Friday, April 26, 2019


I'm not much of a musician. Strike that: I am not a musician. Drum and piano lessons in grade school, idly fooling around on a beat-up, passed-down acoustic guitar in the family basement, air guitaring (ongoing). My greatest success came with an imaginary band I formed with my younger brother.

I recall the several years of piano lessons with some distaste. They took place in Mrs. Pollack's basement a few neighborhoods over from mine; I have distinct memories of my mom picking me and my younger brother after school to take us there, and as I remember it it was invariably raining, the windows in the station wagon fogged over, my headache likely a result of the gross weather, not the existential ennui that gripped me. I had some difficulties getting over my childish aversion to going into strangers' homes, and I never much enjoyed entering the Pollack's, with its oddly modern architecture and wall-to-wall carpeting and strange smells (and appointments; I think they were wealthier than we were). I do recall my red piano book fondly, and can still sing, and maybe even play, "Song of the Volga Boatmen," and some others. I never liked practicing. (Stop the presses.)

The vivid memory I have from those long afternoons is unsurprisingly a lesson, but one not having much to do with scales. Mrs. Pollack instructed us, sternly but with her round, friendly face, to never let the mistake that we'd invariably make during practice or recital show in our playing; that is, we were told to play as if we hadn't made a mistake, seamlessly, and thus it's likely that the patient parents in the room wouldn't notice, or would at least politely behave as if they hadn't noticed. I took this little instruction to heart—it emboldened me, at age eleven or twelve, to play with confidence and a kind of worldly air that said, Of course mistakes happen, but I won't let them rule me. It wasn't an easy lesson to learn and I'm struck now at the pressure it put on us kids, as we were at an age when comical errors can cast the entire day in melodrama, when making mistakes went to the core of what felt like lame moral character—ie, I'm a loser—though we couldn't articulate that at the time, only feeling it in our hot faces or in our ears ringing with derisive laughter of classmates. At one recital, a girl tripped over some difficult passage and, upset, slunk back on her bench, sulking; she tried again, and again made a mistake, and to the horror of all of us began hammering the sequence of notes until she got them right, alternately dramatically sighing her way through the embarrassment and screwing up her face in frustration. As with all adolescent dramas, her public failing has grown to mythic proportions in my inner retelling, and I'm sure she recovered just fine. Maybe she continued to play piano, perhaps wildly successfully, or just for fun. But her face, those slumping shoulders, stayed with me. I never played piano or any keyboards seriously after these early classes (my brother did) but that lesson in grace and stoicism stuck with me, a small step toward maturity and, dare I say, sophistication. Funny what sticks at that age. Thank you, Mrs. Pollack.

Photo via Because I Like To Decorate.

No comments: