Middle C. That’s where the lesson begins.
In 1960, when I was 8 years old and this piano was 55, the music we played was, perhaps, more innocent. That is not to say it was without guilt.
I don’t know where the Willard was that year — I would guess in a parlor somewhere in Kansas City being mauled by the children of the house — but I was in Schiller Park, Illinois, torturing a different piano. Fingers without finesse or rhythm, fists without mercy. I owe an apology, long overdue, to that Gulbransen spinet, which my mother still has in her protective custody.
It was she who started me on this road of piano abuse.
Back then, before the ascendancy of video gaming as a national pastime, children had more time on their hands, which, for some reason, was a concern for parents. They couldn’t just let their children run wild in the fields and woods and vacant lots, for heaven’s sake. There’s nothing out there but sticks and weeds and the imagination.
So parents felt obliged to funnel their children into structured activities. There were basically three options: Sports, Scouting and the arts.
In my family, my brother and I played baseball. Al, who was two years and a day older than I, was a gifted athlete. He was small but fast. He wasn’t a home run hitter, but he could hit line drives to all fields, steal bases and, unlike his younger brother, throw a baseball in the direction he wanted it to go.
I had a hard time with the game. In pretty much all facets, too. Throwing, catching, hitting, running. The indignity came in many forms. But I accepted my fate with quiet resignation. I knew I didn’t have the ability, that Little League was beyond my reach.
My brother also was in Scouts. I remember looking through his Cub Scout books, at the building projects and the badges you can earn and the cool stuff you got to do. I looked forward to that, too, when I was old enough. But somehow, for some reason, that never happened.
I don’t know whether my dad was simply worn out after marshaling one kid through the various father-son projects on the path to badge accumulation and the Webelos, or whether he knew that unlike Al, his younger son possessed an overabundance of thumbs and might do himself bodily harm in the wood shop. Whatever the reason, at some point I got the sense that my parents had a different activity in mind for me.
Well, about this time, the piano had entered the home. And although I thought it was a curious thing in the living room, an artifact that made noise, I was not drawn to it any more than I was to, say, a stick with a string attached. Actually, I was attracted more by the stick.
I think my parents wanted someone in the house to learn to play the piano. My father, who was the real music lover in the family, made an attempt. But his fingers, more accustomed to gripping hammers and hauling lumber, were not up to the task. And neither was his patience. My mother tried, too. But she didn’t have the passion for it. Half way through “Beautiful Dreamer” was as far as she got.
I believe this is when the conspiracy hatched.
As I remember it, my mother came to me one day after the last day of second grade and said something like: “So we’ve been thinking that maybe you’d like to take piano lessons instead of being a Cub Scout … ” she pronounced the words as if they were filthy ” … and making paper dolls with those other little boys.”
Hmm … as long as you put it that way … I guess I didn’t have much of a choice.
Anyway, I never became a Cub Scout, my baseball career ended on the bench, and I started my music lessons under the tutelage of Mrs. Kern, a thin and ancient woman who smelled of lavender and who began that first lesson by pointing to one of the keys on the piano and saying:
“Now this is called Middle C.”
— 30 —