11 Years to Go: A Daughter Learns the Piano



E 10th St & 4th Ave, New York, NY 10003

Neighborhood: Greenwich Village

I hadn’t planned on adopting a piano. Long ago I sold my family piano to a neighbor; I rarely touched it and like most New Yorkers, we needed the space. Young and eager for cash, I never predicted I’d later feel guilty. Besides, a piano tuner called my spinet, whose keys my mother’s and brother’s fingers had caressed, a cheese box.

A decade later, after my professional mentor dies in the Village Nursing Home, I help his sister-in-law close up his Flatiron apartment. I take a few books and his manual typewriter as mementos of the man who influenced my life as an aspiring New York writer. His family wants the piano to have a good home, I have a six-year-old daughter (and a bigger apartment). My mother says she must study music. The piano movers can transport it to my 14th floor Greenwich Village apartment for less than the cost of a trendy restaurant meal. In twenty-four hours, the piano moves in.

My daughter regards it skeptically. “I want to learn the violin,” she says.

“We have a piano,” I enthuse, recalling sixth grade, after being asked to select an instrument to learn. I listed drums first, trumpet second. My mother staunchly shook her head and said, “We have a clarinet and a saxophone–pick one.” My brothers’ hand-me-downs. After a year of suffering broken reeds, I dropped out of orchestra.

“Violins sound beautiful,” my daughter insists.

Not badly played violins, I want to say, but instead I negotiate. “Try the piano first. Later you can learn the violin.”

Within days she masters “Doe a Dear” and “Frere Jacques.” Amy can’t be in the same room as the piano, which is way-off-key, without setting her magic marker-stained fingers on the ivories. I increase our household supply of ibuprofen. It will get better when we get a tuner…a teacher…a decade of practice.

I find a tuner through a friend, who comes from good stock: her grandfather played in the Philharmonic, and she recommends a tuner who has melodiously filled her parents’ Upper West Side home for twenty-five years. He wants details about alternative side of the street parking before driving down from Washington Heights. He’s quite old, late eighties perhaps, and pulls his tools on a luggage wheeler. He asks me to feed the meter and make him lunch.

“This piano needs a lot of work,” he says, his estimate catapulting from the initial $200 to at least triple the amount.

“How did you get into the tuning business?” I inquire.

“I was in furniture, but I wanted a trade,” he says. “Learned pianos fifty-five years ago, and I’ve been happy ever since.” He bites into my ham sandwich. “I’m a haiku poet. I’ll bring you some poems when I come back.”

My husband insists we get a second opinion, even though this is not surgery. The next tuner is an artist who learned to tune, she says, “when I got bored my first year in college.” She used to play but she sold her piano after a divorce. Now she tunes pianos for NYU’s music department. “I need to pull the action out, tighten all the screws and hammers, work on the regulation, but we’ll see if the keys need leveling, probably not. And your first tuner left the top octave untuned! That’s just odd–unless he had to be at Carnegie Hall at four o’clock….”

“I think the meter had just run out,” I say.

Next week she takes apart my piano and attacks it with a screwdriver and a plier, talking and groaning out loud. “Don’t mind me if I cuss. Oh! There was a mouse in here. Not dead. Mice love pianos. They eat the felt on the pads.” She tells me to make sure the piano gets enough humidity–to prevent further work if the wood dries out. “Where should I put this?” She drops a blackened paper towel in my sink. “It’s full of mouse poo.”

She tunes. “It’s a good thing you did all this work, because if your daughter doesn’t take to it, you can now sell the piano for $2000 easy. But even if she quits, keep the piano. She might want to return to it at 7…or 10.”

Before Amy can quit her lessons, I must find a teacher. Most of them are booked, as they can teach only between four and six PM after school. After innumerable rejections, one says she can switch someone around and teach Amy at 8:30 AM on Saturdays.

I jump at it, even though I don’t like to listen to scales before I’ve had two cups of strong coffee. But first I politely write to my neighbors on both sides and underneath us if they would have any objection to Amy taking lessons so early on a weekend; they are surprisingly encouraging. Let the lessons begin!

