Tales from the Park: Piano teachers

A few weeks ago, for the first time in months, I opened my piano. My relationship with the piano has been life long if sporadic. I go through  intense periods of interest and hard practice followed by longer periods of rejection and neglect. Why? I don't really know. Perhaps it is the ebb and flow of hope and despair. The hope that I will be able to master something I really want to play, the despair of knowing I never shall. Moments of my playing are inspired or, at least, that's how they seem to me. The problem is consistency. As Klara said one afternoon when she was perched on my window sill, “Its not good playing, you know, but I don't mind, I really don't mind. Actually, I am quite surprised at myself. It is musical, and that's what counts.”


Before we go any further, perhaps I should tell you how I began with the piano. When I was about four my late grandfather's spinster sister came to live with us. In the 1920s she  had lived on the Canadian prairies doing what, I don't know. Not surprisingly many of the things she brought with her in an assortment of tea chests were momentoes of that period. Amongst them were two things guaranteed to fascinate and delight any small boy. One was a working six shooter, a ladies revolver, which fitted into my small hand so conveniently it quickly became my favourite play thing, so much more satisfying than the Japanese made plastic replicas that fired paper caps. The click of a real action was far more exciting that the snap of a cap. However, the thought occurred to me that bullets would transform the experience. One day I rummaged though the tea chests in search of anything that looked like bullets, she must have had some but I was out of luck. This was just as well since I had not yet been taught to never point a gun at anyone. A few days after it came the gun disappeared. An uncle, a law abiding spoilsport,  who had been in the army, gave it to the police. This was the right thing to do since no one in the family had a license for a revolver. This frustrated an intention I'd had to take it to my kindergarten to show my friends. It would have done no end of good for my credibility but, as I was quickly learning, life is full of disappointments. Its better to get use to it as soon as you can.

 The other source of fascination that accompanied my great aunt's arrival was a curiously shaped  black wooden case.  It was only opened for a few moments before another uncle, no respecter of other people's property if he could see a way of converting it into ready cash for himself, closed the lid and took it away never to be seen again. But what I saw in those few moments struck a deep chord that stayed with me. All I knew was that it was called a violin. I  had no idea what it did.

A few years later, the headmaster of my new prep school came into our classroom and asked if anyone would like violin lessons. Up went my hand. Unlike many young children, my parents didn't need to encourage me. I can still remember the excitement of my first few lessons even though I had no idea what practical value a violin had. I had never been to a concert. The piano yes, I had often heard that played, but not the fiddle. 

Alas, the thrill didn't last long and as time passed, it became clear that the violin and I were not made for each other, the struggle was one that neither could win. Snapped strings, collapsing bridges, bows broken in the rage of frustration,  probably inspired by Anton Walbrooke's baton snapping conductor in the Red Shoes which I had seen on television, were insurmountable obstacles to progress and harmony. My teacher suggested the piano. 

“The great thing about the piano is that any fool can get a sound out of it,” announced Klara.”Hit a handful of notes and you get something immediately satisfying. Yes, hitting notes can be very satisfying.” 

“How do you know?” I asked. 
“I'll tell you in a minute.”

I loved the piano and my teacher, a highly competitive elderly lady, believed that there was much more to be learnt from struggling long and hard with pieces by the masters that were far above the ability of her pupils  rather than go through the normal process of graded pieces. This played to parental one-up-man ship, the competitive type who like to boast how their offspring spent the holidays battling with Beethoven rather than “ Playing fingers” or “Skating on the Ice,” thus building a solid technique. By the time I was twelve I could manage most of the first movement of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata so long as the metronome was flexible when the chords changed dramatically. Not much has changed. It was this marvelous sonata that I was practicing when I became aware of Clara on my windowsill.  Clara's arrivals are designed to attract attention so I must have been very absorbed with my playing not to notice  her before. 

