I started learning piano when I was quite young. I’m afraid I can’t pinpoint a precise age, but I do know that I was small enough to sit between Mr. James’ generously proportioned legs on the piano bench while I played, and old enough to feel a vague discomfort in doing so. Now that I think about it, that scenario was not unlike those in which old, affluent men with wandering eyes take it upon themselves to assist aspiring trophy-wives with their golf swings by wrapping liver-spotted arms around them from behind and swaying gently side to side.
[If you are not sure what I am talking about, or would like a more visual demonstration of the aforementioned seedy scenario, watch this clip from Californication:
You can stop at 0:40, if you want, or keep watching because David Duchovny is a sexy beast, and his golf shorts fall down.]
Anyway, I don’t know what happened to Mr. James, nor am I particularly curious.
My next piano teacher was a happy-go-lucky Asian woman named Toshi. She always held a mechanical pencil in her hand, and was quick to use it to cross out any nonessential notes on my sheet music, especially the ones that were making my rendition of Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On more trouble than it was worth.
Of course, as I got older, I was allowed to play all the notes. Lucky me.
I thought I was pretty damn good at piano. My friend Christie (who also learned from the ever-smiling Toshi) and I would race each other through Mozart’s Sonata No. 1 in C Major, banging on the keys with abandon, maintaining a consistently loud volume, not having quite yet mastered the intricacies of crescendos or diminuendos… I’m sure our mothers cringed together in the other room.
I took the same approach during piano recitals. First, I would sit through the other players’ performances with my binder of sheet music perched on my lap, hair tied up with ribbons, feet tapping impatiently, as I secretly and harshly judged the quality of every piece I heard. Every mistake – even those made by six-year-olds – gave me a guilty, satisfying pleasure. “Just wait till they hear me,” I would think, “I’m going to be the best one. They are going to be so impressed that, by the end of it, their socks will be scattered all over the chapel due to the unimaginable might of the force that will inevitably blow them off.”
By “they” I was of course referring to the modest crowd of piano students, proud parents and exceedingly bored siblings that filled the five to six rows of fold up chairs aimed strategically at the baby grand.
Finally, my name would be called. I’d walk up there, sink into my practiced curtsy, sit down at the bench, and rapidly bang my way through Tchaikovsky’s June or some other piece that really should not be banged through. As you might have guessed, however, I wasn’t playing for the toughest of crowds. Toshi was proud (and smiling, obviously), my doting parents caught all the magic on tape, and the little kids who struggled with Hot Cross Buns were sufficiently flabbergasted. I bowed and went home with a belly full of Costco-brand sugar cookies, a styrofoam cup of tepid cider and a considerably inflated ego.
Oh, and with one of those little plastic busts of classical composers, seen here.
I suppose these miniature statues are the piano player’s equivalent to thank-you-for-participating trophies. Haydn, Handel, Mozart, Debussy and Wagner sit in a row on our upright piano to this day… faces eternally frozen in frowns of (what I take to be) disapproval at the thunderous drumming madness that emanates from my brother’s room on a daily basis.
Well, unfortunately my days of gratifying piano recitals are over, and I have come to realize that what I mistook for musical talent was and is really just adept hand-eye coordination. It’s sad but true, and not really worth getting into. Let’s just say I stuck with softball and haven’t seen Toshi in nearly a decade.
These days, my shining piano moments amount to the following: I have a few glasses of wine with friends in a well-furnished house, and come to realize, at a certain point, that there is a piano nearby, just itching to be played. I sneak away from said friends during the lull between Genius playlists and begin, softly at first, to play one of the three or four songs that I can remember, or at least that I can feasibly pass off as music. Someone in the room is pleasantly surprised at my apparently virtuoso-level talent, and comments in that regard. I thank them with the utmost modesty. Then, right on cue, I reach a section in Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag or Gershwin’s Prelude II that I cannot remember quite so well… the wine is certainly not helping… the pressure to entertain is suddenly overpowering and my playing ends tragically with a few discordant notes and a frustrated bang. I stand up, defeated and embarrassed, and reach for more wine.