THE PIANO LESSON

Soon after the ice disappeared from the arena and skates were rubbed with neatsfoot oil and put away for the winter, the oil was applied to the baseball gloves. Ball season was on – as soon as the mud disappeared.  Pick-up games were called scrubs and were played with a softball.  Baseball came later, when the adults got around to organizing it. There was good reason for this; baseballs were expensive, softballs could be ‘borrowed’ from the school, and softball allowed for a game to be played in a smaller venue, like an empty lot.   Why kids living in a small town on the prairies wanted to confine themselves to an empty lot is a mystery but that’s the way it was.

The games were unscheduled and notice was rarely given as to where or when.  Boys on bikes rode around with their gloves on their handlebars until they found each other in sufficient number to launch an after-school game.   I was 13 or so and loved all sports.  When school let out and weather permitting, I would rush home, have a bite to eat,  grab my glove and rush out the door.   Winter was over, the crows and robins had returned and a season of softball and baseball to be anticipated.  

But there was a problem – there’s always a problem.  Every Thursday, my mother would intercept me on the way out the door, press a quarter into my sweaty little hand and wish me well in my piano lesson.  Yes, a piano lesson. My Thursday afternoons were spoken for and this was a huge intrusion into my sporting life.   We must remember that in east-central Alberta in April and May, the phrase ‘weather permitting’ took on a huge role. The weather for anything outdoorsy was seldom ‘permitting’ and a warm dry day was clasped to our young bosoms like the gold it was.  And, unfortunately for me, those rare fine days seemed to inordinately fall on a Thursday.  In short, I had to forgo a day of baseball to have a piano lesson.

I don’t know what piano lessons are like today but in 1954, mine was an unpleasant undertaking, even if I did enjoy playing the piano.   

In the first place, the lesson was held in the basement of a Catholic convent.  I came from a tepid ‘live-and-let-live’ Protestant family, but a visit to a convent was still daunting.  In those days, what Protestants and Catholics didn’t know about each other was considerable.  What we rumored about each other was even more considerable.   For example, it was widely believed that the garden behind the convent was full of foetuses (foeti ?) of nuns’ unborn children.  I was pretty sure this couldn’t be true, but I was also a creature of the age and as impressionable as anyone when it came to scurrilous rumours.

After my mother made me wash my hands and clean my fingernails so as to not offend the piano teacher, I was off for the 12 block bike ride to the convent.   The entrance was a side door that led to the basement.  That allowed me a glimpse of the garden but all I could see was dried sunflowers and dessicated weeds.   No rotting corpses. But what did I expect?

The convent was immaculate.  Neat and tidy are words seldom used in prairie towns and for good reason.  Dust and mud and wind are hard on anyone’s fondness for cleanliness and most people simply tried to do the best they could without obsessing about it.   A little dirt never hurt anyone, was the local mantra.   But the convent looked and smelled better than the local hospital.  Tracking in mud would be an outrage.  I took my running shoes off at the door.    Rats!  Why didn’t I wear a pair of socks without holes?

I walked to the small room where the lesson took place and sat on the stool to await Sister St. Jude.   A visit to the dentist should be this scary.   Sister St. Jude was strict.  That’s the only way I can put it.  She did not smile – ever – and kept her instructions and comments to a convent-worthy minimum.   She carried a stick with which to remind my knuckles that my fingers where straying from the correct notes.

She would swoop in – I never heard her approach, which, of course, added to my discomfort – sit down in a chair next to my stool and tell me which Bach cantata to start with.  The music rack held an entire library of Bach sheet music and, based on my previous week’s lesson, I was supposed to have the appropriate piece ready and waiting for Sister St. Jude to say ‘Play!’.  Chances were I did not and this would lead to the first of a seemingly endless stream of pursed lips and sighs with which this most unfriendly nun expressed dissatisfaction.  I guess she had better students.  I got that.  Maybe she was expressing a glumness that afflicted all piano teachers after a lifetime of errant notes.  I do know my heart wasn’t in it.   My mom’s was.  The lessons were tough enough in the half-lit days of winter but now, as baseball season came into bloom, my piano lessons were pure drudgery.  I am sure this was obvious to Sister St. Jude.

Occasionally, a Sister DeSalles substituted for Sister St. Jude.   Sister DeSalles was more in line with what I thought a nun should be, what Hollywood no doubt taught me she should be, warm, smiling and tolerant.   But no sooner would I relax in her gentle hands than the frowning visage of Sister St. Jude would fill the doorway and I was back to nursing my knuckles.

To ease my pain, I would occasionally ask her if we could play some of the tin pan alley tunes I’d been practicing at home.  No.  Bach was what the Toronto Conservatory of Music required if I was to progress in piano grades and Bach was what I would play and Toronto Conservatory Music Theory was what I would study in order to play Bach properly.  Sister St. Jude did not use a metronome.  What she expected was that we students could accurately read the notation, listen carefully to what she said, and the selection would be played properly.

Things rarely worked out that way.  I could say my hands were too small for some of the chords but the truth was I didn’t practice Bach as much as I was supposed to.  For good reason.  I hated Bach.   To my ears, his music was a cacophony of piano scales run amok.  Of course I knew he was one of the ‘greats’ but, to me, he was no Scott Joplin or Cole Porter.   Or John Philip Sousa.

When the inevitable wrong note was hit, out came that stick and ‘Rap!’ a sharp blow to my knuckles.  “B flat, Mr. Davidson! B flat!”   After a while that small stick started to look like a cat-o-nine tails.    

I am sure you can see how this all ends.   One especially sunny and warm Thursday afternoon, I set off to the convent with the 25 cent lesson fee in my pocket.  As usual, my ball glove was hooked over the handlebars.  As luck and a couple of detours would have it, I happened to pass a lot where a pickup game had just begun.   I did not make it to the convent.  I thought about later blowing the quarter on pop and candy but decided I’d stick to being just disobedient, not suicidal.

My mother rewarded my errant ways by cancelling the piano lessons with the words ‘You’ll be sorry someday for quitting like that.  It’s the harshest punishment I can think of.’   

Looking back after all these years, I can understand what she was doing.  And she may have been right, I do regret not being able to play better piano.  But who doesn’t?  Rubenstein maybe?  On the other hand, I still dislike Bach and still love baseball.

Robert Alan Davidson, April, 2014


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