“Hello,” I called as breezily as I could whilst continuing to play. 
“Playing, I see,” replied Clara through the open window, her head on one side in a thoughtful pose. 
“ It seems very difficult.”
“But very beautiful.”
“Only because I am practicing this phrase.”
“ Why?”
“To make it better, to make it easier to play. To get it into my hand.”
“But I thought you were supposed to be talented in music?”
“Talent isn't everything.”
“Clearly,” said Klara, more of an aside.
“You still have to practice.” I said.

I continued to play.
“Have you thought about getting some help?” 
“A teacher.” 
“Oh, I don't think a teacher would be able to help me. Too old for that. I just play for pleasure.”
“Is that what the neighbours think?”

I stopped playing. “Honestly Clara, what's your point? I don't really care what the neighbours think. I can play the piano in  my own home if I want to, cant I, especially on a fine summer's afternoon.”
“ Perhaps you should confine you playing to the winter season. Just a thought. Closed windows.” Klara can be very cruel, I suppose its about being a magpie.

I went back to playing but I couldn't get into it. Klara  had unsettled me. Her mood had permeated my little world, and she didn't seem to be in any hurry to take it anywhere else. I know the signs. She had something to tell me. Better to get it over with. I stopped playing, got up and walked over to the window. What is it? 

“Do you remember Tomek?” 
“The little mouse with the toy drum?”
She twitched her wings, which sometimes means yes.
“ Why do you ask?”
“ Because he wants to play the piano.” 
“How nice.”
“ Only his parents can't find a teacher. I was thinking of you.” 
“But I don't teach the piano and anyway my piano is far too big for a mouse. Surely there is someone in the park who could teach him?”
“That's the problem. The weasels have cornered the market and you know what they are like.” 
“They can be a bit dogmatic, I suppose.” 
“Dogmatic, you call it. So, what happened with the first one his father took him to, you know that famous old weasel who lives by the lake. He wanted to see if Wojtek had talent and if it was worth having lessons.”  
“There is nothing wrong with seeing if the child is interested,” I said, “otherwise it can be a plague on everyone and costly.”
“Agreed, but you have to know how to spot talent in the first place. In walked the boy and the moment he saw the piano his eyes lit up. His father told me this. While he was talking to the weasel, Tomek went over to the piano and started walking very slowly around it, tracing the shape with his body. Then he saw the keys. He stopped and looked in wonder. They were irresistible. Very gently he pressed a key at the top. 'Ding,' it replied,sweet and bell-like. Then he looked at the other end, reached down, pressed a key and got a quiet but sustained boom. He thought for a moment like a swimmer preparing a dive, and then using the palms of his paws he hit as many notes as he could, creating a cacophony of sound and enjoying every moment. Of course, the old weasel almost had a siezure. He was so surprised. His face froze in horror and bewilderment. Then suddenly he emmitted the most earsplitting howl, it was so awful that I am sure any passing bird would have fallen out of the sky petrified. It penetrated everything, even Tomek was shaken out of his rapture and turned around. 

'No, no, no,' screeched the weasel, rushing over to the piano slamming the lid shut.” 

