It was fourth, fifth or sixth grade and I desperately wanted piano lessons. Not that we had a piano, but my grandparents owned a baby grand--when we visited their house across town, my sister and I sat on the mahogany bench in front of it, plunking out tunes by ear and staring at the yellowing sheet music in front of us as if we understood it. Envious of my friend Amy, whose family owned an instrument and received weekly visits from a jazz instructor, I pleaded for lessons of my own.
It was a surprise however; when I returned home from school one day to find my mother speaking to a nattily dressed representative from the “Royal Conservatory of Music.” My mom apparently, had just signed me up for accordion lessons. I remember wrinkling my brow and saying: “But I wanted to learn the piano” and my musically-challenged mother nodding as the salesman responded “This is a wonderful way to get started on the piano.” The leather case perched beside our crushed velvet couch contained a miniature accordion--which he left as well as instructions to attend three beginner classes, conducted in a seedy studio on the second floor of a white clapboard building, steps away from the buzzing traffic of Route 9.
There I sat in a semi-circle of grown up squeeze-box aficionados, pushing buttons, pressing keys, hauling in and out. After three classes we graduated to the full-size instrument which weighed almost as much as me. With this standard model, it was no longer possible to convince myself that these lessons were a precursor to the piano, and I viewed the weekly visits as a unique form of torture. It didn’t matter how badly I played--and let me assure you that I played poorly indeed--the teacher complimented me. I couldn’t read music, the instrument was too heavy, I faltered through each exercise, but still I was “doing great!” Soon, as hard as I had begged to learn piano, I implored my parents for release from the class. To their credit, it didn’t take long for them to understand that in my brief accordion nightmare, they were the only instrument that was ever successfully “played.”
After that fiasco, my widowed grandfather downsized from his expansive colonial, and his gleaming piano moved into a third of our living room. For three years, every Wednesday afternoon my mother trucked my sister and me across town for lessons in Mrs. Ohmart's rosewater scented den. With liver-spotted hands, the teacher forced our hesitant fingers to the correct keys; we dutifully repeated our scales and learned simple renditions of Chopin, Beethoven, and Liszt. Knobby knuckles aside, Mrs. Ohmart was no slouch, she called me out when it became clear that junior high school activities were eating into practice time. Once I rationalized that the practice required for my voice, an instrument at which I was already proficient, was built into the five chorus classes I took each week, piano lessons faded away. Still, I took the keyboard’s presence for granted, occasionally pausing to plunk out a tune, unaware that a silent death knell had already sounded for our ivories.
With no one playing it, the bulky instrument occupying her living room stretched my tone deaf but house-proud mother’s patience; we arrived home to an empty corner one day and the news that the piano had been bequeathed to Catholic Charities. Lots of door slamming and feet stamping transpired that night, but after the initial fuss we moved on. In spite of the lack of a piano, chorale, glee club and various ensembles ensured that music remained in my life through the rest of my high school days.
Now, I get my kicks as an eager albeit word-challenged companion to the radio, who, upon encountering a piano nostalgically punches in a two fingered “Fleur Elise.” The sound of a polka though, well, that’s a different matter. The first strains of “Roll out the Barrel” transport me to the erstwhile home of “The Royal Conservatory of Music,” which in subsequent years has housed interchangeable karate studios and tax accountants. So, please forgive me if it seems rude, but regardless of whose wedding it is, you’ll catch me quick-stepping it to the bar the second the band strikes up “The Chicken Dance.”