I’m trying not to think too much about the next two weeks. Thinking about the busyness makes me think that driving up to Madrona just to deliver goods to 4 vendors as an excuse to hang out with fiber people for a couple of days is not good thinking. Be easier, cheaper and more reasonable to mail the four boxes, if Ed can get all the spindles made in time. That’s a big If since he’s doing his best to get 100 Tunisian Flex Hooks made for Stitch Diva to have at Stitches West. Which brings to mind: who in the world scheduled these two major events on the same weekend? Two of our vendors will be splitting forces so they can be in both places at once. Madness.
I’ve been trying to squeeze in violin time. Practice needs to be a priority these next two weeks. Crooked Finger will be playing for a neighboring church’s annual Valentine Dinner which is their fundraiser for their youth group. Fortunately most of the songs and pieces are familiar ones but we have added in 3 new ones this year, two totally new to me. And, of course as is the norm with our group, there’s no musical score just chords which presents a huge challenge since improvisation is intimidating to me.
With the release of Amy Chou’s book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom and all the controversy surrounding it, memories of piano lessons have been much on my mind:
My sister, PR expressed interest in voice lessons when she was 14 and developed a friendship with an older girl who taught beginning piano lessons whose mother taught voice. PR had been taking voice lessons a few month when my brother DL and I began piano lessons with Ruth. We studied with Ruth for a year before she passed us on to her teacher in a large town further away. Even though Ruth was a teenager she set us up well for moving on to her teacher, Mrs Messerlee. Ruth taught us that the tips of the finger are like eyes seeing the piano keys and as long as they were in a good position they could find the right keys without our looking. She chose books that had fun songs which she encouraged us to sing as we played. Ideas that made playing agreeable and interesting.
As soon as we arrived home from school DL practiced first then I took my turn at the piano for 30 minutes every day, five days a week with lessons on Saturday. We even had lessons in the summer. No matter how busy or where in the house Mom was, she listened and would call out a correction or warning if she heard us messing around and not practicing diligently or correctly. Sometimes she’d sit by me and work on a measure or phrase until I understood it better. Mom and Dad loved signing us up for any recital or competition that presented opportunity which DL and I would forebear with groans and gritted teeth. I especially hated playing for the annual Mother Daughter Teas. shudder
Mrs Messerlee was a formidable teacher who had little patience for stumbling 9-year-old fingers. My heart would quiver and tears threaten to spill when her pencil slashed marks on the page. Over and over trembling fingers repeated a few notes until they were the right sequence, or tempo, or voice, or… She was ancient. Pencil hovering against the page, ready to strike at the hint of a sour note or unsteady beat her eyes would close and head drop forward in light sleep. But this was no time to slack off, the ears and pencil knew if I so much as had a tiny itch. “One does not scratch herself while playing the piano!” “Keep those wrists level.” “No, no! Your palms must be rounded,” followed by her fingers tapping my palm into a proper arch. Praise and affirmation were rare visitors in her piano parlor. But in her stern, strict ways there was an undercurrent of kindness and a glimmer of compassion. Despite my weekly misery and tears I wanted her approval and worked hard to please her. When we would play a series of pieces by a classical composer she would present us with a small white, solid bust of the composure as a reward. Both DL and I coveted those busts: Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Handel, Haydn, Brahms… I wonder what ever happened to them. If we’d had a number of good lessons Mom rewarded us by taking us to the large (then very modern) swim center, with a high dive platform, across from Mrs. Messerlee’s house.
I was a kid. Kids don’t internalize these very mixed situations, they deal with them the best they can. Perhaps it was the 4 years of studying under her strict demands, with the rare bit of praise, that I developed a strong need for approval and praise; her quick ears and constant scrutiny caused me to be very self-conscious.
I am very grateful for the musical training as well as the self-discipline she instilled. I learned to concentrate and practice well. I wish that she had spent more time on music theory. She had no time or patience for what she called “gingerbreading”. We were taught to play the notes that are written, no more, no less. The composer wrote exactly what he meant to write. Period. It was drilled into us. DL loved to improvise and could get to rollicking on a piece. He dared not play new things he’d discovered at home during non-practice times at the piano. It’s a wonder to me that we both liked to play the piano and loved playing duets together.
Mrs Messerlee was a member of the National Guild of Piano Teachers Association and every year she signed several of her students up for a competition at a university in Portland as part of the NGPTA program. We had to memorize 10 pieces to perform at an appointed time for a panel of judges sequestered in a large room with a grand piano. Mom sat with us in the hall while we waited our turn, empty-handed, the 10 pieces of music having been turned over to the judges by the teacher at an earlier date. Usually out of the 10 pieces we’d memorized the judges would choose 3 or 4 to be played, sometimes they’d only listen to a portion of a piece depending on the length. They sat at a table, score cards in front of them, not talking except to state the next piece they wanted to hear..
Students who scored 95 or higher were awarded a place in the annual recital of the NGPTA. At that time it was a Very Big Deal to be allowed to play in that recital. One dressed formally, girls in proper dresses and shoes, boys in suit and tie. The people in the audience also dressed in formal blacks and dresses. We were taught how to announce our piece before playing, to sit correctly at the piano to play and practiced a proper bow or curtsy when finished. (It still bothers me to see girls bowing after a performance, whatever happened to curtsying?) Crazy as it seems now, my brother and I loved playing for the competition and recitals, DL usually came away with a 98 or 99 while 97 was my highest score.
We moved to a place that was too far away for lessons with Mrs Messerlee. The teacher that my mom secured for me soon proved to be very easy-going and not able to challenge me the way that apparently I needed. I enjoyed a series of lessons with her but my folks stopped the lessons after a couple of months saying that I could probably be her teacher. That was probably not a fair assessment, I was only 13 and still had much to learn. By the time we moved to the reservation I had little interest in playing. I didn’t want to be the one who became the piano player for church services, and the odds were very high that if I showed any inclination for piano playing that job would be mine. That was a real disappointment to my parents after the years of lessons they’d provided. It is with time that one learns the mistakes in choices made when to young to have a grasp of looking towards the future. A keen desire to play the piano struck in my early twenties only to be extremely frustrated by needing to go back to an earlier point when I wanted to be able to pick up where I left off at. I wish my parents had exhorted me to continue playing for enjoyment without holding the need for a church pianist over my head. To have given me complete freedom to play, no strings attached.
During my mid-thirties I had the opportunity to take violin lessons and eagerly took up the violin that my mom had handed down to me (and will go to Aurora eventually). It is an even more demanding taskmaster than the piano but I want to keep at it in spite of many imperfections. These decades after piano playing to a certain high standard I’m haunted by missed notes and memory slips when performing with a group or solo. The need to play perfectly is great and yet it’s a rare occasion that I’m able to play an entire piece without some error. So, in defense I take a bit of a nonchalant attitude, otherwise despair and turmoil will take hold. Perfectionism or nothing? It seems that playing without error is rarely possible, yet the thought of abandoning music is heartbreaking so I try to be resigned to imperfection hoping that the music I offer won’t make people winch but that they will enjoy it with noncritical acceptance.