“I hope Tomek removed his paws in time,” I said. 
“He is quick witted.” Clara replied. She continued, “Tomek, much to his credit, was more surprised than frightened, something the stupid animal must have realised because almost in the same breath he reopened the key lid and in a weaselly voice that did nothing to betray his recent hysterical outburst, said, 'Now look, little mouse, you play like this.' Slowly raising each claw in an exaggerated motion, he played a short scale, up then down. 'You see, little mouse? Do you understand? Now show me you do.' 
Tomek placed his little paw over the notes. He played the first note. It was a strange feeling. The weasel looked on. Then he stretched his claws and played the second. The weasel nodded his head encouragingly. Then, he nearly played the third but stopped his claw in mid air. Quickly, he glanced up and down the keyboard, took a deep breath, he didn't know that he could get so much air inside him,and leaped onto the keys. He ran up and down the keyboard making as much noise as he could. It was a very satisfying feeling. Unfortunately, it provoked an instant response from the weasel. After one or two attempts to grab the little mouse's tail he slammed the lid shut. The silence was instant. Tomek's father rushed over to piano and tried to open the lid, but the weasel was leaning on it with all his might and there is nothing a mouse can do against a weasel. 
'Open the lid, for goodness sake,' cried the little mouse. 
'Never,' growled the weasel. 
'You'll kill him.' 
'He's already dead, if he's got any sense. I'll never forgive him for treating my piano that way.' 
Wojtek, for that was the father's name, was beside himself. How could he save his child? What could he do against this wicked weasel? The piano itself provided the answer. Suddenly, it spoke. “Do, re, mi.” The weasel was so surprised that he opened the key lid. Wojtek is sure that he intended to bang it closed again on Tomek's head but the mice were too quick for the old weasel. 'Jump,' cried Wojtek. But instead of jumping to the floor, the silly little mouse jumped onto the top of the piano and then disappeared inside.
'Where has he gone? cried the weasel. 'I'll get him!' 
It was obvious where he had gone. Again, the piano was talking. He was under the great lid that covers the strings. The strangest noises were coming from it. 
'He is ruining my strings. Just let me catch him. I'll kill him!' 
And with that, the weasel lifted the lid, propped it on its supporting stick and jumped into the piano. The two animals raced up and down the piano, the noise of claws on steel strings producing a cacophony of dissonants and rhythms any composer would have found it difficult to write down. If you had not known that this was a life and death pursuit you might have thought they were having a lot of fun together. A mistake. Without doubt, little Tomek, unaware of the danger, was having the time of his life. The weasel was in deadly earnest. Luckily for Tomek, the weasel was very unfit and the mouse was too fast for him. Then the piano itself decided to join in. Ping! A string snapped. Ping! And then another. A cry was heard, 'Ow!' Ping! A yelp. Another ping, followed by some language I could not repeat here. The action inside the piano got slower. More pings, one very deep and loud. And then there was silence. Wojtek was not tall enough to see into the piano. He had no idea what had happened. A few moments later Tomek's little face appeared over the top of the piano. 
'Quickly,' shouted his father, 'Let's get out of here.' 
'No hurry,Dad,' replied the cool little mouse. 'He can't move. He is a prisoner of his own piano. Come and see.'
Somewhat gingerly Wojtek jumped onto the piano stool. He almost fell off backwards when his landing on the keys was greeted with a splurge of sound, he had never played a piano in his life and it took him by surprise, a rather thrilling surprise he thought afterwards. And then he saw the weasel. Tomek was right. He was covered with wires. The strings of the piano had broken and he couldn't move. One wire had wrapped itself around his muzzle so he could not even speak. Only his eyes were speaking and speaking clearly. Here was a very angry weasel.

'We can't leave him like this,' Wojtek said.
'Oh, yes we can,' said his son. Wojtek thought for a moment. Perhaps his son was right. Someone was bound to come soon and if it happened to be a weasel or two, life would be very difficult for the two mice. So, they left and they didn't hang around.”

“Then what happened?” I asked Clara. 
“The weasel world pretended to be outraged for a while.”
“ Yes, they all hate each other. Solidarity soon disintegrates into rivalry and bitchiness. The younger teachers hate the old weasel because he is close minded and reactionary. Many say that he should not be where he is. If weasel society was a meritocracy he certainly wouldn't be.”
“ So some are quite pleased?” I asked.
“As long as nothing similar happens to them.”
“Which it might?”
“And should.” added Clara.

“And Tomek?”
“That's why I am here. After all this he is passionate about the piano. He never stops talking about it. His parents are desperate to find a teacher.”
“It can't be that difficult to find a teacher?”

“No, its not difficult to find a teacher but it is very difficult to find one with whom you would want to leave your child. Do you want to hear about it?”
“Shock me.”
Klara prepared herself.

“As you know, rats don't often teach music. Why not? Who can say. They are amongst the most intelligent creatures in the park and, from what I understand though I am beginning to doubt it, you need some intelligence to teach music. It seems a mystery. I don't know how Wojtek made contact with him but one afternoon last week he took Tomek to meet a piano teaching rat at his home. 