The teacher hoists Amy up on two telephone books to position her little body at the piano. She awards Good Job stickers and writes musical directions inside the shapes of little drawings of lambs. I purchase a Suzuki CD and must be present at lessons so we can practice. A child no longer takes lessons; these days the family learns together. Amy is a quicker study than I. She can find all the C’s, D’s and F’s across the keyboard. She adds “Mississippi Hot Dog” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb” to her repertoire.

I call my mother, as Amy’s not-so-delicate fingers pound the keyboard. “Gentle, gentle,” I keep saying. “Don’t bang.”

“I’m not banging!” she yells. “I’m playing.”

I hold the phone toward the keyboard, and let Mom listen to the three thousandth “Mississippi Hot Dog”–this was her idea, after all. Now I know why for the past six years, when we visited her in Florida and Amy wanted to play her organ, Mom would surreptitiously pull the plug and claim, “It’s broken.”

The past and the future merge in my apartment. I thank my writing mentor for giving me so much over the years, above and beyond a piano; hearing music emanate from his piano makes him feel alive to me. The piano has become a part of our family: sometimes loud and opinionated, sometimes still and contemplative…a forceful voice that has interrupted our dinner conversations and changed us all. I have become quite fond of it–even if my neighbors have not–accepting its eccentricities as though it were a member of the family.

One night the couple in 14D invite us in to hear their guest, a concert pianist, in their living room. Tuddy has Parkinson’s, but he used to play. Now he listens from a wheelchair as a young Japanese man (who has a day job on Wall Street) plays Chopin. Amy seems more passionate about the Veniero’s pastries Tuddy’s wife is getting ready to serve than the superlative concert she’s just heard. After we applaud, I ask him if his mother made him practice.

“I hated practicing. My mother nagged,” he confessed. “Until I was eighteen. Then I practice on my own.”

Only 11 years to go.

I know that Amy’s practicing will benefit us all…eventually. But why does she so eagerly practice at 7 AM?

Seven-fifteen, more “Mississippi Hot Dog.” On the way to school an hour later, she says, “When can I learn the violin?”

“Later,” I say. And we harmonize “Twinkle Twinkle” all the way to the bus stop. People on Third Avenue, rushing to work, pause for a moment to offer a few smiles. We bow, and explain that we have to be at Carnegie Hall by four o’clock.

# # #

It takes only three years of nudging before Amy practices without my nagging (usually).

Her dentist is a block away from Steinway Hall, and while the fluoride settles on her teeth, we always stop in, feeling underdressed but surprisingly encouraged by the sales staff to go in the back room and play. It’s amazing how much better Amy sounds on a $70,000 grand piano. She hasn’t made it to Carnegie Hall but she played “Rondo” by Mozart in a recital much farther uptown at the Jewish Home for the Aged. She taught herself to play “God Bless America” for a school presentation on Irving Berlin, and when she jazzily plays “Satin Doll” for my friends, they begin to place dollar bills on top of the piano.

A dedicated young pianist but certainly not a prodigy. I encourage her to excel in school so that she can secure a reliable day job. If you ask her what she wants to be when she grows up, she quickly responds, “A professional soccer player.”

Miraculously, our neighbors have complained only once. The doorman said the woman who recently moved in above me didn’t like it when Amy practiced before 8AM Sunday morning. This woman also has a piano, and she sometimes plays the same songs as Amy; perhaps she’s just jealous that Amy’s making faster progress at a younger age.

I love hearing Amy practice now, but this year she started studying the clarinet in school. The instrument squeaks a lot when she blows into it, making high-pitched shrill sounds that cause the hairs on my arms to stand up, and she’s been playing the same song for four months. She has no interest in the violin, but I distract her whenever we see a set of drums.

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§ One Response to “11 Years to Go: A Daughter Learns the Piano”

  • Larissa says:

    I’m a pianist and used to be a full-time piano teacher too. I got to see the practice thing from both sides: 1) as a kid growing up and, at times, HATING to practice, and, 2) a piano teacher so eager for my students to learn to find the fun and personal satisfaction from a good practice session. I suppose the hard thing with piano is that you’re usually practicing alone. At least with a clarinet (or violin), for instance, it’s a bit more social since you’re typically playing with at the very least one other person. It takes time, but I suppose if you’re ultimately doing music because you enjoy it, and not because you are absolutely forced to do it 100% of the time, it will all work out.

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