It’s My Narcoleptic Piano Teacher’s Fault

My kid is starting kindergarten in the fall, and his new school has a menu of options for his extracurricular afterschool activities. We plan to enroll him in the afterschool program, as gainful employment precludes us from picking him up at 3pm. Martial arts and art are among the options, and as the boy has the energy to power Doc Brown’s Delorean, and spends most of his sitting time drawing pictures of ninjas (actually ninjas, dragons, disemboweled supervillains, dinosaurs, skulls, skeletons, and Spider-Man), it seems martial arts and art are the obvious way to go.

One of his other options is music, specifically Suzuki Piano. I have no idea what the difference is between a Suzuki piano lesson and a regular piano lesson, but I’m a little leery of starting him on music lessons so young, particularly with a teacher at his school.

That seems counterintuitive even to me, because music has been my biggest hobby (and “hobby” doesn’t feel like a strong enough word, but let’s face it: my lifetime music earnings are south of a grand) since I was a teenager. I’ve played in a lot of bands, and in most cases I was the least gifted musician in the room. I got kicked out of bands for that very reason. But I stuck to it, and I got better, but one thing hasn’t changed: in a room full of rehearsing musicians, figuring out how to play this piece or that, I always feel like a kid who flunked freshman algebra sitting in on an astrophysics debate.

That’s because I can’t read music off the page, I only know the names of about eight chords (the easy ones), I don’t know what 5ths or 3rds are, I’m totally out to sea when musicians talk music. I’m able to keep in good musical company because I have good ears, and can figure things out myself given an extra moment or two, but that’s no substitute in a pinch for just being able to play a diminished seventh when asked.

I taught myself to play guitar starting when I was 14, but I didn’t take lessons. I resolutely refused them (not that anyone was begging me), and took a kind of weird pride in the fact that I’d taught myself, aided only by a chord chart and a stack of Guitar World tablature magazines. I got pretty good, but it took me probably three times as long as it would have if I’d just taken a couple of lessons.

I’d taken music lessons before, starting in the second grade. One of my best friends in the neighborhood let it be known that he was taking piano lessons from our second-grade teacher, Mrs. Waln, after school a couple days a week. Mrs. Waln would send our class home, and then come over to his house an hour after school and teach him beginning piano for 45 minutes. I was at this friend’s house, and he played something on the family piano well enough that I was impressed, and immediately decided this was a skill I wanted. I told my mom about it and before I knew it, I too was signed up for afterschool piano lessons with Mrs. Waln.

I’m trying to think how to describe Mrs. Waln to you. She seemed to my 7-year-old eyes to be about 150, but in hindsight I’m going to say she was around 60, maybe 70. She walked kind of hunched over, she wore a very ’70s pair of glasses on a ball chain around her neck, and she dressed like the Church Lady. If present-day Vicki Lawrence were to put on her old “Mama’s Family” wardrobe (and why doesn’t she? She’s finally the same age as the character!), she’d look like Mrs. Waln.

With a deep sigh, she’d come in when I answered the doorbell, nearly dragging a big flowered tote bag, full of beginning piano books, lesson plans, teachers’ textbooks, and unchecked tests. That’s just what I could see — the bag was vast, and clearly contained multitudes. I’d open the piano bench and pull out whatever book we were working from at the time, put it on the rack, and we’d sit down, she on the right, me on the left.

She taught me the names of the notes, that the black keys were the sharps and flats, and how to read basic sheet music for piano. Before long, I was playing songs, sight-reading (that’s what it’s called when you play something as you’re reading it) simple traditional songs from the simple traditional piano books she’d brought.

I was excited to learn how to play piano, and I caught on pretty quickly. I practiced and I got pretty good, or at least I thought so at the time. I’m trying to remember how long I took lessons with Mrs. Waln for, because though I want to say it was a short time, it had to have been at least a couple of years, considering how much I learned.

In any case, however long it was it was long enough that I came to dread each lesson with Mrs. Waln. It wasn’t that she was mean, or impatient, or belittling, or anything like that. She was just too old. Maybe not too old, but too tired. And who could blame her? She was an over-60 (maybe over 70) woman who just spent the day in a roomful of 7-year-olds. Of course she was tired.

But it did not make for a fun piano lesson. My lasting memories of these sessions consist of two things. One: in mid-lesson she could always be counted on to produce a sandwich bag (the non-Ziploc kind with the foldy pouch) full of damp-looking Nilla wafers, which she would chew slowly with her mouth open while I struggled through “Camptown Races.” I can’t be certain that they were Nilla wafers, of course, as I never saw any packaging other than the sandwich bag, but when she chewed them right next to my face as we shared a piano bench, they sure smelled like Nilla wafers (or their generic supermarket equivalent).

And two: her method of teaching, once I was good enough to sight-read something, was to sit there silently while I played, and write notes in the margins of the sheet music. If I had trouble with a particular bit she’d write “faster” next to it, and if I did something well she’d write “good.” These notes weren’t much good for later practice, but they were a good way to let me know how I was doing without stopping me or distracting me by talking.

But after a certain point, the lack of pep in her step advanced to full-on narcolepsy, and she would fall asleep, sitting up next to me on the piano bench as I played. Her felt-tip pen was as always unsheathed and resting at the margin of the sheet music, but as she dozed it would ever so slowly start to droop, so before long all my piano books were full of squiggly lines in the margins, where Mrs. Waln’s hand had dragged down the page as the slipped deeper and deeper into sleep. Her tongue would always just barely stick out, too, and I distinctly recall her once drooling on Middle C. 

These lessons were the first time I was confronted with true human frailty, with the reality of aging, with the decay of the body, the loss of vigor and the onset of fatigue. It was the first time I realized I wouldn’t be young and spry and able to stay awake through a piano lesson forever. It was the first time I saw an adult drool. It was a far deeper gaze into the existential abyss than my young mind was ready to process. Also, it got boring, because I couldn’t learn anything from someone who was asleep.

In any case, the experience with Mrs. Waln turned me off the idea of taking music lessons, so when I got interested in guitar a few years later I was determined to learn on my own, not to bring some weird stranger and their personal habits/medical conditions into it. And even though it took me forever and I’m still totally out to sea when I try to play with more learned musicians, it’s more or less worked out. So even though I’d like to see my son get all the same joy from playing music that I have, I don’t think we’ll be signing up for afterschool piano lessons with a teacher from his school. At least not without a more rigorous interview process than my folks put Mrs. Waln through.

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