Teaching … the Sacred Path

I remember the day the piano was delivered to our home.   Two husky men hauled it into our living room and unwrapped yards of brown canvas to reveal a shiny brown Willis upright which Mom later informed me had cost an amazingly huge amount of money.  “Four hundred dollars,” Mom had exclaimed as she gently dusted off the keys before sitting down on the matching bench.

Then she ran her fingers over the keys.     There it was.   Magic!    She rippled a few chords, then a few bars of a wonderful piece of music.  “Humoresque”, she murmured.

I was hooked … for life.      Mother had just cunningly set me up for piano lessons, which were promptly arranged for me.   I was to study with Mrs. Rawlings, a friend of hers who had at one time been an aspiring concert pianist in England.

It wasn’t until much much later that I learned the truth.  Mom’s own piano lessons had been less than happy ones.   She’d studied for a full six years and hated every moment of it.  The sole piece she remembered was an extremely small portion of Dvojak’s already short “Humoresque”.    I realize now,  she’d truncated it to about eight bars.  But to my child’s ears,  it sounded just like the music on our little radio.   It was REAL music.

Soon, sheet music began to appear on the piano rack.  Wonderful glossy fold overs with  Judy Garland and Deanna Durbin, who I thought was the most beautiful lady in the world.

Somehow I didn’t question why Mom could play these popular songs and yet claimed she  remembered learning  only “Humoresque”  from her piano teacher.  She sounded like the radio.  Just like real music on the radio … and she was my MOM.   I was in awe.

I began my lessons with Mrs. Rawlings when school reopened in September.   There were a lot of exercises and a pile of books, but somehow even the scales seemed to be fun,   Because Mrs. Rawlings would laugh as she played them very fast, sometimes four whole octaves.  And then she’d toss her hands in the air and say “See … even the scales are wonderful fun!”   At the end of each lesson, she would play a very small portion of a Mozart or Beethoven Sonata, sitting very erectly and raising her hands unbelievably far above the keys.   I used to wonder how she ever hit the correct notes from such an altitude.

One day,  I went to my lesson very unprepared.   I’d skipped my half hour practice for several days when the Montreal weather turned warm and I wanted to stay after school to practice skipping rope with my friends.  Alas, Mrs. Rawlings was quite aware of my lapse and very gently inquired why I hadn’t practiced.

” Now dear,  just tell me the reason you didn’t practice this week … don’t be afraid to tell me … we all sometimes miss a couple of days.”   She leaned forward encouragingly.  Her eyes were warm and she didn’t look angry.   I hesitated … then plunged in.

“Well I stayed after school a couple of days to practice skipping with Jerry and Olga  …  and I got home late … and I had to do my homework … and …”

Mrs. Rawlings smiled and nodded as she took my hands in hers.  “And it’s Spring and this was the first week we’ve had so much sunshine …”

Suddenly overcome with guilt, I nodded mutely,  my eyes beginning to fill with tears.   I had disappointed my teacher.

But Mrs. Rawlings squeezed my hands and planted a little kiss on my forehead.  “Spring is so special and it only comes once a year.   And a little skipping in the warm weather is good for you.   Just try to squeeze in a bit of time for practice because you’re doing SO well.   You’re almost finished with the red book.  The green one is next and it has real music by the famous composers.   You’ll love it!”    She smiled and squeezed my hands again.


When I got home, Mom as always asked how my lesson had gone.   My eyes filled up again and before I could control myself, I began to sob.     Mom immediately wiped her hands on her apron and put her arms around me.    Then she took my hands and turned them over, again and again.   She rubbed them and inspected the knuckles.  I could see her eyes flashing dark under the lashes and her mouth contracting into a thin line.   Oh I was in trouble!

But then she asked an odd question.  ” Did she hit you?   Did Mrs. Rawlings use the ruler?”

I didn’t understand this extraordinary question.   Mom repeated it and finally I said,   ” No no … she was so nice to me.   She told me that skipping is good for me and I should try to squeeze a little more time for practice because I am doing really well and …”

Mom had me in her arms and I could feel the tears on her face as she rocked me back and forth.  Finally she pulled back and looked at me, straight into my eyes with such love and tenderness.

“Oh Nancy-Jane  … oh, I was so afraid.   I chose Mrs. Rawlings because she has her own children and is so gentle.   I wanted you to love music.   I wanted you to learn, to really learn to play the piano.  Because music is a gift.  It’s one of the most wonderful things in life.  To love it and to be able to play it.   Ohhhh …”

“But Mom … you DO play,  You play real music.  Just like the radio …”

“Oh no … I can only play a bit of the Humoresque.   I could never learn the whole thing.  My teacher hit me every time I played a wrong note.   She used a ruler.   She would hit my knuckles and I was so afraid to make a wrong note.   I used to dread that lesson once a week.   And my mother just told me if I practiced more, I wouldn’t get punished.   It was like that in those days …”

“But Mom,  you play the movie songs.   Deanna Durbin and Judy Garland and Bing Crosby and everybody … with lots of notes all together ,” I persisted.

“Oh, your Uncle Bob showed me how to do that. When we were in college.   You see those little checkered boxes on top of the treble line  … those are guitar chords.   The number underneath the boxes is the chord name.   You just play the chords and then you only have to read the top line, the notes on the treble clef.”

Mom went over the piano and opened a piece of her sheet music.  She located a C under one of those little boxes and placed my fingers on a C and an E and a G.  ‘Now play the notes all together and you have a C chord,” she instructed.   I did.   Then she added the melody and said “now” as I played the chord.

“When you know more notes and learn more chords, you’ll be able to do this easily.   But for now you have to learn the right way.   I never did … but you will …”

Then she wrapped her arms around me again and murmured  …”  And Mrs Rawlings told you that you’re doing SO well.   And you ARE …”

She got up off the bench and opened my red book on the music rack.    ” Now play the “Silver Skates” for me again.   That is SUCH a lovely piece”.



♥   The power of a teacher is sacred,  second to only the power of a mother.  You can tear down and destroy or you can nurture and build.   Unless you can nurture and build, you have no right to teach.  Become a lawyer or politician instead.

For the curious.   Here’s a lovely rendition of the entire Humoresque played by Hungarian pianist Balazs Szokolay






This entry was posted in Putting the Joy back into Music, Sucking the Joy out of Music, The Happy Professor's Bavarcations and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Teaching … the Sacred Path

  1. waikikian888 says:

    Great lessons from two great teachers!!

  2. Susie Rose says:

    Oh that is lovely! Here is another version of Humoresque that I am crazy about.

    I loved your post, too. So sad that your mom didn’t consider her method of using the guitar chords to be the real thing. You are so right that the power of a teacher is sacred!

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