My Life in Piano Lessons


Up front, a confession: I totally ripped off this title from an article in The New Yorker. Just started reading the article this morning and haven’t had time to finish it, but it centered around a black composition notebook (like high school & college students use) that the writer kept from his piano teacher. He went back years later and read the comments his teacher had left him in the book.

I enjoyed reading about his piano teacher’s creativity in not using the usual system of adhesive stars that many piano teachers use to grade their students’ performance of a piece. My piano teacher, Mrs. Conway, was a slave to gold, red, and silver stars. I had some gold stars on a few of my piano pieces, but it seems that she gave them grudgingly. For some pieces that she worked with me on for a long time, she finally got disgusted and just made a X on the page to show that we were done with that piece. (We both rejoiced.)

When I think back on my piano teachers, I am grateful for their unique personalities. My mother loved Mrs. Conway because she knew Mrs. Conway would instill some badly needed discipline in me. Oh, how I hated music theory lessons that she held at her house (they didn’t last because most of them were miserable experiences for everyone). Oh, how I despised practicing my scales. And oh, how I fought Mrs. Conway when she complained about hearing my nails click on the piano. She urged me to curve my fingers (something that my first college professor spent months trying to cure me of because I held too much tension in my fingers) and trim my nails. One Christmas she gave me a guitar-shaped pair of nail clippers. After that, I didn’t mind trimming my nails so much.

There was enough of an obedient child in me that I did practice, and eventually, probably after about 3 years of lessons, I started ENJOYING practicing. I think that was due to my mother’s smart move, however…she asked me whether I would rather wash the dishes or practice piano. You can guess which one I chose. (I would have done almost anything at that point to avoid washing dishes by hand. Ironically, today, it is soothing to me to wash dishes.)

Bless Mrs. Conway’s heart for putting up with me all those years (3rd grade thru my senior year of high school). I do wish she’d known how to gently remind me to practice instead of constantly saying, “An hour a day. An hour a day.” Oh, and she hated when I wanted to play sports (not that I was at all athletic, but I tried). She worried that I’d break or “stove up” my fingers. I never injured my fingers in sports. Uneven sidewalks, though, were another matter. One time in 7th grade, I tripped on an uneven sidewalk in my haste to get to French class, and I broke four fingers. As luck would have it, that happened right around the time of piano recital, band concert, and final exams. Mrs. Conway was just disgusted that year. Too bad!

This is all I have time to write today and probably all you want to read, anyway. I had two excellent piano teachers in college: Paul Ridgway and Dr. Louis Ball. More about them later.

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