friend Eileen, "my teacher ate caramels while I played. She weighed three hundred pounds. I never got to eat a caramel." My sister-in-law Suzanne remembers the bumpy brick floor of the sitting room where she waited for her lesson, and the way the stained-glass windows in the piano studio cast a tawny light on her music. My teenage son Evan has a vivid image of the Ssips juice boxes at the house of his piano teacher (who was, needless to say, not me); as a six-year-old, he was deeply impressed both by the wondrous spelling of the word on the boxes and by the fact that he was not offered one. Long after one has forgotten how to play the Minuet in G, the memory remains of the piano teacher's perfume or garlic breath, the tassels on her lampshade, the sharp bark of her dog.
The piano teacher... or the flute teacher, or the violin teacher. In the course of a modern American childhood, there are very few occasions when a child spends an extended period alone with an unrelated adult. Classroom learning, athletic coaching, Sunday school all these forms of instruction are group activities. But the music lesson is one on one. It requires a weekly session alone together, physically proximate, concentrating on the transfer of a skill that is complicated and difficult, often frustrating and frequently tedious, but that every now and then opens suddenly and without warning into joy.
In recent years there have been attempts, of course, to replace this arcane ritual with truly modern forms of instruction. There are instructional videos, printed manuals, on-line courses, all purporting to teach one to play the piano in twelve short months or ten easy steps. Ask any piano teacher: we are not worried. Our phones ring regularly with potential new students. We know that, mostly, people do not want "interactive programming" or "user-friendly software." People want piano lessons.
Even now, in a time when very little current popular music involves an actual person playing an actual piano even now, parents want their children to have piano lessons. Adults wish their parents had given them piano lessons. Perhaps most surprising, children want piano lessons. There lingers in the culture a sense, however unexamined or anachronistic, that a truly complete education must include lessons in playing a musical instrument the violin or flute or trumpet, sometimes, but most frequently, because it is the most accessible, the piano.
What is the enduring appeal of the piano lesson as a basic ritual of American childhood? I have spent a great deal of my life as a piano student, pianist or piano teacher, and I can only begin to guess at the reasons. What I can say what I do know is that piano lessons are not only about music but also about trust and confidence, chaos and order, spontaneity and discipline and patience, sometimes even about love... and once again, and always, about music: its beauty, its power, its capacity to convey profound emotions beyond the reach of words.
This is true from the beginning, the very earliest lessons. Jenny on my piano bench is not only learning where G is, she is learning to take risks. She is learning to trust me and, eventually, herself. And she is experiencing beauty, because when G follows A just exactly as it should, in the context of an emerging melody well, it may not be profound, but it can be beautiful.
My first piano teacher was Dorothea Ortmann, daughter of the director of the Peabody Conservatory. When I was six she was terribly old, maybe even fifty. Her row house on Saint Paul Street in downtown Baltimore had three stories, and I sometimes thought I could hear pianos being played on all three floors simultaneously. I did not know who else was playing, but I decided that she had six grand pianos, two on each floor. Six would not have been too many for Miss Ortmann, whose life was clearly dedicated to the art of pianism in the grand European tradition. I would not have been surprised to learn that when her students had gone and she was left in dark brocaded solitude, she drifted up and down the stairs playing all the pianos, all night long.
Miss Ortmann had a dimly lit sitting room where on a side table sat a number of those once-popular miniature toy animals constructed of tiny segments of hollow wood through which a kind of rubber band was threaded; the animal stood upright until you pressed a circular disc beneath its base, when it would collapse. If you pressed the base gently and just on one side, you could make the animal bend its front or back legs, or even nod its head. I took these toys as evidence that the firm and methodical Miss Ortmann had a fun-loving side. Now, it occurs to me that she was encouraging finger dexterity in her waiting students.
