Katy's Piano Lessons

I guess nearly everyone has taken piano lessons at some time in his or her life. It seems to be a part of growing up. One can learn a lot more than just scales and pieces from a piano teacher. I know I did.

Every Saturday morning I set out, my face tingling from the polishing Ma gave it on the huck roller towel, my hands scrubbed and nails cleaned too, for Miss Mae was very particular about that. Over my calico dress, I wore my second best pinafore, starched and crisp as paper, my boots were polished and my hair, tight in it's single braid, sported a large butterfly bow next my head.

The music I carried rolled in a leather case, except for my hymn book. Miss Mae played the organ for church and deemed hymns an important part of one's musical education. Indeed we would sing the words together, I in my childish treble and she with her rich alto. I liked that part of my lesson best.

Most arduous, of course, were scales with their particular timing and fingering. Those I always did first and tried to relieve the monotony, and distract Miss Mae's attention from my inaccuracies, by talking. All week I saved up things to tell her, for Miss Mae was a very special kind of person.

She lived with her invalid mother and older widowed sister and was their only visable means of support. Her affection for her students was sincere but she had little patience for those who shirked practicing and had been known to gently refuse to teach a child who found the piano beyond her ken.

As I walked down the street toward her house, I could see Miss Mae's white shirtwaist as she sat in her chair by the window next which stood the piano. If someone had a lesson before me, she would be listening to a "piece", if not, she might be writing a letter.

When my turn came, I would stand my music on the rack, hand Miss Mae my lesson book with the dollar fee tucked in it, and slip onto the bench. Miss Mae did not like piano stools as she said they always creaked and she had found her pupils tended to swing gently to and fro on them. As soon as she spoke the words commanding the beginning of my lesson,
"Let's have your scales now, Katy."
I would begin to chatter all the thoughts I had stored up to share with her.

After the scales, we had hymn time. Next would be the exercise book which consisted of short pieces designed to teach dexterity, fingering, and technique. These were often quite pretty and I enjoyed mastering them. I was always able to sight-read, that is play a piece passably upon first seeing it, and that made me impatient with repetitious practicing.

Lastly came my "piece", a selection which Miss Mae chose for me in light of my special interest. I liked heavily chorded music and she tried to give me that in my pieces.

Along with the music she taught, Miss Mae tried to help her pupils grow as individuals. She taught that practicing develops perseverance, that trying brings success, that good is not enough when you are capable of better.

Miss Mae taught me to love music. She insisted that I read about composers and that I learn more than just "a little piece to play." When I balked or objected to her demands as being to heavy, she would talk to me quietly, explaining why she felt I could and should do as she suggested.

I came to love Miss Mae dearly. In the spring her jet black pompadour often wore a red rose I had brought her. Her valentines were always the laciest I could make, her May Basket held the freshest flowers I could find. When I learned to bake, I took her the chocolate pattycakes and sticky sweet rolls she loved. I took her golden peaches and ruddy apples in season and she received each gift and valued it, giving it a special pat and the promise that she would enjoy it at her leisure.

Johann Sebastian Bach's Well Tempered Clavicord exercises arrived on the scene and I discovered that my temper and his did not agree. Miss Mae insisted that I complete that book but there after we avoided Bach. Eventually I grew to enjoy and appreciate his intricate development of theme and counterpoint all the more because she had not forced me to it.

Shortly after Christmas each year, Miss Mae would begin planning her RECITAL. This great event was anticipated with agony by the shy and with joy by the "show-offs". Music was a highly personal thing to me so I hated the very thought of a recital.
"But you are one of my very best pupils, Katy." Miss May would say, "You will do me great credit. Of course you must play in the recital."
She would then present me with a lilting Valse or a delightful Contradanse which ordinarily I would have loved, but, since it had the pall of recital over it, some of its pleasure was dimmed.

In May our lessons moved to the church for it was there the recital would be held. The lingering smell of church suppers, wilted altar flowers, stale air, and sanctity enveloped me like a cloak. My heart was leaden, my music expressionless. Over all my world hung the sword named RECITAL

THE DAY dawned fair and clear. I woke with a shudder and lay quietly in my bed. No bones had miraculously broken in the night, my traitorous fingers moved supplely, my throat was not sore, I had no fever. I must arise and gird myself to do battle. The morning alternately flew and dragged. The RECITAL was at two, dinner went down and settled comfortably. I couldn't even be sick! There was no escape.

Tenderly, and with forgiveness for the torture she was inflicting upon me, I made a corsage for Miss Mae. With a smile, she pinned it to her navy blue silk gown telling me she knew I would play very well and my turn came right after Nellie.

One by one, youngest and least skilled first, then the more advanced students played their pieces. My turn neared. Nellie had no nerves, only a mechanical ability to play, and was more concerned with her hair bow being straight and the ice cream to come than her performance.

Nellie played.

Miss Mae spoke my name. My knees shook, my stomach lurched, my hands were clammy.

I walked to the piano knowing I couldn't play a note. Sheer terror froze my blood until I heard Miss Mae saying that I was one of her most talented and industrious pupils. It may not have been politic and certainly not even true, but it worked. The icy block around me melted and I played my piece. It was over.

It was a wonderful day. The recital was over and would not return for a whole long year. Now that I knew how easy it was to play in front of people, I would not be so silly next year. Perhaps.

Dedicated to the memory of my piano teacher, the real Miss Mae, with love and gratitude for all she taught me many years ago.