I have written before about my complicated history with pianos. I waxed nostalgic when it was time to find new homes for both My Mother’s Piano and for my own antique upright. There are reasons, however, why that nostalgia took longer to develop than perhaps it should have.
For two years I took piano lessons. My teacher, Miss Goette, was a friend of my mother. Miss Goette owned a small home in which the living room doubled as her studio. It is perhaps the only living room I ever encountered with two baby grand pianos parked side by side, occupying perhaps forty percent of the small room’s floor area.
Every week there was a routine. My mother would drive me to Miss Goette’s home. We would open the back door and walk down to the partially finished basement which she had set up as a waiting room, complete with old magazines and uncomfortable chairs.
I would soon hear footsteps from the floor above and voices as the student before me called to another waiting parent. That meant that it was time to trudge up the stairs for the moment of truth. Or perhaps the half-hour of truth.
Each thirty minute lesson would begin with my playing what had been assigned the previous week. In theory, my daily practice sessions (also thirty minutes) were enough to conquer the unfriendly markings on the pages of my piano book. Then there were also the weeks where I had been successful in sneaking undetected into the kitchen to move the oven timer ahead by five or seven minutes. With some added delays between pieces or a not-strictly-needed bathroom break, I could get those practices down to maybe fifteen minutes on a good day.
But shortened practice times always showed up early in the weekly lesson. In my defense, I was not a terribly gifted player. Sight reading of music was my kryptonite, something I was never able to really master. But I compensated by engaging in hand-to-hand combat with each measure, one at a time, until I could declare victory. My way of learning resulted in having essentially memorized the piece. At that point the music served the same purpose as note cards during a speech. I didn’t really need it, but it was there just to keep me moving along.
As is the custom with piano teachers, Miss Goette would preside over an annual recital. The Big Event would take place at the conclusion of the lesson-year (we got summers off) in a local piano store. Families of all of the students would fill the folding chairs as each kid showed off his or her musical genius. From kids much younger than me to high schoolers who were quite accomplished, the variety was wide.
I would be given an opportunity to choose from a few pieces of sheet music. Miss Goetty would play part way through each one so that I could make an informed selection. I don’t recall what I did the first year, but the second year I was excited about an old piece called Drum Boogie.
Boogie woogie was a 1940s fad that turned out to be one of the segues into rock and roll. Eight beats to a measure (“eight to the bar” as it was sometimes called) gave off a unique feel and I liked it. This piano solo was published about a decade after boogie woogie had ceased being a thing, but that caused me no problems. Drum Boogie it would be.
Each week I practiced Drum Boogie. The deal was that a recital piece had to be played completely by memory with no sheet music allowed. Week by week I fought my way through that sheet music until I finally got it under control. Really, the feeling was like standing atop Mt. Everest and jamming a flagpole into the snow. I was ready. Because I completely owned Drum Boogie.
The evening of the recital I was nervous but confident. This was maybe 1971 and I was ready with my sport coat, tie and carefully combed hair. My mother and little sister were there, my grandma had driven into town and my father came straight from work. They would be rewarded with Drum Boogie played to perfection.
At last, the younger kids were finished and I was called to the bench. I surveyed the unfamiliar keyboard and located my fingers appropriately. After a deep breath I was ready and ripped into Drum Boogie with great enthusiasm. I began to relax because I was killing it. I nailed the opening part and got even better as I moved to the middle section of the piece. I was ready for the home stretch, the last part of the song that would bring the whole performance home.
I played the last few seconds of the transition and . . . nothing. I. Mean. Nothing. My mind had suffered a complete and total extinction event. It was “blue screen” of the brain. My fingers eagerly awaited instructions, but none came. There was simply nothing there.
It is amazing how long ten seconds can seem when you are an eleven year old kid sitting in front of a room full of people who are waiting for you to play something. I thought to myself “For the love of God, what is the matter with you? You know this cold.” I hit upon The Solution. All I had to do was to go back and play that middle part again. Muscle memory would take over and by the time I got finished this little hiccup would surely be forgotten. I actually knew better, chose to shrug off that little bit of reality.
So back I went. My playing may have started off a little less relaxed this time through but I was soon right back in the zone. I zipped through that middle section, possibly playing it even better than I did the first time. And . . . you guessed it. Crickets. File corrupted. Page not found. I will not print the word that came into my mind.
This, I knew, was bad. Really bad. My attempt at a restart had not solved the problem. Was I really going to be reduced to the ignominy of an unconditional surrender? Was I going to sit there for a moment and then waive the white flag by getting up and slinking back to my seat? I had to do something.
At that point the answer presented itself to me. If you think I remembered the beginning to the missing part of Drum Boogie, you would be mistaken. I did, however, remember the two chords that were the ending to the piece. I played them. With some authority. And then I stood up to the loudest applause I have ever experienced in my life.
Having reached (and exceeded) adulthood I now know how excruciating the experience was for every adult in that audience. While the other kids were surely snickering at the idiot who forgot how to play, every single adult was surely breaking into a sweat, hoping that the poor kid at the keyboard would make it. He did not, but he kinda sorta recovered. In a way.
Everyone told me how great I had been and tried to console me about the, er, little problem. Everyone complimented me on my big finish. Nobody, of course, told me the truth (that would have been something like “Kid, it almost killed me listening to you flub that thing. I hoped and hoped that you could recover and was totally relieved when you managed those final notes. Great save.”) But all of them being kindhearted adults, they would say no such thing.
There was an upside. My mother had been clear from the beginning that I would have to take lessons for at least two years. This was the conclusion to year two. There would not be a year three.
Somewhere I still have that sheet music to Drum Boogie. There was a point in time when my own kids were taking lessons and I found my old piano book. I tried to bring myself back up to the skill level I had exhibited at age eleven. I got part way there. But I could not work up the enthusiasm to to attempt Drum Boogie.
Some things should just be left alone.
Image credit: 1957 sheet music cover of Drum Boogie by June Weybright. Offered for sale on Amazon.com.