I never did see her fun-loving side. She was gracious, she was cheerful, but she was very strict; I was transfixed and intimidated. Now, as I sit next to Jenny watching her spindly fingers, her fragile profile, it occurs to me that I was as acutely exposed to Miss Ortmann as Jenny is to me, and that her strict demeanor may have been her way of distancing herself from my vulnerability.
While in Jenny's eyes I am certainly very old, I am not Miss Ortmann, not as serious and formal. For one thing, I am chattier. In every first lesson, for example, I ask my new student what music he or she listens to. I don't believe it would have occurred to Miss Ortmann to ask such a question, although I would have loved to tell her about my little record player decorated with nursery rhyme characters. It played only forty-fives, and if there was dust on the needle there was usually dust on the needle the music would sound like something coming over a transistor radio at sea. My parents had given me a thick red leather volume of bound record sleeves filled with recordings of great classics, with the odd and wonderful result that to this day, Little Miss Muffet reminds me of Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto, Red Riding Hood of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. As for the recording quality, the first time I heard a symphony played live in a concert hall, I think I vaguely missed the static.
Had she asked, I would gladly have shared all of this with Miss Ortmann. My beginners, however, tend to have trouble with the question. "What music do you listen to?" I say, after they have been introduced to middle C and counted all the Cs on my piano. Usually, the answer is a blank stare. They don't know what music they listen to; they don't know that they listen to music.
And maybe they don't listen, but they do hear music. They hear it all the time. They hear it with every television commercial, every video game, every movie, every trip to the supermarket or the mall. They are literally bombarded with musical stimulation but usually as accompaniment to a visual image or as part of a sell or, very often, both. Listening to music, as an activity sufficient unto itself, is something very few children have experienced in our visually overstimulated culture. So my first job is to rescue music from its ubiquity to pull it from the background to the forefront, free it from its uses. "What's your favorite movie, Jenny?" I ask when she assures me she never listens to music. "Harry Potter," she says instantly. I play her the first phrase of "Hedwig's Theme," a tune from the soundtrack. She is startled. Shaken loose from larger-than-life cinematic imagery and played on the austere geography of the black and white keys, the melody emerges as something simply to listen to. "Play it again," she says. I play it again. No flying brooms, no charismatic wizards, nothing at all to look at. Jenny sits, listening.
"What's your parents' favorite song?" can work too, for younger children especially. Maggie, for example, a round-faced eight-year-old, can recite all the lyrics of "Here Comes the Sun," including the exact number of repetitions of "Sun, sun, sun, here it comes." And Jenny knows every word of Abba's "Dancing Queen." They live with music; they've just never been conscious of hearing it.
Some beginners come with more awareness. "I listen to my brother's heavy metal," they tell me, or "I listen to The Phantom of the Opera" (as if it were a genre all its own, which perhaps it is). "I listen to jazz," says the son of a professional trombonist. He sighs. "All the time."
A lucky few come singing. Rebecca, for example, nine years old and Broadway-smitten, insists on ending lessons by reversing seats with me and singing "Where Is Love?" or "Castle on a Cloud" to my accompaniment. She tends to sing, in fact, all the way through her lessons; when she plays a melody without singing it, she says, "I can't hear it." This orientation may become problematic when she gets around to playing a Bach invention. For now, it is a distinct advantage: it helps her understand pitch direction. The business of pitches being higher or lower in relation to each other is trickier than one might think. Upon hearing two pitches within fairly close range, many young children can't tell which is higher. And certainly there's nothing intuitive about the layout of the keyboard, no logical or instinctive way to guess that moving to the right means going up in pitch and moving to the left, going down. But Rebecca can feel "up" and "down" in the tension and release of her vocal cords. As a result, she can learn and remember long melodies by ear. It's a rare gift; most young children have very little relationship with their singing voices.
Or, for that matter, with their fingers. They've lost some ground from their toddler years, when picking things up and manipulating them was such a monumental part of a day's work. My second task, then, is to get them reacquainted with their ten fingers.
