The Piano Lesson

The whole house was dimly lit. The far corners of the only room I was allowed access to were shadowy with mystery. It was always this way, and I always felt the same way. Tense and fearful. I sat perfectly still on her piano bench, trapped between the heavy gold drapes that hung to my left and the equally heavy darkness to my right; the closed door behind me, the monstrous grand piano rising up in front of me. I was sure it was a set-up. I could see her bent head just beyond the black lacquered piano lid and I waited in nervous silence for her to finish reading what she had written last week in my dictation book.

Her eyes moved from left to right, the pencil in her hand following along.   Grey-blonde hair had a solid hat-like appearance, and her features were small and expressionless. I had just recently noticed her typical style of dress – a cowl necked blouse, a skirt, and a suit jacket, all in various shades of beige. The air in the room was warm and old and faintly smelled of roast chicken, her brother’s dinner perhaps. There was sheen to the taut skin on her delicate aging fingers. I had memorized the look of her hands over the years often studying them instead of the fingering of a chord she was demonstrating, curious lines and oniony age spots, and the way she smoothly grazed the keys, precious they seemed under her dry fragile touch.   I hoped she hadn’t noticed that I wasn’t paying attention.

Winter was approaching and my hands were still chilled from the walk over. I alternately clenched them and worriedly rubbed them together so they would be warm enough to play for her. She finished reading and glanced at me over her gold-rimmed glasses. Let’s try the Sonatina, she said. She waddled a few steps to the greenish upholstered chair pulled right up beside the piano bench and fell into it with a tired sigh. I immediately felt responsible for her weariness. She doesn’t like this piece. She’s heard it a million times. I am boring. I make this piece boring. My book was open and my fingers were on the keys. Maybe this time she’ll like it, I thought, and I began to play.

I don’t remember being asked if I wanted to take piano lessons, or if I wanted to take them with Miss Rickards or anyone else. She was the only one for seven years, for half an hour, once a week. She never yelled at me and she never pushed, but upon meeting her I felt that I must live up to an expectation. That unspoken expectation remained, like a heaviness in the air, week after week, year after year. I became a different person when I entered her house. I felt myself change into a timid miniscule little girl as I bounded up her concrete steps fearing I was late, and while I waited in her front hall, the dark wood staircase and heavy wood trim, the yellow-bulbed Tiffany table lamp only slightly illuminating the dark green textured wallpaper behind it. I sat shrunken, and in fear of anticipated judgment as I peered through the beveled glass French door at the student who sat in his own uncomfortable silence waiting for her to finish writing in his dictation book. The door would open and he would scamper, fearful too, passing me a sideways glance and a nod. I wasn’t late after all, but I might as well have been.

My goal would become an endless one, striving – it seemed –for just a little approval. My parents beamed. My parents encouraged and praised. My teacher just sat there and nodded every once in a while.   The judgment never came.

Big opening. Attack the first note.

Play it like that, she had told me.

The first run down. Good, I tell myself, like a scale really.

Oh dang, I forgot about those left hand staccatos!

Whew, she hasn’t said anything yet. Keep playing.

Make sure you phrase those two-note slurs properly.

(It makes a big difference, you know.)


Her words were recorded in my mind and played over and over like a cassette tape as I move through the music.

That’s the melody, the theme, you will hear throughout the piece.    This part is tricky. Oh God. I have to try.

What a mess.

Oh, I’m screwing it up!

I’m ruining it!

She’s going to stop me and say something.

(I hate when she says something.)

Oh! She didn’t stop me!

I’m still playing over to the second page.   I regain control.

Another theme-y run part, here we go!

Not too bad.

Aahhh! Very smooth and fast!

Oops! a BIG mistake!

(I have to try not to get too excited when things go well.)

Keep going.

WATCH YOUR FINGERING is written over the notes here.

There we go.

This is the middle now, a bit different, a little softer.

Don’t forget the p!

I like this part. The melody is beautiful. I am relaxing into it. This is the part I play most often at home, just because. I do love this piano. I am privileged to be able to play it. Each key rings with my touch, like a singer with a clear voice, a hand bell in an empty church. I listen to myself. I listen to the music. I don’t have to think I know it so well. The tiniest dynamic, the slightest rubato comes from my heart. I just want to hear the beauty again, that’s all.

I am an opera singer.

I am a cello.

