Piano Keys

Before I could type, I learned the piano keyboard. It was Charleston, South Carolina, and the white keys were almost always a little sticky with humidity. A red John Schirmer book, “Little Fingers That Play,” opened on the music rack above the keyboard and guided me in a three-note song with the words, “Here we go, up a road, to a birthday party.” That ditty required the first three fingers of the right hand. Then using the left hand and going down the keyboard from middle C, “Dolly dear, sandman’s here, you will soon be sleeping.” Hmm! I wonder what boys starting piano at age 6 thought of putting their dollies to sleep!

My first teacher was Miss Miller who lived close enough to Ashley Hall (the private girls school where I went for grades 1-6) for me to walk. Her tiny house was set back from the street and closed with a gate, which I seem to remember swinging open under my hand. Inside, two upright pianos sat side by side facing the living room. There on a tall side chair beside the twirling round piano stool sat Miss Miller, her reddish hair curling in the heat, and her back bent under her cardigan. We were linked by politeness, and by an unexpected intimacy, for her thin, beautifully manicured hand often lightly covered mine as she guided me in those early lessons. As poet Donald Justice recalls in an essay “Piano Lessons: Notes on a Provincial Culture,” even now “her very body odor…comes back as well, secret and powdery. Sometimes there are these delicate small intimacies between teacher and pupil, never spoken of.” (From The Sunset Maker, 1987)

Over the years, in numerous small recitals, I often shone as star pupil–once playing with Miss Miller, a Haydn concerto for two keyboards which I memorized and for which she rewarded me with a complicated locket containing three leaves, on which were pasted tiny portraits of “the great composers.” I’m remembering that our association lasted through sixth grade. Then my family moved across the Cooper River to the tiny town of Mount Pleasant, and only my sister continued at Ashley Hall. When I declared I “wanted to go to school with boys,” it tolled the knell of my piano lessons. For an aborted few months in Mount Pleasant I did study the organ (or was it the violin?) with a man who lived with his mother on a shady side street near our church, but I found the intimacy necessary to teacher and pupil almost insupportable. The nervousness it occasioned interfered so profoundly with my attention that I gave it up.

By then, my sister had preempted the family musical talent and begun the voice lessons that would eventually carry her into an operatic career. From then on, I became a perpetual amateur, playing either piano or organ became an private hobby. Anything more public made me extraordinarily anxious. Once, recently, when I revived organ lessons at Saint Paul’s Cathedral, my teacher gathered her pupils for a small recital, performed largely for ourselves. That day, oddly enough, road work in our neighborhood required that the city water be turned off. This occurred in the midst of my preparing to go to the recital. In my flurry and anxiety, I forgot to turn off the suddenly dry spigot, and went off, my heart in my throat, to play various demanding pieces from the height of the organ loft.

When I returned, sweaty and spent, I discovered that in my absence the water had been turned back on, and flooding the upstairs sink, then overflowed and created a stain on the newly painted kitchen ceiling below. In the scale of household disasters, this was rather minor, but it pointed a lesson: I was not cut out for the public performance of music, hadn’t the nerves or control. Didn’t have that intimacy with its language which I’d by then developed with literature and composing words at other keyboards.

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