Willy came to me at the age of seven with both hands balled into tight fists. During his first lesson the pointer finger of each hand was reluctantly released from its fist. For an entire year through his first lesson book, through Hanukah and Passover, through recital season Willy played with those two fingers, and only those two. I despaired. I apologized to his parents, who were somewhat less upset than I thought they should be. "It'll work out," said his father.
Around October of his second year of lessons, Willy decided he wanted to learn to play "The Long and Winding Road." I mentioned that it would be easier if he used a few more of his fingers. Over the next few weeks, like slow-blooming flowers, Willy's fists began to open. Within a couple of months he could play a rousing rendition of "The Long and Winding Road" involving pinkies, thumbs, ring fingers, the works. "The Beatles would be proud," I told him.
"The Beatles are, like, over," he pointed out. "My dad's proud, though."
With fingers or with fists, singing or silent, all beginners come with excitement, and all come with apprehension. When they sit on my piano bench for the first time and take in the wide toothy smile of my Steinway grand, I can practically hear their hearts thudding in their ears. They have no idea what I will expect of them, or whether they will measure up. Frequently, they've forgotten why they wanted to do this in the first place. They wonder when the lesson will be over, and whether their mother will forget to pick them up. They wonder who gets to eat the jellybeans in the dish on the shelf behind them. (Miss Ortmann would probably be appalled about the jellybeans. I am waiting for the day a parent becomes appalled, for hygienic reasons, but there have been no epidemic outbreaks as of this writing.)
Occasionally not often, but it happens the first-lesson apprehension is overpowering. I think of Robert, whose mother is a friend of mine and had assured me for months that he was dying to take lessons. When she dropped him off at my house for the first time and I escorted him to the piano, he sat on the bench and directed his gaze away from me and out the window. No matter what I said to him, he did not respond or move. His face, as he studied my rhododendron, was completely impassive. Five minutes went by, ten minutes; my chipper attempts to make conversation faltered. "Robert, is there anything I can do to make you comfortable?" Not a move, not a flicker. "Well, then," I said briskly, "I'll leave you for a few minutes and let you collect yourself." I understood that there would be no collecting, that he was literally paralyzed with anxiety. But what was I to do? I walked away from him, into my kitchen, and counted slowly to one hundred. Then I went back. I have known a great many small children, and I have never seen one sit still for so long. We sat still, finally, together.
After a very long time, the thirty minutes were up and my friend returned. "How was the lesson, honey?" she asked.
Robert slid off the piano bench. "Fine," he said.
"I just knew you'd love it," she told him, beaming, and home they went from Robert's first, and last, piano lesson.
Usually, however, the first lesson really is fine: I make it my business to see that all goes well. We find middle C, we locate the seven other Cs, we wiggle fingers one by one and identify each as number one, two, three, four or five. We talk about what they do or don't listen to. We spend some time petting Joey, the very small beagle who rules my household. We each have a jellybean. I teach the child how to play the beginning of a tune "Hot Cross Buns," or "Frère Jacques," or "Mary Had a Little Lamb."
That, of course, is the high point of the lesson and perhaps the moment of least complicated pleasure in some students' entire musical careers. "Mommy, I can play the first six notes of 'Three Blind Mice'!" The difference between being able to play nothing on the piano and being able to play something even a very small something is enormous. The child may never again close a gap quite so wide.
The elation usually continues for a few more lessons. We learn where D is, where E is. We learn a few more notes of "Three Blind Mice." We become acquainted with the contours of a quarter note, a half note. More jellybeans, more cuddles with Joey. In good time, F, G, A and B make an appearance. If they really beg me, I allow them (forgive me, Miss Ortmann) to play "Chopsticks" at the end of a lesson. Mothers remember to come back. Apprehension begins to subside.
But at some point during the early lessons the point varies from child to child, but it never fails to arrive a beginning student will come to the dismaying realization that at the piano, play is serious. Play, in fact, is work. Invariably, at some point, the cry goes up: "It's hard!"
