The first time I absolutely knew I wanted to play the piano was when I heard my babysitter play “Fur Elise” one evening when I was supposed to be tucked safely away in my squeaky hand-carved wooden frame bed. For all I know, it was the only song Danica knew how to play…I have no recollection of hearing her play anything else. My first piano lessons were to come in the first grade in a small building from an enormously large woman. The building is now one of those gift shops filled with curly haired dolls, scented handkerchiefs, and novelty beeswax candles which are oh so enticing to middle age women who like to think themselves refined. The woman smelled of cigarette smoke and conjured up swirling images and promises of my coming maestro glory. Which was fine with me…I aspired to be the greatest piano prodigy of my elementary school, or at least- to beat Brianne Smith who was so much better than me at everything…The woman ensured my melodic greatness by instructing me on the black keys first; she had a theory that children were naturally afraid of sharps and flats when beginning to learn music and she intended to squelch that out of me. I was thrilled I would be overcoming the monstrous obstacle of black-key-phobia earlier in my career than those who had gone before me.
Before a month had passed, I wanted to quit. There was a brutal song that I just could not master. The name escapes me now…but what does come to mind is a horrid picture of a fat smiling man and a skinny smiling man. I wanted to rip the grins off of their mocking faces and shove them…well, actually, I was only in first grade. So I didn’t really think of that, I just wanted to quit.
Less than a year into my tutelage, the woman was replaced by a Ms. Onnie Adams. I adored her. She was my teacher. She had transformed her three story house into a musical museum, with portraits and statues of the master composers. I was awestruck by the woman’s decor; thick rugs, papason(sp) chairs, ottomans, hardwood floors. Her basement housed a piano, bookshelves full of piano music, and displayed a poster dictating the history of the piano. (A novel idea to me…I had always wondered why Christ hadn’t had piano lessons…) One Sunday of every month, my teacher would invite a different group of students over for a home made breakfast and we would play the piano for an hour afterwards. We would share ideas, get to know each other and share horror stories about the Ribbon festival and piano adjudications. It was under her I added the revered “Fur Elise” to my repotoire (sp). My teacher bolstered my confidence immeasurably, taught me how to sight read impeccably, and inspired me to love the piano passionately. Then she announced she was moving. I was crushed.
My mother promptly found me a new instructor…and I mean instructor. Holly Harty – my uncle’s sister (not related by blood to me). Directly after agreeing upon a year’s worth of lessons and paying for the first few months, we discovered Onnie had decided not to move. It was too late. In comparison to Onnie’s lavish, comfortable house and open personal teaching style, Holly was a douse of cold water. Her piano was a sleek black baby grand, and it dominated the front room. We were rarely allowed a peek anywhere else in the abode, and our hind ends were never to touch any place but the piano bench, the couch to wait for our turn, and occasionally her chair as she demonstrated the proper way to play a piece. Here, I was introduced to the concept of playing the same piece ten to fifteen times in a row at varying speeds, with different rhythm patterns, and learning to play a piece starting anywhere. I was asked to play music backwards. I was asked to memorize every piece I learned. It was here I was first reduced to tears in front of my instructor. But the benefits were there, as well. My sight reading was improved due to the fact that I never practiced, but was required to perform every Monday. I honed my finger abilities, hammered key combinations into my head, and heralded new composers into my library of performable songs. Temperance was my only option. A song Holly chose for every song I chose. Eventually, I began to choose songs which were inevitably out of her taste simply to have a little fun. She preferred Bach and Handel…I preferred Basie and renditions of pop favorites.
The breaking point came in high school. I had begun to play by guitar chords for my youth group worship time as a freshman and was quickly losing interest in the masters. The only ones who interested me were Rachmaninoff and Gershwin. But with chordal music, I could invent my own songs. I didn’t have any great talent with it, but I found it a preferable alternative to berating myself when I mutilated great works of musical art. For my sophomore spring recital, my instructor and I had a large difference of opinion on which piece I should play. She had a classical one for me. I have no idea what it was. I had written my own arrangement for one of the newer praise songs. We went back and forth until I finally won out. I performed my own piece for the recital and promptly after it was over hid myself in the back of the auditorium and cried. I hated the piano.
As I was sitting there in the dark trying to screw up the courage to go out to the foyer and ask my mother not to sign me up for another year, the most interesting man appeared from the hall and started talking to me. He was short, squat, with sparse hair and slightly bulging eyes behind his glasses. He informed immediately that he recognized my piece as an original. He thought it was beautiful. I imagine I must have sniffed mournfully, hoping to be complimented a bit more…but then he blew me away by asking if I’d like to be one of his students. He explained that he taught piano, played piano… and was an actor on a soap opera. I was impressed. And I agreed. Little did I know, my mother had arranged the whole thing.
Steve Haberman was the man. The man. For the next two years, we explored the very boundaries that you could stretch a song to. He taught me jazz. He taught me blues. He taught me you can simply erase the key signature at the beginning of a song and close your eyes and play whatever…it will probably follow at least one rule of jazz. I was terrible at it. But I loved it. And I think he understood that. There were some sessions where he would just sit and play for me. It was beautiful.
By my eighteenth birthday, I was finished taking piano lessons. I knew I could never compose harmonious, sanctimonious melodies like Steve did – as much as I wanted to. I had the heart, but not the art. To celebrate my 18th, a bunch of my friends and I went to the Sundance Grill to listen to Steve play. It was the greatest birthday of my life. With plates of calamari and seven layer tuxedo cake at the table, I sat with Steve in front of everyone in that restaurant and played. Of course, I didn’t contribute much, but I was up there. And to close out the evening, he played the most gorgeous rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” I have ever heard. I cried.
I love the piano. I love hearing piano music, I love playing. But it’s somewhat of a bittersweet relationship. I rarely play anymore. I get so frustrated at my lack of ability that I stop…or more often, my back prevents me from sitting at a piano bench for any extended length of time. I can play a few songs well, and many songs horribly….but I love it. Passionately.