Little Fingers

red piano book

“Teaching Little Fingers…” by Tammy Bogestrand used with permission.

The red paper cover is tattered and torn. I open the book to the first piece. “Birthday Party” has catchy lyrics:

Here we go,

In a row,

To a birthday party.

Anyone remember it? Did you have a favorite in that red book of piano music? Mine was the gloomy, minor-key “Song of the Volga Boatmen.” Sad material is more interesting.

Starting at the age of eight, I visit Mrs. B every week for six years, with my sister Anita, until my little fingers eventually graduate from Mr. Thompson’s Fifth Grade.  She’s followed by three other teachers: a cranky nun who thwacks my hands when I make a mistake; a lumpy woman whose dusty house makes me sneeze; and Mrs. R, our favorite because she gives us jazz, ragtime and boogie-woogie.

Our piano is a used baby grand with a black crackled finish. It takes up almost half the living room.  My father likes to take naps under it, perhaps because he doesn’t get jumped on by some child the way he might if he sleeps on the sofa.

I study piano for eight years: an enormous parental commitment of money, time, chauffeuring, and the energy required to make me practice.

I have to practice every day for thirty minutes. Tock, tock goes the metronome, its metal stick arm swiping back and forth.  I warm up with scales and arpeggios, then work on my two or three pieces.  I try to remember what Mrs. B told me, try to get my fingers to do what they are supposed to.  Practice strengthens the fingers and hands, adds quickness and agility, but its main purpose is to train the brain.   My eyes read the score, my brain takes those black marks and almost subconsciously directs my hands, my ears offer feedback on the rightness (mostly wrongness) of the sound. How complex it seems to me now.

My teachers require that we perform in an annual recital.  The students and their parents gather in the teacher’s home or sometimes in a recital hall.  There’s a printed program.  For weeks I practice the same one or two pieces, trying to memorize, trying to make the tricky places sound smooth and musical.  The recital itself is an ordeal; I fear I will forget and mess up and I’m too nervous to play well.  When we take lessons from Mrs. R, my sister Anita and I play duets in recital—we bang away at “Pomp and Circumstance” together.  Duets are less stressful because mistakes are less glaring—and it’s hard to tell which of us makes them.

Karen & Laura playing piano

with my little sister Laura at the piano

On a scale of one to ten, where one is rank beginner and ten is concert quality, I am now barely a three.  I can accompany Christmas carols and pick my way through a piece of sheet music.  When no one is listening, I enjoy playing favorite pieces by Chopin and Brahms, Scott Joplin and Enya, but my playing is thoroughly mediocre.  My fingers don’t do what they should, as easily as they used to. To read music, I need special glasses, which, serendipitously, also focus at the same distance as my computer monitor.

I believe that learning piano helped me at math, my college major.  Also, I have almost perfect pitch, a skill that came in handy listening to my children practice.  Many’s the time I heard a wrong note and from the kitchen yelled the correct one (“B flat!” or “F sharp!”).  Yes, I subjected my children to piano lessons, so that they too would know the tedium of practice, the terror of the recital, respect and awe for those who do it well.

How about you – any fond memories of music lessons?

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