It is hard. There is no magic jellybean antidote for this. Playing with one hand is hard; playing with two hands at the same time is very hard. Playing with several different fingers of two hands at once is close to impossible. Ask Willy.
Coordinating hands, eyes and ears is hard. Looking at the written music means missing the correct keys. Looking at your hands means losing your place in the written music. I have seldom had a beginning student who did not at some point become confused about which staff is for which hand. I think of Damian, who over the course of several weeks learned to play a simple rendition of "The Pink Panther" with great enthusiasm. It was hard, all right, but he could do it. Then came spring vacation, and I did not see him for several weeks. When he came back, he was despondent; "The Pink Panther" didn't sound right. I asked him to play it for me. He stared hard at the music and played an odd hiccupping version of the bass pattern in his right hand, a mangled melody in his left. He had simply forgotten which hand was supposed to play which part of the music.
Mastering musical time is hard. It's curious to me why this should be; after all, each of us lives with and lives by the most profoundly constant, steady beat imaginable. And yet the absolute rule of organized beats that characterizes musical time is something even talented children find difficult to grasp. It is not easy to explain, even to a talented child, that once he starts playing a piece of music he has no choice about when he plays each note. Musical time does not stop and wait for him to ruminate, dawdle, follow a whim. He may be in a hurry to get to the end of a song, but he is not at liberty to speed up. Musical time demands submission.
And even when a child has grasped the inexorability of the musical beat, then there is the matter of how beats are organized usually in groups of two or in groups of three. Overwhelmingly, students have a natural tendency toward duple meter; my guess is that this is because we have two legs and so walk in duple meter. When playing their first pieces in triple meter that is, with beats organized as "one-two-three, one-two-three," and so on they will almost invariably turn the three beats into four (a multiple of two, hence duple) by playing "one-two-three-pause, one-two-three-pause." It's interesting that for the medieval monks who developed musical notation, triple meter, not duple, was the norm. A long note was considered "perfect" if it represented three beats reflecting the perfection of the Trinity and "imperfect" if it represented two. For my youngest students, three is not perfection. It's just hard.
And then there are rests, the fanciful marks on the staff that indicate the passing of a beat or beats with no note being played. With the appearance of a rest, the idea of a beat becomes even more elusive not only invisible but inaudible. This is mystifying, for example, even to Mara, who is clearly a talented child. The daughter of a lawyer and a jazz singer, Mara has an agile mind and a pure, flute-like voice. But the appearance of a rest on the musical staff, at some point in the course of her early lessons, stops her in her tracks. "Doesn't a rest mean nothing?" she says. I try to explain. I make a guess that she's got a flair for math; I compare a rest in music to a zero in arithmetic. She listens, she nods her head; she plays the musical phrase again and plows right through the rest, just as she did before. I am stymied, and not for the first time. A rest is in fact mysterious. It holds a place and organizes everything around it, but it can't be heard; it's a silence with the heft and significance of sound.
Hardest of all, for most beginners, is learning to read musical notation a system of signs and symbols that is miraculously efficient and dense with meaning, but not particularly child-friendly. The system acquired complexity as it evolved; it had to, in order to be able to represent the ever more complex forms and idioms of Western art music. As I struggle to teach this elegant and intimidating code, it occurs to me sometimes how much easier the earliest versions of notation would be for a child to grasp. They were nothing more than the graffiti of singers specifically, those medieval monks, whose rituals of worship were dominated by the dark, floating melodies of Gregorian chant. For centuries the melodies were passed on through oral tradition, but sometime during the ninth century a clever monk here and there began to scribble little markings above the Latin words to help jog his memory. The earliest markings, called "neumes," were casual, whimsical fragments of curving line like miniature versions of the marks on road signs that mean "zigzags ahead." They didn't indicate specific pitch at all, but simply pitch direction. With no specification of this or that note, no indication of rhythm or meter, they served merely to remind the singer, "When you sing 'Alleluia' your voice should go higher here, lower there." It is fascinating to try to imagine the process of trial and error through which, when Frère François and Frère Pierre sang at Mass, they managed to stay together.
