To a certain standard

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.

Next time fiber stuff!


Author: Wanda J

I never dreamed my life would be entangled with fiber and the tools used to produce fibery items. When I bought a boat shuttle used in weaving Ed looked at it, decided to make a better one and the rest is history. For a decade he made shuttles, crochet hooks, knitting needles, until his spindles became so popular that he had to devote his time to making them, as well as Walking Wheels. Free time is spent reading, trying to coax food from the ground, and playing in the creek near our place. I love long walks and camping far from crowds. Playing a fiddle beside a stream or with good friends brings sweetness to my soul. Sundays are set aside for worshiping God with our small Quaker meeting.

12 thoughts on “To a certain standard”

  1. I would have loved to have had piano lessons but fear I would have given up with such a hard task master. My music teacher at school was a formidable character but I did play a descant recorder and the Glockenspiel in the school orchestra and sang in the choir until my adolescent hormones took their hold and boys became far more interesting 😉

    I sometimes keep quiet about my crafting abilities for fear of becoming swamped with things to make. I am in a fortunate position of mostly being able to choose what I make and to have orders looming fills me with dread..

    1. Glockenspiel! How many people can claim that accomplishment? Sounds like your music experience in school was fun and adequate.

      Yes, with your gift for making beautiful items, of all types I think you could easily become swamped. I was admiring your handspun yarn on Etsy yesterday.

  2. I remember the dreaded curtsy after ballet lessons. “Thank you for a very nice lesson.” I was OK with the barre work, but I really just wanted to get out on the floor and *move*. Years later, when I was able to take a few piano lessons, I wasn’t crazy about practicing. I just wanted to play. And I rarely swatch. Hrmmm, seeing a distinct pattern here. Who knew that it began back in ballet class?

    1. And you’re still free dancing! 🙂

      I didn’t realize that dancers were required to bow after ballet lessons, interesting. That brings to mind bowing to the master at the end of karate lessons.

      Haha, I’ve swatched only once – for Ed’s Knitspot Jacket.

      It would be fascinating to reflect on various growing up experiences and delve into the reasons behind the whys behind much of our character. I should have been a psychologist! 😉

  3. Oh, the traumatizing neurosis of childhood lessons! How Froyed-ee-an! My mom was a music major and would not teach us piano, just because of the potential wars. I asked the Lord for a piano, and He gave me one, then gave me the heart to look to Him for guidance, time to practice, and a way to use it to minister to people. I taught my boys tightly for 10 years each, and though they don’t touch the piano, they are very very good guitarists and musicians, mostly from “messing around” on them, with the theory and sight-reading background of piano! Way fun. Think of the music that will be in heaven! You must read “How To Play The Piano Despiste Years Of Lessons” by Ward Cannel. Great liberator!
    Thanks for the fun musical interlude!
    Oh, and I thought it was “Kitten on the Keys”???

    1. Thanks for the book recommendation! I didn’t know you played the piano – but not surprised. 🙂 Sounds like you gave the boys a good foundation. It was stunning to realize how little theory we were taught when MM was so thorough about technique.

      Ah, yes! I look forward to the freedom of music in heaven. It will be beyond our wildest experience or imaging here.

  4. I wish I’d had some kind of music training when I was young. I assumed that you either had talent or you didn’t, and that I was in the not-talented group.

    I took up violin 4 years ago at the age of 46, and I’ve found that musical skill can be taught–that it’s not necessarily innate. I have a long way to go, but it’s fun, even if it is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

  5. I’ve played music when I was young. Flute, piano, tuba (playing the tuba was so much fun!). I loved playing, hated practicing (I never could bring myself to do it), so it was very frustrating for my teachers to have me as a student.
    Who knows, maybe I’ll go back to it one day. If I do so, it’d be without rules or expectations or need to make any kind of progress: just playing around, enjoying myself, making music for the fun of it.

    1. Definitely should pick up some instrument to play again! You’d love it. Something small and portable so you can play in jams or take it camping. My brother played the trombone and tuba in the high school band, he too said playing the tuba was a blast.

      The pianist at our church hated practicing too but she always had the uncanny ability to sight read. Her teacher was frustrated that she could play well without putting in the hours. She thought it ironically funny.

  6. Your post brought back many memories of my childhood, much of it spent sitting on the piano bench. We always wanted one of those piano stools that spins, but my parents wouldn’t get one. My piano teacher was a bit of a tyrant, and I still remember her large, beefy hands, covered with rings with huge jewels. I didn’t like practicing until I discovered how much fun it was to play the pieces my sister was supposed to be learning. In this way, I could torment her because she was older than me but I was a better player. Ah, memories.

    1. Haha, nothing like an older sibling to bring out the best in us! I bet you’re one of those music teachers who expect the best of her students without being a tyrant.

      Yes! I remember begged for a spinning stool too!

Comments are closed.