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Music Lessons

By Amy Ludwig VanDerwater

Buffalo, NY – Wanted: A music teacher for three young children. Instrument not important. Teacher important.

My husband and I have been talking about this for months. Every few weeks the question arises, "So, when should we begin music lessons for the kids?" We both think that sooner is better, but finding a music teacher is usually something that the mother does. And I'm the mother. Thinking of music lessons reminds me that I took lessons for seven years and unfortunately, I remember more about my parade of piano teachers than I do the piano.

It began when I was six. Mrs. D. was my first grade teacher, and she taught piano lessons too. I remember that she was young, lived in a walk-up, and would sometimes give me IQ tests during my lessons. These tests, I now know, were probably part of her Masters Program. I remember wanting to show her how smart I was by explaining that a curvy line is longer than a straight one. I don't remember anything about the piano other than feeling that I annoyed Mrs. D. with my lack of musical prowess. I continued to annoy her for three years of Saturdays, until I changed schools, still unable to play much of anything but Camptown Races.

My new school, Our Lady of Sorrows, was adjacent to a funeral home. And luckily for my folks, the proprietor of the funeral home, Mrs. M., taught piano lessons. No one would even have to drive me to lessons. I could walk over after lunch while all of my friends played red rover on the playground. Plaid skirt swinging, Book Level B in hand, I walked through rain and sun to the H.P.M. Funeral Home. I passed the garage full of coffins, rang the bell, and passed the room where they held wakes. Up the maroon carpeted stairs to the parlor on the left where teacher number two, Mrs. M. waited for me. Each week I stuttered through watered-down Mozart. Each week Mrs. M. dropped snowflakes of dandruff on her black sweater and the keys. And each week I prayed not to see a dead person. I could not wait to get back to school. This, too, went on for three years.

Somewhere in here a friend taught me to play Heart and Soul, and I played it without ceasing, both hands. But even so, we all knew that I was not learning to play the piano well at all. Alas, I would begin lessons with my sister's teacher, Mrs. B.

Mrs. M. was close to death, but Mrs. B. was an enormous life force. Tall with long black curly hair, she didn't shave her legs or armpits. She was the first person I ever met who wore Birkenstocks. With socks. I loved to hear Mrs. B. play. Her big feet pounded on the pedals. Her man hands beat my piano into huge and beautiful submission, shaking Mom's little figurines. Mrs. B. let me learn pop songs, but I would rather listen to her play. Each week, I'd ask her to "play just one more." I think she was relieved not to listen to me, and our lessons passed quickly. I'd play for only the last few minutes, each time surprised by how hot the bench was when she got up. I can't lose this mental picture of myself at twelve trying to play Air Supply's Making Love Out of Nothing at All and singing along. Finally my parents realized that they were paying for weekly concerts with Mrs. B., that my musical abilities were not progressing. That was my last year of lessons.

More than twenty years have passed. Our oldest daughter is six, the age at which I began taking lessons with Mrs. D. My parents have given me their piano, but I haven't played it much because our dog howls when I do. (Whether it's the piano or me I am not sure.) The piano stands in our living room. Quiet. Covered with books. Covered with art projects. Covered with dust. It is a physical reminder of what my husband and I keep asking each other, "So, when should we begin music lessons for the kids?" When I look at that piano, I see the ghosts of Mrs. D., Mrs. M., and Mrs. B. They are all telling me to begin now, telling me that children need music in their lives. I know they're right. I just need to find a teacher.

Listener-Commentator Amy Ludwig VanDerwater is a writing teacher who lives in Holland.