November 10, 2012

For the Love of Music Teachers

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Here in Seattle we implode a couple of sport’s stadiums every few years, and then ask property owners to finance a few new ones.  We vote no.  The stadiums get built and we all pay for them.  I’m a wee bit bitter.  To further delineate myself, let me disclose that I have attended exactly two basketball games in my life (one of them was women’s basketball at a time when that didn’t count as basketball), one football game, one track and field event, and no baseball or soccer games.  Coming home once from Daniel Smith (art supply store), I was caught in game traffic from an indeterminate generation of sports stadiums.  I looked at the lines of happy and excited people wearing caps and holding blankets and cushions.  I don’t know that world of tickets, fast food, noise, crowds, loyalties, and excitement.

I feel like an anomaly, although there’s no way of knowing.  For 53 years I have gone to one, often two music lessons a week.  Since the 70s I have been a proud member of that endangered species, the neighborhood music teacher.  I teach piano and singing.  I still study singing.

The private home studio.  Bookcases and cabinets full of music line the walls.  Collections of pencils are never sharp enough.  Music stands pose this way and that.  Modest recording equipment has crept on stage in the last few decades.  Stickers are more prevalent than when I was a child and even adult students like stickers.  Metronomes are sleeker and less obvious, and in my studio, a little dusty.  At least one piano is enthroned in the best lighting.

Sometimes when I walk in the door of my music teacher’s house, it occurs to me that many people have never experienced this alternative reality:  The privilege of opening the door to a private home and walking into a quiet space, quiet except for the end of the lesson before you.  When my time begins, the quiet room turns into a sacred space and for an hour, I intersect with the magic of music.  I like the womby-ness of the home music studio.  It signifies that something precious is being nurtured.

The neighborhood piano studio of my childhood, however, has, I think, sounded its final cadence.  Here’s an excerpt from my memoir, 99 Girdles on the Wall:


I learned to play the piano the same way I had learned to read: I watched my brother.  Alex practiced “C-D-E, make a boat, round and round and round it floats” in his Leila Fletcher Piano Course Book One, the orange book.  I looked at the written music and saw what Alex’s fingers were doing.  I tried it and never looked back.  I started formal lessons when I was four.

We practiced on a 1903 upright Haddorf piano which had belonged to my grandmother Louise Knott, and had been used for a time in the Whitman College conservatory in Walla Walla.  The piano’s beautiful soul lived in a plain, sturdy cabinet.  It is with me still.

We took piano lessons at the Lavinia Jennings Music Studio which was located in the front room of Lavinia Jennings house. I always rang the bell to enter Lavinia Jennings Music Studio; every other music teacher who taught music in her home has told me to walk in.  I rang the bell and heard the thump, thump, thump of her brown pumps as she came to open the door, dressed to the nines in one of two different teaching outfits.

One was a double-breasted green jumper worn with a frilly white blouse buttoned up to her chin, the other was a straight brown skirt and plain white blouse opened to her supra-sternal notch with a tiny cross supervising its eroticism.  It was her hair, however, that fascinated.  I had not yet seen the movie Gone With the Wind, but Mrs. Jennings’ hair gave me a reference point for Miss Pittypat.  Hers was a birthday cake of curls piled a foot high with masses of bobby pins sticking out like candles.  Every week I checked to see if any bobby pins were about to spring loose.

I sat in her dining room and looked at the one book available for waiting students, a cartoon book called Misery Loves Company.   When I used the bathroom, I sneaked a look at other parts of the house.  The kitchen gleamed with clean.  There was a guest bedroom and an enticing staircase to the upstairs.  I longed to see what was upstairs.

Once when I was in the bathroom, I noticed the medicine cabinet was open a crack.   I pulled it a few inches further to get a better look at the riot inside.  The door made a loud cranky sound.

“Elena.” Thump thump thump.  Mrs. Jennings rounded the corner and bumped into me shooting out of the bathroom.  “What are you doing in the medicine cabinet?”

“Nothing,” I looked straight at her and said honestly, “It was already open.”

She closed the medicine cabinet firmly and followed me out to the front room.

When it was time for my lesson, Mrs. Jennings handed me the fountain pen she kept in a pen holder on the edge of the piano.  I signed and dated my page in her ledger.  By the end of each year, I had written my name 40 times, line after line.

When it came round to my first recital with Mrs. Jennings, she told me it would be held in the studio.

“Where is the studio?”  I looked around.  I thought it was in her back yard or maybe in town somewhere.

Mrs. Jennings looked at me as though I had suddenly become half-witted.  “Right here.” she said.  “This is the studio.”

“But it’s your front room.”

“It’s. The. Studio.”

In early spring, a stack of sheet music two inches thick sat on her piano.  Mrs. Jennings selected two pieces for me to play in the spring recital.  I never had a choice about what I played and I hated the recital music.

About a month before the recital, Mrs. Jennings asked the girls for the color of their dresses and she meticulously made note.  The day of the recital, we went into the guest bedroom to find a big box of white boutonnières for the boys and colorful corsages to match the girl’s dresses.  In the world of small town children’s piano recitals, the corsages were a classy note.

On the day of the recital, the performers sat in the order listed on the program, twenty of us lined up as though to be shot.  We sat in Mrs. Jennings’ impeccable kitchen –as far as I could tell, she and her husband, Sumner, never ate actual food –and sweated out the wait for our performance.  I desperately wanted something in my mouth but I had never so much as smelled dinner cooking or seen the remains of breakfast in this house.  Only once was there a bowl of shining green apples, but they turned out to be wax.

The parents sat on rows of folding chairs in the front room.  While the house heaved with sweat and nerves, my father occupied himself by writing comments in the margins of the programs, critiquing the performances.  My mother kept her knees together and monitored who was and wasn’t doing the same.


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I don’t run my studio like Lavinia Jennings.  My students choose their own music.  They don’t sweat out recitals.  I teach barefoot half the year.  I feel especially fortunate that many of my students are high school age boys.  They apparently feel that while sports may take up most of their week, it’s not going to take up their whole lives.  And they are very patient when I don’t know a goalie from a basket.



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