Monday, March 17, 2008

If only I'd known!

Nah, it wouldn't have made any difference.

At a very young age, I discovered the keys of my mother's inherited, baby grand piano. At the time, it took up most of the living room in the tiny house my parents, older brother and I shared. It's massive, dark presence was comforting to this extremely shy little girl. When people came to visit there was more than enough room under it to hide.

When no one was around, or at least in sight, I'd pull myself onto the matching bench and work the keys. Being an acoustic piano, making a sound took some strength. [My electronic keyboard takes a light touch.] Patterns started to emerge the more I played and I decided I was composing. Constant repetition embedded the tunes in my brain and probably drove my mother up a wall. She could really play the piano!

A fascinating thing about Mom's playing was what the pedals did to the sound. I'd sit under the sounding board and watch her foot quickly and rhythmically pump the right pedal. Pushing the pedal sustained and broadened the sound. She could play with both hands and chords, too! Very impressive. And when she sang along I got goose bumps!!

Around the age of 8, Mom decided I needed some training if I was going to continue to slam on her beloved piano. We had little money in those days, but being that Mom was a professional singer, she was able to get a discount on my lessons with, allegedly, the best teacher in town.
Margaret Farr Wilson -- that name still sends a chill up my spine. For eight years, every Saturday morning I walked to her house of horrors for lessons.

Hers was a nice little house whose living room contained two grand pianos. In her dining room was a bay window in which she nurtured dozens of African Violets. Those two rooms will linger in memory the rest of my life. They were where I waited for my lesson to begin and the site of terrifying recitals as well as glorious two piano duets with my teacher.

Recital punch (lime sherbet and ginger ale) served from her massive, dark dining table, revived my parched mouth and throat. Some of her students were truly gifted. Parents sitting on folding chairs always provided polite (or maybe it was sympathetic) applause at the end of each recital number. I wasn't looking for applause. I just wanted to get through with my prescribed piece before I fainted from nerves.

The same was true of practice pieces and because of that I hate metronomes. They became my nemesis. As with my handwriting, my piano playing always speeds-up and gets messier as I go along. That insistent/consistent ticking of the metronome made me crazy. If that wasn't enough, I was tortured by Hannon!!

Hannon exercises were designed by the devil himself!! They were repetitive, difficult to finger, especially when working on the ring and little fingers. I find myself gritting my teeth even today just thinking about the hours I had to spend on Hannon. Not only that, but Margaret Farr Wilson had me play on the top of the keyboard lid to make sure every finger was working like a little hammer. And God help you if a finger nail was just a little too long and made a click!!! Forcing my hands to work each finger like a little hammer and with a hollow in the palms, was unnatural and nails were never short enough. To be fair, and I must be, Margaret Farr Wilson was worth the torment and money. In hindsight, I realize she was an excellent teacher.

To my surprise, I recently discovered that she also taught a Pulitzer Prize winning composer, John La Montaine who played at Carnegie Hall and accompanied some of the biggest singers of our time. Just the thought of him sitting on that hard piano bench in her living room, playing on the piano lid brings a wry smile to my lips.

I never would have become a world-renowned pianist, much less a composer. However, having shared a piano teacher with one makes me feel a little better about my early attempts at composition. My grandfather called one of them A Rooster Jumping Over a Fence Backwards -- and it fit!


Nan said...

What a fantastic bit of "something I didn't know about my aunt"! Love it! Thanks for sharing.

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stacy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
stacy said...

I am margaret farr wilsons granddaughter,,,,I remember growing up as a child listening to goggies,, our family name for her,lessons in her living room when we would come from out of state for week long visits, patiently waiting for her to be finished for the day to play two pianos with her and for her to play with me on the piano while I played the flute. When Goggie died, I played flute at her funeral, her request which was the hardest thing I ever had to do, knowing the caliber of musicians that would be there and being only in highschool at the time. Today I have carried on her legacy which Im very proud of and a full time piano teacher in the south but my leval of teaching is not as strict or certainly not as traditional as goggies,,but the same standards of music and alot of the same teaching methods .I still remember goggie demonstrating hand position and the single touch of the key,,,,I will print this article for my mother she will love seeing this and thank you so much for publising this! One more thing mother still has the black steinway and still plays it at 75.! God bless you