As the chants grew longer and more complex, the neumes began to accrete small thickenings at the beginning, middle and end of a curve, indicating arrival at pitches. And at some point a monk who was particularly clever, or fastidious, or both, drew a horizontal line, representing a fixed pitch, around which the tendrils of his neumes could curl and cling. The five lines and four spaces of our musical staff, as well as all the trappings of rhythm and meter, took hundreds of years more to develop.
Thinking about the fanciful doodles of the monks, I've imagined a pedagogy that doesn't begin with lines and spaces and clefs at all, or even with the piano keys, but starts simply with drawing little lines curving up and down and then singing them. Maybe for "Alleluia" we could substitute "macaroni." Once the concept of higher versus lower was mastered, we could gradually add pitches, then a horizontal line, then another. Could we, I wonder, duplicate the centuries-long evolution of musical notation in a fast-forward fashion? If we began in September, could we be ready to read music in time for "Jingle Bells" and "The Dreidl Song"?
Well, it's a theory. I've never had the nerve to try it. After all, parent and child have signed up for piano lessons, not chicken scratchings and macaroni. So I teach them slowly to read notes the conventional way.
Decoding the notes in one clef is hard enough. When the realization sinks in that notation in the treble clef is different from notation in the bass clef, the almost universal response is "That's not fair!" Why can't a G in the bass clef be written like a G in the treble clef, Maggie demands indignantly, as though it's my fault.
There is an answer to this, of course. On the bass clef staff, notation is located so that most of the notes within the range of lower-pitched instruments and voices will be written on the lines and in the spaces of the staff; the same rule applies to the treble clef staff and higher-pitched instruments and voices. Maggie is not impressed by this explanation. She decides to stage a protest, and for a few weeks, until the dissonances grow unbearable, she plays all the bass clef notes as though she were reading treble clef. "Maggie," I say, "you have to learn to read bass clef."
"It's hard," she says.
It is hard. Mistakes are constant. Confusions abound. When confronted with a challenge that feels too great, my more resourceful beginners look for ways to avoid it. They will begin doing backbends off the piano bench or cracking their knuckles. The smallest ones will crawl into my lap and close their eyes. More sophisticated students try to distract me. "Did you watch the Yankee game last night?" they will ask brightly, or "Did you know that my birthday is in two months and twelve days?" Maybe she'll just forget about eighth notes, they are thinking. Mara, up against a time signature for the first time, watches my left hand intently as I demonstrate the accompaniment to a waltz. "One-two-three, one-two-three do you understand how it goes, Mara?" I say, encouraged by her focused attention. She wrinkles her nose. "You have lots of vines in your hands," she remarks. "Is that 'cause you're old?"
It flashes through my mind that one of Mara's enduring, indelible memories of her piano lessons will be the vines in my hands. With an effort, I manage to work my way past this. "Three-quarter time is hard, right, Mara?" I say, and she nods mournfully.
It is all hard. Therefore every small triumph, in this beginning period, is an occasion for celebration. One-two-three, one-two-three...Mara manages not to insert an extra beat between two measures. Eureka!
Willy uncurls his ring finger and plunks it on a key. Eureka!
Jenny stares at a note. "So if that one is E, then that one is..." Her lips are parted. She's not breathing. She takes a chance. "That one is F?" Eureka, for sure.
Oddly enough, for me these triumphs are not entirely uncomplicated. When I teach beginners, here is what I find hard: knowing that sometimes the acquisition of a musical skill comes at the expense of a musical impulse.
Most children, after all, approach the piano initially with some degree of spontaneous pleasure. They play random streams of notes, knotty chord clusters, tolling low notes with the pedal clamped down. They are enjoying pure sonority. The piano is inviting that way: unlike a flute or a violin, it will make a pleasant sound for anyone, anytime. And the more gifted children are, the more they love to play around on the keys.