I am an entire orchestra.

I am in love.

I am expanding.

Clouds part and a mountaintop is finally visible. I have waited so long to see it. It feels like that.

It takes my breath away.

The little hammers have to hit the strings just right, the recording from long ago plays in my head. The word S-I-N-G is there on the page above the notes. I understand. Does she know I understand? Am I doing it right, Miss Rickards? Do you feel like I do right now? My foot on the pedal moves with my ear and as the notes rise on the page so does my effort. Push into this crescendo and make the music soar! The beauty is etched in my heart and I will never be able to play this without tears welling in my eyes.

The big finish.

The theme again.

Runny bits.

Happy bits.

Be energetic!

(Just get the fingering right ok?)

You’re almost done. She has always stopped me before now! Never have I played this far without some criticism or correction. She never seemed to be satisfied!

The ff for the final chords.

Solid. Extra loud.


My hands leave the keyboard and I sit with them in my lap, waiting. This is when she will lean toward the piano, the fabric on the chairs edge will strain under her ample thighs, she will reach with her pencil and point as far as her thick torso will let her bend, think again and sit back to shuffle her chair a little closer so she can draw a messy circle around that G# I missed, I know it will happen as it does every week, and I wait. I’m waiting. Why doesn’t she just sit closer to begin with? I’m waiting for the dry sound of her polyester skirt as it screeches against the slip underneath it.   I know I didn’t know that part as well as the rest, but I didn’t practice it as much either. And, I know she knows I didn’t practice that part – it is exactly the same as the last time I played it!

I dare to turn and glance at her face. Oh! She is asleep! She has dozed off in her chair! When did that happen? Her head has fallen forward and to one side, her gold-rimmed glasses hang around her neck like a necklace and lay on the folds of her blouse. Her arms are crossed in front in a warm hug and she breathes deeply and evenly. Her soft powdery cheeks puff up and down in a soft snore. In this rare and private moment I watch her for longer than I ever have before, and for the first time I can imagine what she might look like in a room other than this one. I imagine her lying in her bed dozing, her pillow pushing her flesh up into the corner of her eye, her Sears flannel nightgown with a pale blue flower pattern and white lace trim, night table lamp on and a book abandoned and face down on the edge. In her kitchen, dark stained oak cabinetry and a plate of luncheon meat and cheese before her. I can’t imagine her eating or touching food, and I can’t imagine her outside at all, in the way one can’t imagine their parents having sex. If I met her downtown in the mall, she would look like an alien to me.

I quickly look away, not knowing what to do. Look at the drapes! Look at the keys! She is not waking up. What time is it? There is still fifteen minutes left in my lesson! Bewildered, I sit and look at the music.   If I touch a key I’ll wake her up and I just shouldn’t wake her up! Keep quiet! I sit so still and begin to panic. Just wait. Five minutes go by and her timer on the piano is still whirring softly. It will ding soon and the lesson will be over. I resign myself to the long wait. My mind drifts back to the music.

I started at the beginning and reviewed it, reading and criticizing myself, remembering how I had performed it only minutes before. It’s almost like I was taking her place and knew what to tell myself. The more I reviewed and criticized my own performance, and the longer she slept, I began to realize that it wasn’t her expectations I was trying to live up to. They were my own. She had only been there to teach and to demonstrate. I created my own pressure, my own sense of defeat or success, I would be as good as I wanted to become. I would either appreciate the great musical works of our time, or not.   She had never been out to “get me”. I don’t know now what I was afraid of, this mild woman, this gentle woman, who now comfortably sleeps beside me. She had been there by my side for seven years, knowing full well she need not add to my emotional turmoils. She knew she could not force me to enjoy interpreting passion and joy and overwhelming beauty and the depths of sadness, that it would come on it’s own and grow over a lifetime. She knew that I would never stop learning or feeling, and that she was just the beginning. A most important beginning and she had made me become independent of her. She taught me how to open up my own musical world.

I glanced at her again. A good teacher. A great teacher. She inhaled roughly at last and raised her sleepy head, heavy eyelids opening, and her arm lifted to some airy space in front of her. She pointed to a spot on the ceiling and said, Wonderful, isn’t Beethoven wonderful?

Yes, I agreed. And her timer went off.

~ entry in the Meaford Library Short Story Contest, 2011.  Tied for First Place.