Music Lessons

studio-fenceAll that remains of my music studio is a fenced-in lot between two taverns. I’m not sure how long it’s been gone from my old hometown; I’m guessing several years at least. The location surprises me now. Back when I was 8 years old, I never noticed the drinking establishments serving as beer-sign laden bookends for what had been an unassuming brick store front. As I approached the studio each week for my piano lesson, I was focused on getting to the keyboards inside.

The front room was the show room, with an assortment of pianos and electric organs on display. If I arrived early for my piano lesson, I was allowed to plug a pair of headphones into one of the organs and play until it was time for my lesson. Then I’d head to the lesson room just beyond the show room, to show Mr. Piano Teacher how well I had learned whatever songs I’d been assigned.

I played from Robert Pace “Music for Piano” and “Skills and Drills,” as well as from “easy” piano books featuring 1950s, ’60s and early ’70s pop tunes. Mr. Piano Teacher had taught me to read music and I diligently practiced the songs as written in the books. But I preferred to play the music I heard on the radio, in church, or from my parents’ record collection. I discovered early on that I could listen to a song and then play a reasonable facsimile of it on the piano. These were the songs I learned not by notes on paper, but by ear and, as I prefer to say, by heart. And lucky for me, Mr. Piano Teacher encouraged me to build this skill.

I took lessons from him for about a year and a half. Then he moved his studio to another town. I continued my musical education with other teachers for two more years, but it wasn’t the same. The other teachers preferred their students to learn piano by book rather than by heart. By that time I knew I wasn’t that kind of student. I’d had enough of uninspiring teachers and boring drills. I still wanted to play piano, but I wanted to do it my way.

So I did then, and I still do. Besides those old pop tunes, I play classic country, gospel, 1970s Catholic folk Mass songs, polkas, and waltzes. I collect and play old sheet music, garnered on the cheap from my public library’s used book sales. And I still play the songs that I know in my heart — from the radio and church and old records.

I am not an accomplished pianist. But I’m an OK piano player. I lean more to easy Cs and Gs than multiple sharps and flats, and my song choices are decidedly low brow. Now that I think about it, the location of my music studio is not so much a surprise as it is a revelation. I consider myself lucky to have learned my music lessons between two taverns, because now I have a story to tell.

Laura Sternweis

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