Saturday, September 1, 2018

“Red Bricks and Ivory Notes”

"Pianos, unlike people, sing when you give them your every growl. They know how to dive into the pit of your stomach and harmonize with your roars when you've split yourself open.
And when they see you, guts shining, brain pulsing, heart right there exposed in a rhythm that beats need need, need need, need need, pianos do not run. And so she plays." - Francesca Lia Block
Walking towards the 1920’s white colonial, along the red brick pathway, uneven with roots that have jumbled with time, I anxiously carry my sheets of music, anticipating another season of piano. Magnolia seedlings have sprouted, planting stakes of what will be grand hallmarks with lilies of the valley growing freely throughout the garden beds. A stray red bud or two has lost its way and azaleas and boxwood are grounded in the yard. The great big oak that once stood at the border of her yard lived a long life and all that remains is a pile of saw dust sinking in a hole. 

As I take a step onto her tiny front porch I notice a little bird’s nest perched in a corner of the eave amongst a background of painted shutters and shingles of infinite layers. I ring the doorbell but soon remember it doesn’t produce any sound. I knock a once or twice with no response.

I know Ms. Kathaleen is expecting me. My lesson is at 2:30. Originally it was scheduled for 1 but as usual, she accommodates my crazy, erratic and disorganized time management and allows me to change lesson time at the last minute. I always call frantic with an excuse, but really I’m just a big hot mess, on a treadmill. I probably have no business trying to fit time in for myself. Yet here I am, on time for once, but someone else is playing.
Maybe she finally, after all these years, got fed up with me and took another lesson, just to teach me about the value of other people’s schedules. No, that’s not her style. Don’t think I have ever seen her not smiling, not greeting you like she hasn’t seen you for ages and is so happy you’re here, so grateful to have your presence. Her calm yet vivacious, infectious moods are always so consistent. She’s no pushover mind you, no ma’am, she’s not. She’s tough in a quiet manner. And you’d think she was actually organized with all the lessons she juggles, keeping track of sheets of music and books she purchases and passes along to her students, the great recitals she organizes, forty years of lessons and counting, but no, I think she’s as hot a mess as I am. At least that’s what she tells me.

She always says, “Mary Beth, you’re just like me. We don’t know if we’re coming or going. That’s the mind of a musician.” Or something to that effect. “Time doesn’t matter to us, at least it has no boundaries. It just flows and we roll with it.” Or something like that. “Playing piano keeps your mind fresh, keeps your memory alive. All my students are smart, do well in school and go on to do great things.”
As I peer through her window, the pane slightly rippled and cloudy, I see there is not another student taking my spot but Ms. Kathaleen at her grand piano, playing my piece. 
I oftentimes phone her out of the blue and announce enthusiastically “I just heard this piece on Classic FM and want to learn to play it.” It’s typically a Chopin piece as he’s my favorite composer. She’ll respond so delighted that I called, she’ll give a little chuckle in a high pitched note and respond in a deep pitched voice with a soft southern drawl, “Oh Mary Beth, you’ll have your hands full with that one but we can try it.”
I’m currently working on Chopin’s Grande Valse Brillante Ballade Op. 34 Nr2. It might take me a lifetime to learn. I’ve been working on Beethoven’s third movement of Moonlight Sonata, having mastered the first and second. The third is quite intimidating though, so much I often just sit and stare at the notes in an anxious panic. I’ll learn them before I die, but maybe not for spring recital this year. Well at least I’ll try. 
There was one piece I called her about that sounded simple enough: Chopin’s Berceuse. It’s a stunningly beautiful piece. Slow and melodic, with flat notes of D, E, G, A, and B and scales going from naturals to flats to sharps and back again. The treble clef remains fairly constant. It’s one of the pieces that makes me feel like I’ve died and gone to heaven.
I haven’t been playing piano for very long. I’m almost forty seven and I’ve only learned to read notes a few years ago. I tried for decades to learn to read music but no one could teach me. I play by ear so the pieces I started with had always been so simple I ended up taking the easy route and sounding them out instead. The instructors assumed I was reading notes because I was playing “Stepping Up and Down” notes C, D and E. I wasn’t reading or learning though, they thought I was, but I never got past the basic kid piano books. I must have gone through about five instructors during my youth, with the same pattern of learning the same silly song, no progress, and so I’d quickly get bored and quit instead of wasting everyone’s resources.
Though my desire never waned. I yearned to play true classical music, I yearned for it, just to have my fingers dance over the keys and fill a room with great beauty. I was determined. So the summer of my sixteenth birthday, which I recall being particularly rainy and boring, I sounded out the entire first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. I had a pink boom box with a cassette player my father bought for me. I would play and rewind, play and rewind all summer long until I felt I mastered the piece. It was the first time I danced with the ivories and I was so proud, as were my parents. I felt I had truly accomplished something great: the entire piece, learned by ear, note for note.
My pride was shattered though when I played one day for my mom’s friend, a fellow pianist like myself. She told me in no unforgiving, sympathetic terms that I had spent the whole summer sounding out the piece in the wrong key. I felt deflated. I cut myself a break though. After all, I was playing on a hundred year old piano rescued from the basement of my grandmother’s house, with sticky keys and broken strings, glue coming undone on the felt. I doubt that piano had ever been tuned. Maybe someday I’ll have a new piano and I’ll gracefully dance along the keys.
Time passed, a marriage and three kids later, I got my piano: brand new and well-tuned, an upright Young Chang, pretty with cherry wood, no Steinway, but still of good stock. Now what to do with this piano? My ear could only take me so far and that’s how I stumbled upon Ms. Kathaleen.

