I was driving at a leisurely pace on the 101 the other day, heading east and listening to an interview on the jazz station, 88.1. A young composer was talking about starting piano lessons at the age of four. Out of nowhere, my piano teacher popped into my head.
Twinkle Twinkle prodigy
Growing up in the Big Apple, my mom and dad believed in a well rounded education. At Convent of the Sacred Heart, besides ‘reading, writing, and ‘rithmatic,' I took piano, violin and ballet lessons in first grade. I loved going to Manhattan Ballet School on Lexington and 84th street. Doing grand jetés and pirouettes on a diagonal across the wooden floor felt like flying. The best part was sitting in the dressing room, watching the older girls put on their point shoes with the pink ribbons.
I also had a good time taking violin although it was hard to hold the instrument against my chin and make a decent sound come out as I brushed the bow across the strings. I loved the teacher, Dr. Ma. He was always patient with our group, It was two violins with a cello in our off-pitch trio and my job was the harmony. My mom still has a terrifying cassette recording somewhere of me playing 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star'. Nails on a chalkboard are sweeter than that sound. Once in a while, Dr. Ma’s son, who played the cello and was in high school, would join us for Monday's assembly. I suspect this was intentional to drown out the cacophony of our playing but I always saw Dr. Ma smiling at the end, like a proud parent. One day he came in to class saying, “you’ve graduated! I’m giving you a different piece of music.” I was accustomed to reading the easy sheet music pages, three or four notes per line. The purple stained paper from the mimeograph machine Dr. Ma placed in front of me was a forest of quarter, half and eighth notes. In that split second I knew I was done, there was no way I was going to continue; mom could safely return the junior violin she had rented for me. The young man who played with us at the recitals grew up to be Yo-Yo Ma. When I tell someone that I accompanied him as a kid, they automatically assume I was a child prodigy. I try to keep a straight face for as long as possible until I mention 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star' was the extent of my repertoire.
Sister Curtain, the piano teacher, was a different kettle of fish. She had a permanent scowl framed by gray and white curls that looked like wires, along with forbidding silver, rectangular reading glasses. It was just me and her in this huge room on the second floor with gilded moldings on the doors and mirrors everywhere. I remember sitting on top of the piano bench, my legs dangling because I was only 6 or 7 and my feet couldn't reach the parquet floors. She would loom over me and strap a red ball with elastic attached under each hand, the kind we used to play jacks with during recess. I practiced my scales with them so my hands would be curved. If my fingers flattened, she would slap me with the ruler. Many times I went home with red streaks across my knuckles. I wanted to say something, shout at her to stop but I couldn’t because she was a nun, after all; a figure of authority.
My dad used to take us to the opera. Sometimes it was fun but whenever it was one of Wagner's pieces, I knew it was going to take forever. I wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about listening to singers and dragons dying for hours on end. There was one character, however, that fascinated me from the start: Brunhilde. She was tall, had a long blonde braid and wore a helmet with two horns. The best part of her outfit was the trident she kept at her side, ready to aim it at wrongdoers. That night, Brunhilde appeared in my dream, torturing Sister Curtain, tearing her hair out. I started day dreaming in English class that Brunhilde would corner my piano teacher, yelling “why did you rap that poor girl’s hands? You deserve the same fate" and she would pick her up and swoop her away in her grip like a rabbit.
Turning the other cheek
As I’ve grown older, I’ve become aware of the merits of turning the other cheek, like, say, Mother Teresa. Imagine what she had to contend with for so many years. She didn’t need to carry a trident, showing people mercy and compassion in the face of adversity was much more powerful. I’ve learned to adjust my expectations and concentrate on being more understanding, especially when I'm driving. In Miami, road rage was a common thing. Luckily I always had my windows rolled up so no one could hear me screaming at the idiotic moves I witnessed on 95. Here in Los Angeles, I’m more relaxed. If someone cuts me off on the road, which happens all the time, I think to myself ‘maybe they just broke up with their girlfriend' or 'maybe they're in hurry and have to go to the bathroom’ and I automatically forgive them.
The truth? As nasty as Sister Curtain could be, I still remember how to practice scales because of her. I re-learned some chords a few years ago and now I can accompany myself on the piano when I sing. So, no hard feelings Sister Curtain, and thank you, wherever you are. But it's important to keep tabs on myself because every once in a while, my Brunhilde shows up and she can be scary.
Are you a Brunnhilde or a Mother Teresa?
Do ordinary things with extraordinary love. -----Mother Teresa
Brunhilde, Mother Teresa, and a little girl trying to play the violin