The rat met them at the door very courteously, too courteously. From the start something seemed wrong. The two mice were ushered into a small, dark book-lined room dominated by a large piano and two padded arm chairs. The room had a musty, old smell, with a hint of something Tomek usually associated with the outside or very old creatures who couldn't go out anymore for the call of nature. It was not an attractive smell. The rat invited them to sit down and make themselves comfortable while he went to get the tea tray. Comfortable was something neither of the mice felt. Everything was dirty and unkempt and the smell was much stronger when they sat down. The mice could hear talking and the sound of cutlery coming from the next room. Very soon an old wizen female rat came in carrying a plate of untempting biscuits.
”Home made,” she said, offering one to Tomek who took it out of politeness. “Good. You'll enjoy that. I make them specially for my son. He likes them when he is playing.” 
Tomek looked at the biscuit, then at his father, then back at the biscuit. The rat stared at him. It seemed she was waiting for a response. Very slowly he raised it to his mouth and took a nibble. 
“A nibbler? Very sensible. Enjoy every bite.” She seemed satisfied. Turning to Wojtek, 
“My son will be with you soon,” she croaked. And just when Tomek thought and hoped she was going to go she turned back to him, she said,
”We have heard about you. You will have to behave here, my son is very particular about whom he takes. He has very few pupils but they are all special.”
Tomek was about to ask his father whether studying the piano was not such a good idea after all, when the piano teacher returned.

He pulled up a stool and sat down. “Tomek, what do you want from me?” he asked. Before Tomek could think of an answer which might have taken some time, Wojtek answered saying that they wanted piano lessons, once a week at first to see if Tomek had a real interest and talent. The large rat nodded. 
“Quite so,” he said. “But I would rather the boy answered for himself.” 
Then, turning to Tomek, he said, “I know all about you. I know all about the trouble you caused. You have to understand that we do not live in a normal world where talent and hard work are recognised. Look at me. Haven't you asked yourselves why you have had to come here to my home rather than to my studio at the academy? Wojtek had to admit to himself that he had not. Tomek had no idea what the rat was talking about. The rat continued, “With my experience and at my talent I should be a senior professor or even head of the department at the academy. Instead, I occasionally receive invitations for free concerts. As for a studio, well, this is it,” and with a wave of his paw he encompassed the whole room. 
The rat shook his head and then was quite still, as if he was thinking what to say next. Wojtek immediately understood that this was a much practised routine, but what the rat hoping to achieve trhough it was a mystery. The rat looked at Tomek and said very softly but pointedly so that every word seemed as important as the next,
”This is an unjust world, a world ruled by injustice. Creatures who should not succeed rise to the top of heap, while others like me.Bah!” Then he pausued for a moment, “Others like me never get anywhere. And why? Because I am not a weasle nor, little mouse, are you. Believe me, I know what I am talking about. Don't forget it, little mouse. They will stop you. You will never get anywhere.” 
Then, he held Tomek in a long and terrifying stare. Eventually, the rat dropped his gaze and stood up. Tomek let out a gasp of air. He had been so frightened he had forgotten to breathe.

Wojtek got up out of the chair. He had decided it was time to go, but the rat almost pushed him down again with his heavy paw pressing on the mouse's shoulder. 
“Wait, wait,” he cried, we have not talked of music yet.” Wojtek reluctantly resumed his place. And before we do, there is something else. Books. Tomek, are you interested in books?”
 Tomek is very interested in books, surprisingly so for such a young mouse. He nodded, almost managing to smile. 
“Then you are in the right house. Let me show you.” said the rat, quite changed. 

