Failing to meet mother’s musical expectations


As I was growing up, family meal time could often bring unexpected news. One Saturday evening, while my brother and I were choking down our peas along with noodles and corn, we heard dreaded words that we will never forget. My mother announced:

“Today, Dad and I bought a piano so that both of you can begin piano lessons.”

We both smiled weakly. Piano lessons? Who suggested this? Neither one of us remembered a “family meeting” where the idea of purchasing a piano was discussed and where we were given the opportunity to voice our opinions just like they do in “Leave It to Beaver.” We weren’t the Cleaver family and we knew we were headed for trouble.

Two days later the piano arrived. It wasn’t a piano like our friends had: an old upright that they found for a reasonable price in the ads in the newspaper. No, my parents went first class. After all, they knew that John was going to be the next Liberace (without the candles) and I would take the position as “Rag-time Piano Player” on the Lawrence Welk Show.

A brand new, French provincial, Baldwin piano was now sitting in our living room. I realized that my parents were very serious about this adventure. This was not going to be a “passing phase.” There was no way that they would “lose interest.”  But we held onto the hope that “someday,” they would “grow out of their need to parent a musically-inclined child.”

The next week, John and I found ourselves being driven to Mrs. Sullivan’s home to start our first lesson. As Mrs. Sullivan placed my name on the front of my red John Thompson’s Book One, I felt my stomach drop. I knew I was in this for the “long ride.” For the next three weeks, I practiced and mastered each song; but on week four, I was expected to use both of my hands and three lessons later, I would have to use my hands interchangeably. I had only one word to say: impossible.

The songs were interesting: “Chimes” proved to only use one hand and four keys. “By the Pond” was only a little faster and “The Butterfly” proved to be a personal challenge.  But when I was assigned “The Bee,” I knew I was in trouble. I didn’t like bees and trying to play with both hands at the same time was more than should be expected from anyone.

How did Mrs. Sullivan expect my eyes to send a message to my brain, my brain to turn that into a message to my hands and my hands to respond so that it sounded like a bee?  Impossible. It all turned into one huge traffic jam between my eyes, brain, and hands.

Mrs. Sullivan also expected the impossible…she wanted me to keep track of my “practice time” in a little notebook (red, of course) with the spiral on top. (To this day, I get a cold chill whenever I see these on display at WalMart.)  This was impossible. After all, I had things to do.  TV shows to watch. How could the Mickey Mouse Club go on without me?  Keeping track of my practice time? Impossible.

After a few months of avoiding practicing the piano at all cost (doing the dishes, vacuuming the floor, picking up my toys, all had precedence over my practicing the piano) my brother and I convinced our mother that Mrs. Sullivan wasn’t an effective piano teacher and that we should seek out another instructor: Someone who would come to our home.

Enter Mr. Wentworth. A rather robust man with a definite sweating and sighing problem.  He took his seat on the gold velvet tufted chair next to the piano. I would play; he would sigh. I would make just a few mistakes; he would sweat. Some of my attempts would earn me two sighs and one wipe of the handkerchief on his forehead. Other times, I would get no sighs but numerous wipes. Soon it became my personal goal to get at least four sighs and four wipes during every lesson. A sign was one point and a wipe was two points. After our lessons, John and I would compare our scores….and John would always win. Four months later, exit Mr. Wentworth.

Next was Mrs. James. A very nice older lady who smelled like “Evening in Paris” perfume. She couldn’t hear well which worked to my advantage. I soon went from book two to book four without a sigh. But book four proved to be a bit more than I could handle so my mother decided to take an active role in my “practice time.” She would become my personal dancer. As I practiced, she would dance. And every time I make a mistake or stopped playing, she would fall to the floor. A 45 minute practice time would find her on the floor for at least 35 minutes. Soon, I found my practicing time decreasing and my vacuuming time increasing.

Finally, my parents decided to bring in the “big guns.”  They told us that this was going to be our last chance. John and I looked at one another.

Last chance? No one said anything about a “chance.” Are they hinting that we might be able to get off of this merry-go-round?  Yes! We’ll take the “chance.”

Enter Mr. Sam Postuma, our school’s music teacher. I peeked around the corner and watched him prepare for our lesson. Faintly, I heard these words: “Good Morning, Mr. Postuma. Your mission, Sam, should you choose to accept it …” The voice trailed off inaudibly for few seconds to be followed by “This tape/disc will self-destruct in five seconds. Good luck, Sam.”  Puff of smoke – stage left.

The next few months were filled with practice and more practice only to be followed by numerous music recitals. It didn’t take me long to discover that I wasn’t that good. The recitals always started with the slower students first and then lead up to the better students. I was the “opening act” on every program.

After several months, Sam took my parents to the side and gave them some very valuable information that has served me well the past 58 years: “Your kids have no musical ability at all. Have them stick to playing the radio.”

And so my fate was sealed. There would be no Carnegie Hall for me. I would have to forgo a command performance for the Queen of England.

But I am still waiting to be contacted regarding a “Mission Impossible” segment.


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Pat Van Dyke