As a teacher, I find this both a delight and a challenge. Ideally, I want to preserve the playful impulse, to align the lessons along its grain. But alas, much of what I have to teach will necessarily suppress it. Reading notes, counting beats, figuring out rhythms in the course of concentrating on these arduous tasks, the spontaneous behavior often goes underground. Unless I remember to dig for it now and then, it may never reemerge.
There is a chapter in one of the Mary Poppins books wherein the Banks twins celebrate their first birthday. They have spent the first year of life lying in their cribs and carrying on fond, lively conversations with the starling who perches on the nursery windowsill. But gradually, of course, they have also begun to acquire human language. And when the starling shows up to wish them a happy birthday, he is heartbroken to discover they can no longer understand him. They are becoming socialized, civilized; but they have lost their untutored intimacy with the natural world. It's a necessary trade-off, of course; there's no way around it. One must master human speech in order to be competent in the world. But it's sad to lose the starling.
I think of that trade-off sometimes as I watch Mara learn to count beats, Damian try to match a hand with each clef, Jenny decipher the note on the second line. I know what they're gaining. I wonder what it's costing them. Don't I recall that Mara, at her earliest lessons, played haphazard, wandering melodies up and down the keys, before her coat was off? Didn't Damian occasionally produce great crashing chords with both hands at once, before he learned to read notes on staffs? Have we lost the silly melodies and the growling chords for good? And does it matter?
When I was five, my family relocated for a year from Baltimore to Philadelphia and rented a furnished house. There I made my first acquaintance with a piano. I played it often, knowing nothing, simply loving the sound of it. I composed a long and infinitely malleable piece and titled it, quite brilliantly I thought, In the Moonlight. My parents were appropriately impressed. At home in Baltimore the following year, I was overjoyed when a tremendous object wrapped in thick blankets appeared in the living room the week before Christmas. "Don't look under the blankets," said my mother. I was, in fact, able to wait until she went back to the kitchen before I crawled under the blankets and huddled there, stroking the three cold, shiny pedals, inhaling the scent of the cherry wood. On Christmas morning I played an especially elaborate and adrenaline-laced version of In the Moonlight.
The lessons with Miss Ortmann followed in due course. I learned to sit up straight, curve my fingers, play a scale, count eighth notes. I learned to play "Jingle Bells," "Yankee Doodle," "When the Saints Go Marching In." Along the way, and without anyone noticing, In the Moonlight quietly disappeared.
Did it matter? Not to Miss Ortmann, I'm sure. But I think it was a loss when my improvisatory impulse flickered and died. Like the Banks twins losing an ear for the meaning in a bird's song as they learned human speech, I lost my ear for my own wild, unschooled interior music as I acquired musical skills. This is not to say that I could or would have been a gifted improviser or composer; there was nothing especially original about my pianistic rambling. But it was mine.
So I try, now and then, to sustain or revive my young students' capacity for spontaneous play. Sometimes at the end of lessons we play thunderstorms, or waterfalls, or bike rides. Sometimes I play some nonsense and ask them to answer me, or to imitate me. When I turn the tables and tell them to play something for me to imitate, the little ones are always determined to play something I won't be able to reproduce and are thus inspired to play great, messy splatters of notes, flying free for a moment of beats and clefs and finger numbers.
Eureka, then, too.
For a shy beginner, of course, these flights of musical mayhem can be more intimidating than the work of learning where A is. Ella, for example, squirms when I ask her to play me some thunder. She would much rather play me a scale. Fair enough; she plays a lovely, meticulous scale. But every now and then I put her very briefly back on the hook. Ella is a bright child with a lively mind and a strong musical impulse; who knows when fear may give way to a sudden eruption of nerve?
Whether it's improvising or reading, counting rests or coordinating hands, nearly every lesson in the beginning stages involves a movement from fear to courage, from confusion to clarity. It may be very small. But it happens, almost always. And it is from these small, tremendous movements that the particular intimacy of the piano lesson is born. For me to witness that step over and over again and for a student to trust me enough to let me witness it is necessarily to create an intense connection.
