As a kid, I enjoyed school, but could have done without the teachers. For the longest time, I felt the same way about learning music. The craziness aspiring musicians encounter on a day-to-day basis used to make me wonder why anyone would put themselves through the torture.
It was as if my instructors believed that becoming a musician required a great deal of suffering, and that it was their duty to provide it for me.
My first piano teacher in Paducah compared fingers on the keyboard to children who had to play in fenced-in yards. That made sense, but the punishment — slapping the children every time they strayed from their yards — seemed a little harsh to my 6-year-old mind.
In middle school in Cincinnati, I encountered a lumpy woman of eastern European origin who seemed to have a problem with both me and personal hygiene. When I couldn’t understand her accent, she would simply repeat the instructions at the loudest volume she could muster. All I could make out from her ranting was the word “piggy,” which I assumed referred to my left pinky finger (I had a bad habit of lifting it from the keys when it wasn’t in use.) As the lessons continued and I failed to improve, I began to suspect she was referring to more than the offending finger.
I don’t recall what pieces I learned under her instruction.
I can’t say all my teachers were insane. Some managed to convey their passion for music without shouting or throwing things, but there would always be something else a little off about them. One instructor would end each lesson by musing that I would make a good wife for her son. I was 12 years old at the time.
Of course, I wasn’t blameless. There were times when my father and I, having relocated once again, didn’t have beds or plates, let alone a piano for me to practice on. I trained with a lovely teacher in Seattle, but had to flee a lesson in embarrassment when I found out we hadn’t been able to pay her in months.
When I returned to Paducah, I finally found someone I could work with — Retta Folsom, who is still active in the music and teaching community.
She assigned me the first piece that ever truly spoke to me: “Mozart’s Fantasy in D minor.” The way the music fluctuated from intensity to sweetness, its flurries of notes followed by moments of calmness seemed a reflection of everything I was experiencing during my first year of high school.
But even that experience was cut off when I was required to play the piece at a recital. Playing in public has always frightened me — I once stormed off the stage at a group violin recital — and rather than give it another shot, I quit taking lessons altogether. I didn’t touch a piano again until I was in college.
Despite the near-insanity of some of my instructors, I never regret a moment I spent with them. As a kid, I couldn’t understand my parents’ insistence that I learn music (particularly the theoretical aspects, which I found about as appealing as algebra). But as I get older, I find myself turning more to music — not just listening to it, but playing it — to find comfort. Short of learning to read words, knowing how to read and play music is the best, most lasting gift my parents and instructors could have given me.
Contact Laurel Black, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8641.