With a palpably shiny bald spot and a temper wound tighter by every passing year, Mr. East was, at best, ambivalent about teaching piano. I could tell he resented the fact that he was stuck nagging teenagers to practice their scales and arpeggios, instead of receiving critical acclaim for his compositions.
We sat side by side—he in the chair, me on the velvet-embalmed piano stool—ignoring the wet clanking of a peeling radiator older than both of us combined. I remember his fingers vividly; nubby and rounded, like the bulge of a root through cracked pavement. Clearly, I reasoned, I’d better not practice too much, or my fingers might transfigure similarly.
He was nothing like my first piano teacher—a Canadian woman with an oblong of silver curls, an inviting smile, and a warmth for my inexperience. To help me learn my first ever pieces, simple ditties designed to be played but not heard, she affixed colorful stickers to each of the 7 white piano keys. This simple system of notes made sense to me. After that, learning musical theory felt more like a tome of German philosophy than a means by which I could touch beauty.
The musical jargon Mr. East asserted, repeatedly, next to me on the stool, never quite cohered. Though I’d pretend to understand when he spoke of tonics, minor sevenths, and key signatures in A#, I was just afraid to seem foolish. I scrambled to keep up with the demanding pace of his lessons, acutely aware of the judgment and exasperation tinging his reminders to “Pay attention!” and “Read the music!” and “Practice your sight reading!” My musical education was—much like everything at that girls’ school, which required us to own hymn books and yet, in a nod to progressive femininity, did not require uniforms—rigorous, often at the expense of joy.
The music wing was accessible through the grand, marble-floored Atrium, through a pair of swinging oak doors beyond the library—my other favorite place, besides the sunlit art studio. Over the entrance to the wing, glistening gold, was a memoriam to Gustav Holst, composer of The Planets and one-time secondary school music teacher. I felt the heft of his name like I felt the school’s National examination record (it consistently placed among the top 10 in the country) pasted the Atrium each spring.
My fondest musical memories from that time came not during my weekly lessons with Mr. East—even though I got to skip an academic subject for them—but when I went, alone, up to the piano rooms to practice at lunchtime. Standing on tiptoes, I’d peek through each dusty window, like a porthole, to find an unoccupied upright Yamaha or Steinway. Once in the safety of solitude, I could drop into the melodic currents that made me ask for lessons in the first place. That yearning to get closer to beauty, by playing it; trying to merge with it.
Unfortunately, the euphoria of intermingling could only happen once I had fully memorized a piece of music—a process I went about with brute force and determination rather than elegant divination. The pace of this learning was significantly obstructed my near-illiteracy with conventional music score. I’m still not sure why I never mastered sight reading. Perhaps tedium, perhaps lack of effort and practice, perhaps lack of teacher-inspired motivation to master this system of notations that could, ultimately, grant me access to a higher level of musical accomplishment. There was never a time when sight reading wasn’t a prolonged, excruciating trench warfare. Neither of us—me nor Mr. East—emerged fully sane on the other side.
Instead of reading the notes, I hammered each one into my memory again and again, letting the ideal echo of the piece—which I would ask Mr. East to play for me three, four, five times, until I heard it in my mind—be the guiding blueprint. He marked up my musical score, in his theatric handwriting, with reminders that he surely didn’t need to give other, more musically gifted students: fingerings, extra sharps, flats, and exclamation points, to draw my attention to the details I too often missed.
All that said, I did have—even Mr. East could admit—a strong ear.
Another of my poor habits, which caused Mr. East endless impatience, was that I stopped playing when I make a mistake. Rather than remain in the gushing current of rhythm, I’d haul myself onto the bank and stubbornly, irritably, clomp back to the place I started. God knows how many times my family had to listen to me achingly, painfully, like a worn-out music box, practice the same phrases over and over again until I could reproduce them to my own standard of perfection.
The myth of “two halves of the brain” is evidently overly simplistic; yet it helps me explain the dichotomous states I experienced with fingers on the keys. Mathematical, and instinctual. I never could reconcile the two during my piano playing.
A few times, I went to Mr. East’s house for lessons. It was musty, and his piano never seemed to want to be played by me; its sticky keys felt like playing quicksand. Though, after 5 years together, I do remember practicing for my final piano examination on that piano; playing my memorized pieces all the way through as he listened. I caressed those sticky keys, put as much feeling as I could into each phrase, building into crescendos, legatos, and diminuendos, with my foot on and off the pedal. His nubby fingers resting on his knees, I could feel him swaying. I’d caught him off guard, even pleased—at least until the final note died out.
It felt like something of an honor when, in my final lesson, Mr. East offered to play one of his original pieces for me. It had an abstract and pretentious title—something like “Clocks.” The melody was cold and discordant, like church bells and spinach. I couldn’t muster the courage to tell him I hated it. Instead, as I folded up my books at the end of the hour, I promised I’d learn it for my repertoire.