PIANO LESSONS: THE BLESSING AND BLIGHT OF MY CHILDHOOD
By Mariane Holbrook
When my mama got a certain look in her eyes, I knew she had an idea brewing in her brain which more often than not involved me.
I glanced at her one Sunday morning when dear Mrs. Rockwell, our church pianist, fumbled all over the keyboard trying to keep up with the song leader who was introducing a thoroughly un-singable hymn written by hymn writer
Jane Borthwick in 1854. Virtually no one was singing.
Mama glanced at me and I saw “That Look.” It was bound to have something to do with music but I didn’t have a clue what it was.
I found out soon enough. At dinner, she gave me a generous helping of everything I liked but thoughtfully skipped over brussel sprouts altogether.
While I was enjoying a bigger strawberry shortcake than anyone else, she let the bomb drop.
“Mariane, how would you like to take piano lessons and become our
church pianist some day?”
“Good grief, Alma,” Daddy sputtered through a mouthful of real whipped cream. “The child is only seven years old! She hasn’t even learned to play jacks yet so how can she manage a keyboard? And we won’t even go into her attention span since she doesn’t have one.”
Mama didn’t hear a word. Putting her napkin down, she said with finality, “Great. I’ll call Mrs. LeFleur tomorrow morning and see if she has room for one more student.”
And so began my love-hate relationship with the piano. I hated practicing but I loved not having to dry the dishes after dinner because that was the time I chose to practice, to the consternation of my four older sisters.
Six months later I had my first piano recital, held in the formal living room of Mrs. LeFleur’s spacious home. For my recital piece, I chose “Little Drummer Boy” which I’m proud to say I can still play flawlessly, and with two hands!
Twelve students sat in folding chairs in a semi-circle around the mahogany baby grand piano which was polished to a lovely patina. Fresh spring flowers in a gorgeous crystal vase (which Mrs. LeFleur pronounced ‘vozz’) added the necessary touch of elegance. All the parents sat immediately behind us in the larger-than-life living room, with French doors opening to the library, offering extra seating.
I was listed as second on the printed program. Jeanette Ellis, the local funeral director’s daughter was first.
I squirmed in the starched royal blue dress Mama had made for me, with a matching hair bow. It itched and I scratched. I still have a photo of me taken just before the recital and it always brings back the same terrifying memories.
After the proper welcome and introductions by Mrs. Abel, Jeanette made her way to the piano. She played with precision and confidence for an eight year old.
Then the unthinkable happened: Jeanette suffered a full-blown grand mal seizure! I was only three feet away from her and witnessed every painful minute. Mrs. Abel, Jeanette’s father and Dr. Schammel all rushed to her side and carried her, unconscious and writhing, to the back bedroom of the house.
The place went wild with concern by the parents and with fear by the piano students still waiting to play. Mrs. Abel returned shortly to the living room and, twisting her lace handkerchief into near shreds, tried to bring order out of obvious chaos.
“I’m sorry,” she stammered. “Let’s continue on with the recital for that’s what Jeanette would want us to do.” (“Oh sure,” I thought. “Jeanette would want us to get out of Dodge ASAP and never look at another piano!”
Mrs. Abel continued, “For our next number we will be favored with a lively piece titled “Little Drummer Boy” played by Mariane Dailey.
I gathered my sheet music which was now wet and wrinkled from my violently shaking hands and tried to straighten out my printed piece to no avail.
I could feel the sympathetic eyes of nearly fifty adults focused on me which did little to assuage my terror.
Finally, I straightened my back and lifted my hands to the keyboard. They refused to play! The shook so badly that they'd developed a mind of their own!
I had never attended a recital and I had never witnessed a seizure. I immediately reasoned that being in a piano recital caused whatever happened to Jeanette and I didn’t want to experience it.
I rubbed my hands together. I blew on them and twisted them until finally they cooperated. I played the fastest rendition of “Little Drummer Boy” ever performed at a piano recital.
Grabbing my sheet music, I returned to my folding chair in just one leap. I’d done it! I made it through my piece without having whatever it was Jeanette had had.
The room burst into applause! Sustained applause! Some of the men called out “Bravo!” while women waved their lace handkerchiefs in my direction, not in appreciation of my raw talent but sympathetic to my trying to just get through it. I was the youngest child in the recital and very small for my age which endeared me to the other parents in attendance.
Mother, sitting in the third row, turned every which way and waved back at the audience, making sure they all knew it was HER daughter who had performed bravely and without flaw under such unbelievably frightening circumstances.
Afterward, Mother and our neighbor took me out for a banana split and several Pepsis at the Sugar Bowl restaurant to celebrate. I was in heaven.
I went to bed happy, full of excitement and full of myself. I must have been because I did the unthinkable: I wet my bed!
Mariane, you treasure, you! You either leave me weeping or laughing when I read your reminiscences. I love those special little touches, like how the elegant lady pronounced "vase" as "vozz!" And, the way your mother made sure everyone knew you were HER daughter. I had to laugh out loud. I hope Jesus is building my mansion right next door to yours. We have lots of laughing to do! :) Hugs galore!
Mariane, you once again presented us with entertainment with your talent. Obviously--and don't we all know it--you are multi-talented. I loved the story. It brought on a wee bit of nostalgia, thinking back to my childhood. We never got a piano until I was 15, and went away to school, but my two youngest sisters took lessons. My youngest sister was a natural, which caused a lot of grief for her sister. And later, like you, that youngest rascal got out of doing dishes, leaving the chore to poor Marianne...She still talks about it, and won't touch a piano. Pauline uses her talent to play for shut-ins...We all grow up and memories never fade...Helen