It's a connection painters love to try to capture. I know of at least eight paintings titled The Piano Lesson or something similar I'm sure there are more and they are all remarkable in the intensity of feeling they evoke. In Renoir's version, a woman in a flowing orange dress leans over a girl seated at a piano, also dressed in flowing orange; the standing woman's arm is around the girl in a loving, protective gesture. On the top of the piano is a vase of brilliant flowers. A painting by Caillebotte conveys a more sisterly intimacy; two women, both dressed in black, are shown from the back, their faces obscured, so that it is hard to tell which is the teacher, which the student. One wears a hat, the other has a hand lifted. They stare intently at the sheet music on the piano rack. There is real heat in their closeness, their merged attention. There are flowers on the piano.
Francis Day's painting has a lovely young teacher on the piano bench with an excited little student behind her; it has the distinct feel of a mother showing her daughter how to play. The child's hands are poised in the air, fingers outstretched; she can hardly wait to give it a try. Yes, there are flowers on the piano.
In paintings by Muschamp and Muenier, teacher and student are not physically so close. Muschamp's teacher sits in a chair apart from the piano and tilts her head at an angle back toward her student. The teacher's face is rapt; the student's body leans toward the teacher as she plays. Through the music, clearly, they are touching. Flowers? Of course.
In Muenier's The First Piano Lesson the flowers are great white roses, and they are atop a clavichord. A very little girl sits at the keys, her feet swinging from the bench just like my Jenny's do, her hair done up in two little pigtails with black bows not unlike the way Jenny's hair is often held captive. She is paying no attention to the very large music book open on the rack; her left hand perches idle above the keys while she watches the fingers of her right tinkle the high notes. On a chair in the corner lies her beribboned hat; to her left, facing us and watching her, sits the teacher. This time it's a man, an old man, with wisps of white hair and an elegant cravat. He is not smiling. But his mild, affable expression is the essence of patience. The rectangle of sunlight beneath the little girl's dangling feet, from a window we can't see, gives the scene the feeling of a blessing.
Several twentieth-century masters ring interesting changes on the Impressionists' idyllic vision. Romare Bearden's Piano Lesson (Hommage à Mary Lou) is rendered in his jazz-inflected collage style, brimming with bright colors and bold lines, but his image of the teacher-student connection closely echoes that of Renoir. A black girl sits at a blue and green upright piano, which slants across the foreground of the picture; a black woman dressed in a golden blouse, a pink sash and a flowing skirt leans over her so that their heads are almost touching. The girl's hands are splayed crookedly, unworkably, across the keys. But she will learn. We know this, because the teacher's hand rests on her shoulder, a soft breeze blows green curtains away from a window full of blue sky, and on the piano next to a metronome and a drumstick sits well, it's a plant, with curling green leaves. The painting is full of light and air, and tenderness.
All of these paintings, in fact, are replete with tenderness. All of them capture the moment of trust and acceptance at the heart of the lesson, the heart of the relationship.
Then there is Matisse's Piano Lesson. Of the student we see only his round child's face, staring at an open book of music; behind him, in a gray background of indeterminate distance, the faceless figure of a thin woman sits on a high stool. In a particularly violent gesture, a sharp black triangular wedge replaces one of the boy's eyes. The child's feeling of vulnerability, the teacher's aloofness and literal hauteur, are as intense and palpable as are the feelings of loving intimacy evoked by the other paintings.
There are no flowers on this piano.
It is interesting that in every one of the works depicting the piano lesson as tender communion, the students are female, as are most of the teachers. The male painters of these images were limning a scene they had not themselves experienced. But in Matisse's picture, where fear of humiliation dominates, the student is a boy. That black triangle across his face is like a spike of panic striking deep into the center of his psyche. One must wonder about Matisse's piano teacher.
