The Crush: The Piano Lesson
There I was, standing on her front porch, a half-hour drive from home, for my first piano lesson. Not my first piano lesson ever, but my first in a long time -- and my first with the woman whose music I had fallen in love with.
I knew her from her playing for services at our church. Our church has many accomplished musicians -- singers, violinists, flute, trumpet -- but none of them seem to put their heart and soul into the music they play the way she does. I remember my first few visits to the church, and I remember how when she would play pieces as preludes to the service or for the offering, I felt almost seduced by her playing. It felt like she was putting her whole self into her playing, holding nothing back, so the she and the music were one. It felt like her spirit was speaking directly to my heart.
This is what I'd always wanted from music. Ever since I was a child, I was fascinated by the way music could take me in and play the strings of my heart and make me want to merge with it. It started with hearing my mother play, and even when she played poorly, I would hear it the way I imagined it wanted to be played. I started piano lessons in second grade and quickly gravitated towards the more emotional classical composers: Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms. I remember one of my favorite pieces was Beethoven's "Fairwell to the Piano." This was at the time when the hell of my childhood was at its most hellish, and I think I thought of Beethoven and myself as kindred spirits: encroaching deafness was slowly depriving him of what was most essential to him, the way the hell of my life was slowly depriving me of some essential part of my self.
I survived, I made it through college, got decent jobs, got a marriage and lost it, and in the process had children. But I always knew something was missing, though I didn't know what, and when I realized that the lack of that something was slowly killing me, I began the journey that led me to that church.
When I went up after the service to express my appreciation, she turned out to be kind, generous of spirit, but also a little shy and earnest, as if she were only ever fully herself in her playing. Ah, to have even only a tenth of that spirit -- and skill! I wanted it so much, I was afraid of showing it and seeming creepy, especially since she was married to a very nice man. I finally decided that the safest approach was to ask her for lessons, since I knew she taught piano for a living. So I dug out the piano music I'd accumulated over the years and spent a few weeks practicing a half-dozen pieces to the point that I wouldn't embarrass myself too much, and, with my heart in my mouth, asked her if she would give me lessons.
Wonder of wonders, she agreed, and, even more miraculously, I made it to her house without getting lost too much or forgetting my music or my driver's license. Here, in her home, she was if anything more considerate and empathic than at church. She led me to the bench and sat me down, then looked through the pile of music I'd brought.
"Play something you're familiar with," she asked. I felt relieved that she hadn't pulled out something I'd never played before, though if I were thinking halfway straight I would have realized that that would have made no sense from her point of view. I pulled out a book of Chopin etudes. I thought about number one, but then changed my mind and went to number two -- a real workout for the last three fingers of the right hand.
The bench was more of a chair, and she was sitting in another chair next to me, in the usual piano teacher position, but my feelings for her made it feel almost unbearable. I hoped she would interpret my awkwardness as the normal nervousness of a new student hoping not to make a bad first impression. It took me two tries to get started, and it was all I could do to not swear every few measures when I missed a note or got confused about an accidental.
I finally limped to the end. I felt disappointed -- partly because I was so far from impressing her, but partly because my actual playing was so miserable in comparison with how I heard the music in my head. It plunked, it didn't sing, let alone let my spirit run free. I would have cried, if crying hadn't been one of the things that got burned out of me during the hell years. I could still feel her next to me, but my disappointment made me feel miles away from her.
"That sounds good. You seem to have the idea. Now, why don't we work on getting it to flow more. Try just doing the top line, and concentrating on getting the 3-4-5 fingering to feel easy and fluid. That's actually the point of the etude."
We spent a good fifteen minutes working on that. My fingers would start to cramp up and she would have me stop and practice relaxing my fingers, the goal being to play with relaxed fingers. One time she massaged my fingers and hand, and the sudden sense of intimacy from feeling her touch me was a shock, almost like a blow. Afterwards, I relaxed by playing Brahms' Waltz in A-flat, one of those pieces I remember my mother playing, and we worked on getting it to "sing." I got frustrated because it wasn't coming out the way I heard it, and she noticed.
"It looks like you feel like something is wrong with how you're playing. I think you're doing pretty well, so what is upsetting you?"
I realized that the feeling was the sort of thing I usually try to hide, and then I thought, if I don't show this part of me now, when will I? "When I play it, it doesn't sound like I hear it in my head."
"Well, how do you hear it in your head? Try singing or humming it."
Now I really felt embarrassed, but I tried: "dum-m dah dah dah dum-m dah dah dah dum deedle dum dum dum," and so on. As I sang, I started going up into the music. She sat quietly while I went through it, repeats and all. Then we worked on getting my playing to sound a little more like that.
It wasn't until I had said goodbye and was walking down the steps and heading towards my car that I realized just how intense it had been for me. I felt like I was coming back to the ordinary Earth after having been in some higher plane for an hour.
I took lessons from her for half a year this way, once a week. My technique did improve, she was on top of everything else a gifted teacher. And it felt good to be with her; I would sometimes get goosebumps from listening to her. I wanted to please her, I wanted her to think I was doing well. At times, I felt more like a small child with her mother. But I was still no closer to putting my soul into it the way she could. Finally, I straight out asked her.
"I've always loved the way you seem to put your heart and soul into your playing. Actually, I've envied you a little. Is this something you could teach me?"
"I don't know if I know how to teach it. It's just always been the way I've played. But -- we can try."
So the next few lessons, she had me focus on the feeling and not worry about the notes. It mostly felt awful. Each wrong note was like chalk screeching on a blackboard. But every now and then, I'd get most of them right, half by accident, and would feel some part of myself flowing along with the notes.
Finally, she suggested that she play, and I stand behind her and put my hands on top of hers, so that perhaps I could feel how she played and get a sense of it that way. It sounded logical, but when it came time for me to actually put my hands on top of hers, I realized how close I would have to be to her and I suddenly thought of the legend of Semele.
I was starting to wonder if this was such a good idea, but I couldn't think of a good reason not to. It was intense. I had to stand front-to-back with her to be able to reach her hands, which was overwhelming enough, but laying my hands on top of hers felt, if anything, even more intimate.
Then she started to play. I'm not sure how much I picked up from feeling her fingers and hands move, as listening to her play was an experience. I think it must have been something she loved to play, because I felt myself being swept along and barely aware of where I was.
And then it was over. I stood up and we both looked around a bit and saw that her husband was home. He looked at us and I thought I was going to die. He finally said, "hey, you never let me get that close when you're playing."
She looked right back and said, "hey, you've never asked me for piano lessons, either!" And they both laughed.
He kind of slapped me on the back and asked how the lessons were going. I couldn't manage a word. After a few awkward minutes, I gathered up my music. "I guess I'd better get home," I said.
"See you next week," she said. We said goodbye and I left. All the way home, I argued in my head as to whether I would actually come back. In the end, though, I made some excuse, I can't remember what, and said I couldn't make it and never scheduled another lesson.
I still attend church, sometimes, but I sit in the back row when I do, and I keep quiet, the way I tried to do when I was small, and when it's time to sing the hymns, I sing quietly, so no one can really hear my voice. If I were more of a man, I suppose I would face up to the awkwardness and work something out with her and her husband. If I were more of a man, I would sing bass clef and sing so I could be heard. But I'm not.
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