365 Days of Writing Prompts from WordPress: Tell us about a teacher who had a real impact on your life, either for the better or the worse. How is your life different today because of him or her?
My mother bought a second-hand upright piano when we were kids and announced that all of us were going to take lessons and learn how to play it. I don’t remember being given a choice about that, but we embarked on the process willingly enough. Music lessons must have been something my parents discussed and dad agreed to simply to make mom happy, although even buying the piano would have been a major expense for them and certainly was not a necessity. Like all good parents, they sacrificed to give their kids opportunities. And like all kids everywhere, we did not always appreciate the things we had to do for our own good.
Mr. Rhodes was short and round and serious and I never saw him dressed in anything but a suit and tie. He had black brush cut hair, big dark rimmed glasses and a stern and scowling look, but he was, underneath all that, a gentle man. He played the organ at our church and his wife was our choir director. She was also an Avon Lady, and he was a high school industrial arts teacher who taught music in his spare time. They lived in a little white stucco house near the high school and although I must have visited it a hundred times, all I remember is the tiny living room with a table chock full of Avon stuff and the piano lesson room around the corner where I would sit on a hard bench for an hour at a time in the interests of obtaining a well-rounded education.
From the first lesson he had a lot of patience with me. I had none at all with myself. Much like how I wanted to be able to read books after a couple of weeks in grade one, I expected to be able to play the piano well and to do it quickly without a lot of effort. I wanted short cuts to mediocrity. He was more bent on slowly fostering and developing an appreciation and a love in me for all things musical. Music delighted him. Lesson after lesson he painstakingly taught me how to read the notes on the page, the proper fingering and hand positions, and a lot of boring stuff about dead composers and sharps and flats and major and minor keys and keeping time. I thought all the practicing would kill me so I did as little of it as possible.
Despite my best efforts to merely survive the tedium, a lot of knowledge sunk in and eventually some talent oozed out. He told me I was one of his best pupils, although now I think he was being rather generous with his praise. I did get very good at sight-reading, sitting down with a brand new piece of music in front of me and playing it through without difficulty. But I never felt like interpreting what was written into anything beautiful or sad or joyous with feeling and real emotion. Watching a concert pianist play something classical and emote all over the keyboard with closed eyes and a rapturous face made me extremely uncomfortable. I had no ambition whatsoever for that to ever be me. When Mr. Rhodes would wave his pencil in the air and cry “Dolce! Pianisimo!” in the middle of a piece, I would often just bang away all the harder to drown him out.
Less dedicated teachers might have thrown up their hands, but he looked for ways to encourage and motivate me. He went out one day and bought me a big music book full of John Philip Sousa marches and told me to take it home and play my heart out. Suddenly music was a beautiful thing. Our piano took a real beating for a while after that. Grandioso and fortissimo were definitely my thing. I was never what anyone would describe as a loud or forceful person, but for whatever reason, playing the piano brought that out in me.
My brother got to quit the piano lessons when he’d had enough of them, and one of my sisters decided she wanted singing lessons instead. I often said I wanted to stop, but I could see how much it meant to mom for me to keep going. And Mr. Rhodes pronounced me almost good enough to take my grade eight practical and theory exams if I chose to work a little harder. So I kept going for music lessons longer than I ever expected I would, with no real plan for ever putting them to any use.
You may find it strange to learn that I went on to play the organ at church after taking lessons on that instrument as well, and adding deep bass foot pedaling to my repertoire. I learned to do soft and quiet background pieces, slow and funereal dirges, the kind of soothing music that can put some church goers to sleep. But I lived for the glory hallelujah Onward-Christian-Soldier marching hymns putting fire in everyone’s soul, never mind leaving a lot of the older parishioners a little breathless and blue in the face.
My music teacher had a heart attack and died in his backyard on a summer afternoon when I was halfway through high school. I don’t know if there were any warning signs but that wouldn’t have changed the fact that it was sad and shocking news. I never got to tell him how bad I felt for not passing the music exams, although I brushed it off as totally unimportant at the time. I did tell everyone I didn’t want to take them but they urged me on so I went through the motions in my usual lackadaisical fashion. Even though I knew how disappointed he would be if I didn’t do well, I didn’t work hard enough and I’m sorry for that. I passed the sight reading part with flying colors though. That was the only thing that impressed my examiners.
How is my life different because of him? Well I didn’t really have much of a life going on before he and his piano were in it, so I can only imagine how different it would be without all my miscellaneous musical knowledge. It drives me nuts to hear wrong notes and anything played or sung off-key. I can still look at a piece of music and read it and hear it in my head. Maybe I could still play it, but these old hands are certainly out of practice. We couldn’t be hauling a piano all over the place when my kids were growing up, so they never got to be “Rhodes scholars” like me.
I’ve heard people say they wish they’d kept up with their music lessons, but I don’t mind that they stopped for me when they did. It was never one of my passions. I’m simply happy to have known someone who loved it all so very much.