Wednesday, December 31, 2014

My New Year's Resolution: Don't Be Mrs. X

Many years ago, Jimmy Carter was President and I lived in a small town in upstate New York where various people worked for less than they might have, because otherwise the things they did would not have been done at all. The village doctor saw minor cases for $1, more serious ones for $5. The piano teacher, Mrs. Hull, taught lessons for $1.

The system was this. You came into her house, at the appointed hour, without knocking. If another kid was in there having a lesson, you entertained yourself by examining Mrs. Hull’s collection of ceramic miniatures (among other things, a tiny sliced loaf and a tiny dish of butter). When it was your turn, you placed a dollar on the piano and sat down next to Mrs. Hull on the bench. You played your pieces, and sometimes she would interrupt and say gently, “If you hit an F sharp there, it might sound a little bit better for you, Sage.” Or she would lean over and gently pry your finger away from a note it was holding too long. 

If she was satisfied with your performance, you got new pieces, which she would play once through for you (she knew them all!) And off you went.

I loved these lessons. I walked to them on stilts sometimes. (You never see stilts anymore.) I practiced 2 or 3 hours a day. (My poor family.) I went through lesson books and sheet music pretty fast, and since Mrs. Hull always insisted on giving the music to me, and wouldn’t let me pay for it, my mother decided to pay $2 a lesson. (She would have paid more but we didn’t have more.) 

Mrs. Hull was not a young woman. She had graduated from college with degrees in German and music sometime in the Depression. She was quiet and kind and never suggested I had a scrap of musical talent, which indeed I did not.

And then I got big and went away to college. The music professor, Mr. X, had a wife who gave piano lessons for $6. Well, I could make $6 by leading a two-hour nature hike, so I signed up for 12 weeks of lessons. Twelve nature hikes.

Mrs. X was about Mrs. Hull’s age, and also soft-spoken. But she was not Mrs. Hull.

What I remember about those twelve weeks is failing, continually and resoundingly, to live up to Mrs. X’s expectations. She asked me to tell her the direction that sound moved. (I couldn’t.) She asked me to compose variations based on simple nursery songs. (I couldn’t.) She asked me to sit down on the piano bench as hard as I was hitting the piano keys. (I refused.) She sternly informed me that she had been deceived by my sight-reading into thinking I had talent. She assured me with finality that I did not.

Gradually I stopped practicing much, and at last the 12 weeks came to an end. I shut the piano lid with relief and stepped away. 

And 30 years went by.

This winter I find myself staying in a house that has a piano in it.  A very shiny piano, the kind that gleams at you from across the room and says, “Come on. You know you want to.”

So one day, a month ago, I opened the lid. And I sat down. And I played it. And played it some more. And some more. And you know what?

I don’t have any talent. 

Not an iota. 

But I like playing the piano. It’s pleasant and relaxing and fun.

And it’s okay to play the piano, or to practice any art form, for those reasons.

Mrs. Hull knew that.

My Mrs. X story isn’t at all unusual. I’ve heard similar stories from many people. It might be music, or dance, or drawing. Someone who enjoyed doing something was informed by someone knowledgeable that they had no talent and should stop.  The world has too few Mrs. Hulls, who understand that a thing can be worth doing for its own sake and not for any glory or remuneration.

Sometimes friends and acquaintances show me their writing, and they want me to tell them if it’s any good, or good enough.

And of course no professional writer ever thinks anything is good enough, so I try to share the joys of my insecurity with them. And they gently remonstrate. “Well, this is just something I’m doing for fun, you know. Something I thought my grandchildren might like.”

Ouch. Point taken. They want to write the way I want to play the piano, for a bit of joy.

My New Year’s resolution is to remember Mrs. X and Mrs. Hull, and remember that all of the art forms are for everyone, and not just for a chosen few.

If you like doing it, it’s good enough.

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