Today I went to a meeting I’ve been attending regularly for a couple of years earlier than usual just to play the grand piano in the church where the meeting is held. People who set up the meeting were there, and I played a bit of classical and ragtime before the meeting started in a room next to the meeting room. After the meeting was over, I left and got a voice mail message from someone who is a musician that had been at the meeting telling me my playing was good. I’ve been playing piano for a long time here and there, always invested in the idea that it was wasn’t worth anything, that I would never be able to do anything with it. The idea of being able to comfortably play in front of other people seemed out of the question FOREVER. And yet I still have continued to play in dribs and drabs.
Looking back, I remembered that I had 2 piano teachers: One was a kindly, grandmotherly type woman who taught me how to play the story of Cinderella when I was quite young, which I still play now as a warm up. I used to go to her house and looked forward to it. I don’t know exactly how old I was, maybe 10. My later involvement with piano lessons was several years later when I was given a choice: Girl Scouts or Piano Lessons. Girl Scouts sucked, so I said yes to lessons.
The second teacher was named Mr. Abalona, and he was one big, ugly, old man. He was balding, and had a mud colored complexion with (I kid you NOT) purple, pink and sometimes green zits on his face. I came to think of him as Mr. Baloney, because his face looked like it with mold spots, and his personality wasn’t all that charming.
How a snaggle-toothed geezer like him, who’s mumbling speech I could barely understand, was a trained pianist and teacher was a mystery to me. One of his more prominent skills was fawning on my Dad when he was around with the check to pay for the lessons. My dad seemed in awe of him and I could barely stand it when they were in the same room. More unfathomable was that my Dad went to all that trouble to hire Mr. Abalona, but never once discussed with me his aspirations about my playing. I still have no idea what he had in mind and why nothing was ever said to me from then on. He and I would sit down at the piano and do a little boogie woogie together, but that was the extent of it for the rest of his and my lives.
While Mr. Abalona did teach me how to read music and several pieces, a few of which I can still play, I really didn’t like him. When I couldn’t get something, he would clumsily slap at my hands on the keys with his big pudgy hands and when I did something he thought was good he’d insist on giving me a lumpy bearish hug and kiss with that freaky face! Big GAGGING EEEUW
I find it very telling now that I don’t remember saying a thing to my parents about his sickening behavior. Maybe I did and they ignored me, or maybe I didn’t. At any rate, it’s clear I didn’t feel I mattered enough to try and put a stop to it.
I thought I was the only one who had to tolerate his invasive presence until I mentioned at school one day to Kathryn Popenoe I had him as a teacher and she said: “Oh! I have him too. Does he try to kiss you?”Kathryn was studying violin and seemed unflappably talented and musical. It was somewhat liberating to know Mr. Pizza Face Piano Teacher was disgusting to someone else also. I actually did one recital with him, got a pin, and never missed him once he was gone.
I’ve realized lately that despite my complete lack of self esteem, lack of focus and commitment to becoming an actual pianist ALL THIS TIME, that I found a way, intermittently, to READ and PLAY pieces of music and taught them to myself. I TAUGHT myself Mozart’s Fuer Elise, I taught myself Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag. If I practice, I can play every note, and SPOTTY participation aside, am actually getting better at my concentration, feeling and technique. And when I started teaching myself ragtime, it was an upward battle; my hands are small with short fingers, and they do not lend themselves well to playing octaves. It was IMPOSSIBLE and here I am today still playing it.
Recently I have taken a note from a man I heard speak at an ACA meeting. He said that he felt invisible as a child in a large family where he had many siblings and two drunken parents. He realized he was not invisible, just NOT SEEN when he was a young child at the time of his personal formation of self. I have decided to use this now and become a Piano Player to re-parent myself. Up until now, it’s always been about sneaking time on pianos, though in college I bought myself a used green upright and worked on playing ragtime. I have played piano like I am some sort of thief, not worthy of attention, in Stealth, sneaking piano time on pianos not mine and not ordained for my use. I have shut out all attention or compliments about my playing as thought they were ticks trying to give me Lyme Disease.
Today I approached the unsinkable Sunset Piano Man Mauro Dinucci and asked for paid practice time at his new Piano Studio. He has said yes and that he would put me on the roster to perform at one of his next Flower Piano events at the SF Botanical Garden. I’ve started researching the greats online: Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton. I have my father to thank for his records and exposure to jazz pianists and Big Band music: Teddy Wilson, Fats Waller, Eubie Blake. It was all too complicated for me, but Scott Joplin was my guy and his music lives on in me. My education is just beginning.