The rat moved over to a book case and took out an exquisitly bound volume of something.
”I am not only a pianist. I bind books. Here, look.” 
Gently he handed the  book to Tomek who glanced at it and quickly passed it to Wojtek fearful that might drop it. 
“Marvellous,” said the mouse, genuinely impressed. “Your work?” 
The rat bowed his head in recognition. 
“But this is nothing. All these are mine. Every one. The whole room. No, no, I lie, not all but nearly all.” 
Wojtek began to like the rat. He showed a heart warming joy in his work. He was about to get down some more books when Wojtek reminded him that, as wonderful as they were, it was not about his books that they were there but Tomek's piano lessons. The rat stopped in his tracks. He seemed deflated.
”Yes, you are quite right. Tomek's piano lessons.” 
“Perhaps youu could play him something, something to inspire him,” Wojtek suggested. 
The rat hesitated. He rubbed his front paws together. 
“I cannot play on demand. I am not a circus act. I am an artist.” 
Wojtek was afraid that he had offended the artist and was about to speak when the rat raised his paw to silence him.He went over to the piano, sat down on the stool and opened the key cover. The piano exploded with such an intense sound and so many notes that Tomek jumped with surprise. Within moments the sheer, relentless volume seemed to assalt him as if he was being punched in the face by a heavy fist. It got louder and louder, faster and faster, more and more notes flying everywhere, mainly in his direction. His young ears had never been sujected to such a barrage. Even after the music had stopped his head kept ringing.
The rat turned on the chair and faced Tomek. He looked very pleased with himself.

“Tomek, are you musical?  Do you sing?” Not waiting for a reply. “What music do you listen to?” 
Tomek was unable to speak. He was not used to questions like this. Every young mouse sings and they do it without thinking. Its natural. As for music, he listens to everything, which is what his father told the rat.
”Everything?” repapeated the rat slowly. “Meaning?” 
Wojtek told him that Tomek listens to all the music that young creatures listen to, and he named a few styles. The rat looked grave. He shook his head. 
“What is the matter?” asked Wojtek. “Nothing,” said the rat, “except you have ruined him.” 
Wojtek was surprised and angry. 
“How can music ruin him?” 
The rat twitched his wiskers. 
“You, sir, are not an expert. I am, which is why you are here. In my opinion a child who has been allowed to listen to popular music has no possibility of acquiring the discipline and sensitivity needed to be a successful pianist. I am sorry, but it is too late. His mind has already been polluted. He will never have a career. He will never be a Mousevitz or Weaslestein.”
“But this is absurd,” interjected Wojtek. “He doesn't want to be a Mousevitz or a Weaslestein.  He just wants to learn the piano. Can you or can you not teach him the piano?”
Now it was the weasel's turn to be shocked. 
“Of course, I can teach him!” he exclaimed, and then he paused.  “But the question is, can he be taught? Is there the right material to work with? Will I want to teach him? Come here, boy.” said the rat angrily. 

Tomek got up very reluctantly and walked over to the piano. 
“Stand there,” said the rat. “I am going to test your ear?” 
“My ear?” said Tomek, “but there is nothing wrong with my ear.” 
“I shall be the judge of that,” said the rat. And with that he banged a note on the piano. “Sing that!” commanded the rat. 
Poor Tomek could not make a sound. The rat banged the note again. “Sing, boy, sing!” But Tomek was too frightened to sing. “As I suspected,” said the rat. “No talent.”

Tomek was surprised how quickly he and his father left the house. There were no good byes. Tomek realised that his father was very angry. Tears began to well up in his eyes as they walked down the path away from the horrible rat hole. Suddenly, Tomek stopped in his tracks. “Daddy, what did I do wrong? Was I very bad?” 

And that's when I saw them both standing in the middle of the path, Wojtek hugging his little Tomek. I flew down and heard the whole story. Weasels, I ask you. 

“It sounds as if they have had a most horrible experience. These teachers ought to be shot.” I said. 
“Which is why I thought of you,” said Klara. 
“What, to kill them?” 
“No, teach.” 
I sighed. “Let me think about it, I am not a teacher,” 
“But at least you would not punch him with notes.” 
“No, but I am not sure I would be very inspiring either. Let me think about it.” And with that Klara flew away and I went back to my Beethoven with my window wide open. If only my uncle had not been so law abiding I would have had a good use for my great aunt's revolver.


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