Her mother often bemoaned the fact that when she had been young, her parents didn’t have enough money for piano lessons, let alone a piano. Because of this, her mother was determined that her daughter should have the opportunity she herself had longed for. And so it was decided. She was eight years old. The piano was an upright against the living room wall. Mrs. Weiss was to be her piano teacher. A small blonde woman with a pinched face and glasses with gold rims, Mrs. Weiss had left Germany just before the Nazis got serious.
Although well on her way to becoming an American citizen, she still retained Teutonic ways. When she came to her pupil’s home to give lessons, she arrived exactly on the hour and left exactly on the half hour. Twenty-nine minutes were devoted to playing scales, fingers poised just so. Mrs. Weiss probably would have rapped her inept pupil on the knuckles had not the pupil’s mother been sitting close by.
Perhaps inept is the wrong word. Recalcitrant would have been more accurate. She wanted to play music. She didn’t care that practicing scales over and over would eventually make her competent. “Now” was what she wanted, not “later”. “Now” came about because Mrs. Weiss held an annual piano recital during which her pupils performed something to prove that they had progressed beyond scales.
Her own piece was to be a very simplified version of Tchaikovsky’s “Marche Slave,” somber and full of pathos. She loved the beginning. Her Russian soul (two grandfathers and one grandmother) responded. For the first time, practicing was no longer drudgery. Her mother was very happy. Mrs. Weiss’s method of teaching was to have the student learn phrase by phrase. Good enough. DUM, DUM, da, da, DUM was easily committed to memory. She played those five notes over and over. They were hers.
The next phrase consisted of ten notes, more melodic, less dramatic, less appealing. She committed them to memory half-heartedly, and the next phrase barely at all. As the recital grew closer, the piano lessons changed. Fewer minutes of scales, more time for Tchaikovsky. During her lesson just before the event, it was thirty full minutes of “Marche Slave,” over and over and over. She would start out with bravado and then bumble along to the end.
“Attention to the timing,” Mrs. Weiss would repeat, resetting the metronome yet once more. “Attention to the music,” Mrs. Weiss moaned as her student hit yet another wrong note. As she was leaving that day, Mrs. Weiss conceded, “Maybe it would be better if you didn’t play from memory. You can use your music.”
The day of the recital was clear and cold. Her hair was neatly braided and she wore her best dress. Her performance was sandwiched somewhere in the middle where, surrounded by better pianists, she would be quickly forgotten. It would be nice to say that she played so well that she brought tears to Mrs. Weiss’s eyes. But the truth is that she started with pathos and ended up pathetic.
And to this day she remembers: she did bring tears to Mrs. Weiss’s eyes.