I myself, in fact, have been a piano teacher in a painting. Seven-year-old Rosie was brought to her lessons by her grandmother, who was a painter of some local renown. Rosie was a cherubic child, blond and blue-eyed. "I want to learn 'Folsom Prison Blues,'" she announced early on. Well, of course. In the weeks that followed, as I attempted to teach Rosie how to play a blues riff or two, her grandmother sat in the next room and sketched us at work. "I can do something with this," she told me, which was more than I could honestly say about Rosie and the blues.
Some years later, long after Rosie had given up on Johnny Cash in particular and the piano in general, I happened to be talking to the mother of one of my preteen students, Stephanie, about her recent Bat Mitzvah. "I got her the best present," the mother told me excitedly. "I found this wonderful painting in the art gallery downtown it's a little blond girl having a piano lesson. And the best part is that the teacher in the painting actually looks a little bit like you!"
I have never seen the painting, and wonder where it is now; Stephanie still takes lessons, but I would guess she is far too old and too cool to have a painting of a piano lesson hanging in her room. It's possible, though, that it reminds her of her own experience with the risky, vulnerable business of beginning piano lessons.
Now it is Jenny who is my most "beginning" student. I see her flinch as I turn the page in her lesson book to a piece called "Go for the Gold." "It's too hard," she says instantly.
"Why do you think so?"
"It's too black," she says.
It is very black. I have a sudden vivid recollection of my first recital piece, entitled "To a Wigwam." It was the last and most densely note-populated hence the blackest piece in my John Thompson primer book. I can still picture the music exactly the dark, bristly repeated fifths in the left hand, the solemn whole notes in the right, the line drawing of the wigwam at the top of the page, complete with befeathered Indian dancers. I remember my dismay at learning it was to be my recital piece, and my pride when I eventually mastered it. Watching Jenny, I am seized with a desire for her to experience this transformation. "Just try to figure out the first right-hand note," I encourage her, but her anxiety is already running high. Brow furrowed, she plunks her right thumb down hard.
"It's not a D, Jenny," I tell her. The weather on her face changes from worry to confusion, then to concentration, and back to confusion again as she stares at the page. Do I want to know this much about this child? I have no choice. But it's not comfortable.
"What is it, then?"
I am silent. Jenny fidgets on the bench, squints her eyes, licks her lips. She moves her thumb to C, plays it as if by accident and shoots me a quick look. "Good, Jenny," I say, and the sun shines.
Miss Ortmann had a large and elegant room at the back of her Baltimore row house, a vast sort of parlor with a concert grand in a bay window, which she used for her recitals. I remember the room only dimly, but I know exactly what I wore for that first recital: a magical outfit that came in two parts, a sheer pink dress with a translucent green embroidered smock worn over it and tied with a sash. The green smock, my pink barrettes, and the roar of dark sound when I played those drum-like fifths on that great piano with its top up in my memory, that was the recital. Did anyone else play? I suppose so.
Jenny plays the low C at the end of "Go for the Gold" and exhales at long last. I offer her a jellybean. "You know, you'll play that really well if you practice it," I say. "You could play it in the recital."
The jellybean stops halfway to her mouth. "What recital?"
I explain to her that every June I hold a recital, and that all of my students play for one another and their parents, and that it's very exciting, and that she'll do a great job.
"Uh-uh," she says.
"Everybody plays," I tell her.
"Not me." The jellybean is chomped. I stare at her, impressed by her utter assurance. I can picture her, though, in green embroidery and pink barrettes. "Can we play 'Chopsticks' now?" she says, and so I yield and end the lesson with "Chopsticks" as Miss Ortmann twirls, I am sure, gracefully and rhythmically in her grave. Copyright 2008 by Tricia Tunstall
Meet the Author
Tricia Tunstall is a writer, teacher, and musician. She has taught piano for years in Maplewood, New Jersey, and has also served as Adjunct Professor of Music at Drew University and at Bergen College. She is currently a doctoral candidate in music education at Boston University.
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