Remembering My Piano Teacher

2021-12-30 – Her name was Mrs. Clark. She was my piano teacher.

I don’t know her first name. She was married and had several kids who were a few years younger than our family. I know where she lived because I went to her house most of the time for lessons. But her youngest (at the time) was born while I was taking lessons and there was some sort of problem, so Mrs. Clark came to our house for a while.

I remember walking to her house for my lesson the day President Kennedy was assassinated. No one knew what to do that day. One day I biked to my lesson and a dog started to chase me and bit my ankle before I got away.

I found the street where Mrs. Clark lived on Street View in Google Maps. Everything seems so different. The best I could do was narrow it down to about three houses.

I haven’t thought about Mrs. Clark for half a century.

But I was having a conversation with a friend of mine about rhythm. My friend David and I have been attending a group guitar lesson at the Old Town School of Folk Music (and via Zoom since the pandemic began). You could rate our group as “advanced intermediate,” but some of us never had formal music lessons until now. So some of the rhythms are challenging to members of the group.

Surprisingly, I don’t have a lot of problem with the rhythms. I say “surprisingly” because I actually think of myself as rhythmically challenged. I’m a terrible dancer for that reason. My wife Kit and I were planning on taking ballroom dance lessons when the pandemic hit to cure that. Maybe we’ll still get to do that.

But in guitar class, I’m AOK (but slow). David and I were talking about that and how I’m not having much trouble with the rhythm. And I suddenly realized that it was due to Mrs. Clark’s lesson. I know how to read the rhythm and how the written notes translate into played notes. Notes played in proper time. I don’t really think about it. (Except for triplets, which I’ve always struggled with. But I’ve finally begun to master in the guitar class.)

I learned it more than 50 years ago by the side of Mrs. Clark.

Mrs. Clark also gave me one of my favorite stories.

I was in eighth grade. I had learned Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody (probably a transcription) for my recital and for a competition run by the public schools. I had the piece mostly memorized, but there were a few rough spots, so Mrs. Clark said I could use the music book during the competition.

The ”book” was hardly a book. It was tattered. So the night before the competition, I taped all the pages back in. This turned out not to be the greatest idea.

When they called my name, I went to the piano, opened the book to the right page, and began playing. And it was going well. I came to the first page turn, and I managed to turn the page and continue without missing a beat.

But because of the stiffness of the tape, the turned page started turning back. I continued playing, but to keep from losing the place, I started blowing on the page.

Mrs. Clark was in the audience and saw that I was having a problem and ran up to manage the pages while I barely managed to keep playing to the end of the piece.

I don’t know why Mrs. Clark taught piano. I don’t know how long she taught. I know that I stopped lessons that year when I started high school. But playing piano and, a few years later, playing guitar have always been an important thing for me.

It was never a matter of talent. I do okay, but not great. It’s just that I love being able to make music—and not just listen to others. And it started with Mrs. Clark.

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