I would show up at Ms. Kathaleen’s home with my music books, a bag of goldfish, and Pack-and-Play in hand. I would plop down my one year old son, toss him the fish and have my thirty minute lesson. And I learned, truly learned to read notes. Ms. Kathaleen didn’t start me on the baby stuff. She started me on Chopin. And I played that year in my very first recital, in front of a crowd of other adults in a beautiful chapel with outstanding acoustics.
And I choked. I got up to play, my piece so well practiced I didn’t even need the sheet music to play. I had it memorized like every great pianist before and after me. I was confident until I sat down to play. I imploded. I forgot bits and pieces, I stalled, I stumbled, my hands shaking, my brow sweating. I was mortified.
I stormed off, no customary bow, and I was embarrassed and ashamed but looked angry with fire blazing from my red head. I had no plans to return and spent the summer cowering in self-pity as my infamous piano choking turned out to be a precursor of sorts, a life’s metaphor for the catastrophe that was about to unfold.
The summer, dark and cold, even with a burning Carolina sun, was ending until a fresh breeze blew my way. Ms. Kathaleen called me, “Would you like to schedule your lessons for the new season?” I didn’t know what to say. Wasn’t she offended by my behavior? I mean, I didn’t even walk up to the stage to accept my certificate. I sent my five year old daughter up in my place. My husband even scolded me for my behavior, telling me he was embarrassed and ashamed of me. Yet she was calling me to start again.
“But Ms. Kathaleen, I choked and then I stormed off that stage.”
“Oh Mary Beth, you’re just like all those other great musicians who get flustered and throw a tantrum. That just means you’re a true pianist. So when do you want to come for your lesson?”
The summer of my fortieth birthday, that a dark and ever so dreary summer, I needed saving. I had three beautiful children and a piano but I didn’t feel my value. The music I so longed to play since I was just a little girl had been silenced.   
I showed up at my scheduled lesson, probably late and a big hot mess as usual.  Maybe I should have stayed in my cocoon. But I'm an open book and I couldn’t help myself. I broke down and told her my story, my story of shame, of devastation, my story of loss and sadness and fear. I figured this women, so well revered by many, so full of grace, would have no understanding of what I was experiencing. The thing I valued more than anything was slipping from me forever, never to be recreated, with only memories that held onto the pain. But she said, “Oh Mary Beth, I been there. Now let’s play.” And so I played.
Eight year later, as I peered into Ms. Kathaleen’s window she was playing my piece: Berceuse. Oh what a gift! I peered and listened, I closed my eyes, soaking in the notes, my eyes watering with sheer joy in the sound.
I continued to peer into her window as she sat on the stool of her grand Steinway, her back towards me. Her pure white, short yet wavy coiffed hair, her shoulders hunched slightly, a pretty purple shirt, and her fingers dancing along the keys. Maybe not with the vim and vigor of her early days, like the red brick pathway uneven with roots jumbled by time, she played and I listened. Oh what sound, what beauty, what a moment to be cherished, what a life, what value, oh what a gift, what simplicity, what a reflection.
She finally came to the door and I thanked her, with a tear in my eye, I thanked her for her gift. She chuckled in a high pitched note, then in a deep and sweet southern drawl, she hugged me, and said, “Oh Mary Beth, what am I going to do with you? You mean with my slow aging fingers, I’m stumbling through the piece” or something to that effect. I said, “Oh no, it was beautiful. I can’t wait to learn it now.” She said, “Well it will be much easier than that Ballade. Now let’s play.”


  1. That old piano was un-tunable...we tried but were told it was hopeless, and it still sounded pretty good when you played! Too bad they did not have inexpensive electrics in those days.

  2. You tried to bring it to life by at least refinishing it. It looked good and it was better than no piano.

  3. I loved this post. You need to post more often!!