Today is Ludwig von Beethoven’s 250th birthday, so I’m listening to a mix of his music, symphonies, concertos, sonatas. Many of my favorite compositions are his piano music. Among the pieces, I love best are “Für Elise,” the “Moonlight Sonata,” and the “Emperor Concerto.” Listening to them made me think of my own experiences with pianos.
My parents didn’t ask if I wanted to take piano lessons. Latvian parents of their generation didn’t ask kids if they wanted to do something. If your parents thought it was good for you, you did it. The belief they shared with other Latvian parents was that children don’t know what’s good for them and what’s not. My mother had to take piano lessons. Her brother had to take piano lessons. It’s a Latvian thing. Almost all the Latvians I know had to take piano lessons when they were children. Therefore, I had to take piano lessons, too.
My first piano teacher was my mother. Like many Latvian mothers, mine worked. Her first big purchase in the United States was a piano. She paid twenty-five dollars for it. I remember that we played “Chopsticks” on it.
I was probably eight or nine when I started taking formal lessons. My first piano teacher was a pretty strict taskmaster. She didn’t rap my knuckles, but she didn’t give her students leeway as to what they wanted to play. She insisted on the correct finger and wrist position. Woe to you if you didn’t do as she said. Fingers had to be curved as if holding an egg. No saggy wrists! Wrists must be arched. If I had mentioned the children’s TV host who played the piano with his fingers flat and wrists down, she would not have been impressed. No doubt she’s have snorted and said something about him not having been taught proper technique. There were times when I left her house in tears after a lesson. But when she had a recital in her living room, I aced my piece–an arrangement for students of “Au Clair de la Lune.”
When we moved to a different neighborhood, I was relieved. No more Mrs. Hopson! Maybe even no more piano lessons. HA! Not likely. I was ten and still lived with my Latvian parents. Their attitude had not changed and the big brown upright piano moved with us.
My next teacher was sweet and kind, plump, and white-haired. Mrs. Thorson recommended books of piano pieces from a collection of arrangements that progressed from grade to grade as the student’s skills improved having worked through each book. However, she allowed electives, in addition to requirements. The demand for endless repetition of scale, chord, and arpeggio practice had not changed. As with Mrs. Hopson, they had to be practiced every day before attempting to play an entire piece, which also had to be played over and over, with even more repetition of parts where mistakes crept in.
Muzio Clementi (1752 – 1832) and his sonatinas–little songs–were a delightful addition to my repertoire. I still remember his lively compositions fondly. I never got tired of them, even though I had to play them over and over. The one I love best even now is Clementi’s Sonatina in C major, opus 36, no.1. It’s bright and cheerful. Is this little song known and loved by all piano students? It seems so.
Did I hate my piano lessons as much as I pretended to? Probably not. I hated to practice, but I enjoyed playing and wanted to be proficient without constantly having to practice. Both my parents worked, neither was at home when I got home from school. No one was around to make sure I went to my weekly lesson on Thursday afternoons. Even though she was a more lenient teacher than Mrs. Hopson, no doubt Mrs. Thorson would have reported to my mother if I failed to show up. So I took myself off to my lessons.
Fond as I was of Mrs. Thorson, I would probably have been better off with strict Mrs. Hopson.
The only recital I participated in under Mrs. Thorson’s supervision was a disaster. I was probably eleven at the time. The recital was not in her home with her familiar piano but in a rented hall. On the big day, the hall was full of students, their parents, and their guests. My supports included my folks, my godmother, who was also a piano player, and her husband. I’d never been to the hall. The piano was a stranger to me. I had my two pieces memorized–by ear and I could recognize the keys I was to play. Shyness has tormented me all my life, but when my turn came, I did what I had to do. I went to the piano and sat down on the bench. I struck the keys. To my horror, I did not recognize the sound which came out, nor the notes that followed. I thought about running away, but that would have been even more humiliating than continuing to fumble my way through the piece. I don’t remember if I played both pieces or just the one.
Later, Mrs. Thorson profoundly apologized for not making sure that the piano was in tune. I was not comforted. I refused to participate in any future recitals. Neither my parents nor Mrs. Thorson insisted. I continued taking lessons for years afterward.
When I graduated from high school my folks allowed me to stop taking lessons. I learned to Für Elise, among many other pieces. I never achieved great proficiency, just enough to fool around for my own pleasure. I wish I’d continued with my lessons. And I wish I still had that big brown upright. I may not have gained confidence by playing in public, but I gained an enduring love of music.