My mother was a pianist, the graduate of a conservatory of music, and had several pupils. My father met her when she was the church organist and he moved to town and joined the choir. It was assumed that I would inherit their musical genes.
My mother was my first piano teacher. She showed me the black and white keys, told me their names, taught me how to put my thumb on middle C and play the scale. When her friend came to visit, I was invited to show off: “Play C scale for Aunt May,” she said. After a couple of failed attempts, it was obvious that I couldn’t find middle C for my starting point. Mother asked for an explanation, since I had known it only a day earlier.
It turned out that I had marked the key with a booger, and she had washed the piano keys and removed my marker.
Maybe, she decided, I’d do better with a regular teacher. Every Thursday I went to Mr. Prettyleaf’s house for a lesson. I practiced, and I improved. Then the time came for the student recital at the end of the year. I can still picture the hall with folding wooden chairs and a baby grand piano. I remember my yellow eyelet dress and my black patent maryjanes. I remember the song I’d worked hard to memorize, “Irish Pipers,” and my hands sweating as I sat in a little room behind the stage, waiting my turn.
I also remember that there was a point in the music when I was to repeat part of the first section and then take the second ending. But something happened; my mind went blank—I could not remember the second ending, and so I played that first section again, missed the second ending again, repeated the first section another time, my hands perspiring, the keys slippery with sweat, until finally I simply stopped, stood up and bowed, and promised myself I’d never again play in a recital.
I’ve kept the promise.