Messing About in Boats

There are few words that evoke sweeter memories than, “summer at the lake.” My family had many summers at various lakes when I was growing up. I long for those days. I totally agree with the Water Rat in Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows:  “…there is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” 

Some people like to tear around in big outboard motorboats. I prefer to putter around in a little rowboat under my own muscle power, with the only sound the soft splash of the oars as I lower them into the water and the drip of sparkling water drops falling  back into the lake. I can admire waterlilies from up close. The sun is warm. The air is fresh. The water stays clean. Such simple pleasures. That wasn’t something I appreciated at much back then.

This photo was probably taken by my dad who was sitting in the stern and taught me to row.

This was probably my first time at the oars. You can see from my big grin that I took to messing about in boats like those other critters who paddle in the water. Quack. Ducks tend to keep their distance, but don’t get scared half to death by my quiet approach.

On Lake McMurray, Washington State.

During my teen years my family and our friends took over a tiny resort on Lake McMurray for several days of crayfishing parties. If I remember correctly, there were only four cabins. One family had to pitch a tent on the lawn next to the lake.

The use of a rowboat was included in the rent. Unlimited access to a rowboat and being deemed a competent enough rower to be allowed out alone was pure heaven for me.

Being out on the lake with my father at the oars was also fun. I’d sit sideways in the stern and dangle my bare feet in the water. A great way to cool off on a hot summer day? Were the days actually hot? I don’t remember. Washington has a temperate climate. In my memory the weather in July seemed ideal, not too hot, never too chilly.

Even when the little red boat was moored, it was a delightful thing. I’d lie on the seat in the stern, with my eyes closed, dangling my feet in the water, being lulled by the rocking of the boat. Few times have been as fine as those.

This is Königssee in Bavaria, my birth place. Does that mean rowing’s in my blood?

Even though this photo doesn’t go with the summer theme of my post I chose it because in this picture the lake looks more pristine, more magical than in the other photos I found on the internet. I copied it from Microsoft Edge.

Königssee is Germany’s third-deepest, and is reputed to be its cleanest, lake. To protect the water’s quality since 1909 only electric, paddle, and rowing craft have been allowed on the lake. 1909! That also makes the lake a quieter place. Can you imagine what our lakes would be like if we did the same?

When my family spent vacations at Lake McMurray there were never any powerboats on the lake. Perhaps because the lake was so small. I could easily row from one end of the lake to the other. I don’t know how long it took? Who looks at watch, or even wears one, while on vacation? Vacations for dawdling, idling, puttering. Completely relaxing and forgetting about time.

It’s been years since I visited Lake MacMurray, but from what I’ve seen in photos online, it hasn’t changed much. There are probably still no power boats on the water. Going there now wouldn’t be the same. It’s the lake of sweet memories and happy dreams. It should stay pristine, like Königssee.

Piano Lessons

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.

The big, brown upright. It was a good piano.

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.