About six months ago, I started piano lessons. I had taken them before as a kid, but this time was different. I could tell it was different because the weeks didn’t start morphing into patterns of mounting, cumbersome dread followed by exquisite flights of relief post-lesson.
On the piano, my feelings were, shall we say, mixed.
This time, I felt better about things. Here’s why: There was no murkiness about whom I was taking lessons for, no recital judges or college-admissions panels to impress. I didn’t tell anyone I was signing up, though the littlest part of me did want to sign up, self-reveal as a quick-smart virtuoso then casually bring it up over dry martinis at some fabulous museum opening or dinner party. The kind of dinner party, perhaps, where I’d be asked to play, but no, I couldn’t possibly. Well, I could—because I’d be simply wonderful—but it was a question of manners.
Please don’t think I’m letting my imagination run wild. You’ll recall that I have studied music before. Before the dinner party, I knew, there had to come lessons and before the lessons, someone to teach me the lessons. First and foremost, there was the matter of finding a teacher.
The right teacher was everything. Maybe if I’d had the right teacher before, I would have studied at a conservatory. Played at Carnegie Hall! Be casually mentioning my artistic prowess at hot-buffet tables the Beltway region over.
If I really wanted to be doing all of those things, and not just the party thing, it would be my fault that I’m not. Not my teachers’. The piano teachers I grew up with were perfectly fine in every way what you’d expect. We drilled scales, chords and key signatures. I got to the point of fumbling through “Für Elise” but not much past it.
Still, maybe if I’d happened upon exactly the right match, things would have been different. If I at least gave the matter some thought this go-around, I could make an informed decision and move forward. There was also the matter of just picking someone already, before I wussed out and called the whole thing off.
Growing up, I had studied with two soft-spoken, white-haired ladies who taught out of a private residence and church basement, respectively. They were nice—maybe too nice. One of them gave out full-size Snickers bars at Halloween, and while everybody loved it, it also made us feel like we really had the upper hand with that lady.
I don’t know how much my parents spent on piano lessons for me at age 10. Whatever it was, I probably didn’t appreciate it. Before we go any further, I’ll establish this here: I am, today, grateful for the music education I received as a child. But the church basement gave me a good jumping-off point, as in, I’m looking for one step up from church basement. Thirty bucks a week felt about right.
On a Google search, I was surprised. Not a long list of church basements. A large number of young people popped up and were instantly dismissed on the grounds of being too young, that is, younger than I am. I felt a sudden pull in the direction of anyone with white hair.
I found Carol’s website early on in the search and clicked out of it because she’d devoted one of the pages, exclusively, to discussing her belief in the reincarnation of her dead cat, but I kept finding myself coming back. So she thought her dead cat came back for her. So she wanted the world, including the world’s prospective piano students, to know it. So she wrote about it, in large Comic Sans font, on her otherwise very professional website. You could tell the lady had chutzpah.
Plus, when I met her, she came up to my collarbone—or rather, the top of her white hair did. She didn’t smile a lot. She took herself seriously but didn’t really seem to care whether I did. I couldn’t picture her eating a Snickers bar, much less buying 100 of them and giving them out for free. She wasn’t unpleasant, but I wouldn’t describe her as nice.
She was, I decided then and there, perfect.
Let’s do this, I told her. What’s your schedule? Sign me up. But Carol wasn’t so sure. She was concerned about my scheduling commitments. Could I really carve out time to practice every day? Did I own a piano? What sort? Did I meditate? Her push—somehow both away from me and into private scopes of my life—only made me want to study with her more.
Over time, with Carol, the walls started to come down. It helped that I was polite and appreciative and never brought in my cellphone. (There’s a sign on Carol’s front door warning you against bringing in your cellphone.) Lessons with her have always been instructive; she’s a good piano teacher, in matters of technique and theory. She’s traditional that way. In other ways, maybe less so.
After a few talks with Carol, I did start to meditate. And guess what? It’s the bomb. Carol thought yoga might help, too, for piano and overall wellness and life. So weird, because it turns out that yoga’s really freaking great.
I don’t care for the terms “life coach” or “mentor” because I’m not comfortable awarding someone with that much power over me. But damn if that lady didn’t possess some very clever life hacks and if I didn’t start paying very close attention when she talked.
My etudes were coming along nicely, as well.
Before piano, I had studied Italian a while, and I started noticing some similarities between Carol and Claudia, the woman who taught me Italian. There was the white hair, by no means a prerequisite but clearly a pattern. For lack of a better word, there was depth. With Carol, and with Claudia, I had the sense I was gaining something more than what I was paying for. Carol nudged me toward self-care, with yoga and reflection and rescheduling lessons if I’m sick or too harried some weeks. Sometimes my left hand cramps up when I play, and she’s always telling me that if it does that, to stop playing. Rest my body. Take it easy. There’s no point in forcing it. The best way forward is to flow. Carol’s very into the notion of flow.
Claudia was different, of course; her advice dwelled more on the subjects of cooking and parenting. But the idea was the same in that she went above and beyond, whether or not she meant to, to offer something beyond the scope of our weekly time together.
Could I have gotten the same thing from my past music teachers, if I’d been a prematurely and preternaturally sensitive 10-year-old? I bet that I could have. I bet I was the one, as Carol would put it, stopping the flow. It takes a patient, giving person to teach young children a complex instrument—if there was a problem between us, I doubt the problem lay with them. Then again, maybe some tiny grains of a bigger picture did manage to creep in, and that’s what led me back to piano, with all its flows and disembodied pet felines, all over again.
On the subject of Carol, she recently mentioned to me she’s taken up hip-hop dance. At first I thought she was joking, but Carol rarely cracks a joke.
He’s a good teacher, she said of the person leading the class, using her hands to suggest something I took to mean “flow.”
I’m happy for that, and I wish them the best. Especially him. The right teacher is everything.