Every time I see a piano, I remember the four years of lessons I took as a schoolboy, and I wish I’d continued trying to gain some level of proficiency on that instrument.
Winifred Willrodt began trying to teach me to play piano when I was in third grade, the year we moved to town for school. She was a stern, no-nonsense teacher, passionate about music and the piano. Every week as I trudged reluctantly up the front steps to her porch, I dreaded knocking on the door and having her find out I hadn’t practiced nearly as diligently as she’d have wanted. She seemed to take my lack of practice personally, and I guess I took her disappointment in my lack of practice personally.
After four years of lessons, I persuaded my folks to let me quit. Miss Willrodt seemed disappointed in that decision. I felt as if I disappointed her no matter what I did. She told me I was starting to come around and could be a competent pianist if I worked at it. I might have tried again if she hadn’t said that part about “worked at it.’’ I knew I wouldn’t do that.
I know I’m not the only kid who started lessons and quit. I’m not the only adult, either, who regrets the decision to stop learning piano. I saw a poll the other day that said a majority of American adults wish they knew how to play an instrument, especially the piano. My old college roommate several years ago decided he wanted to play saxophone. He took lessons and, retired now, he plays with a big band in his hometown in Idaho.
My mom never took lessons but she could play the daylights out of the piano. Ragtime, blues, jazz, swing stuff and eventually rock and roll, she owned them all. Under the touch of her nimble fingers, the old piano fairly talked to its listeners. She could make an organ sing, too, whether in church accompanying a choir on hymns or just cranking out Broadway melodies in the music room on the east end of her house in Chamberlain.
Our family history holds that at age three my mom crawled up on the seat of a piano bench and started to play music. She could play anything by ear, with nary a note or tempo marking in sight. Somehow over the years she taught herself to read music, probably to play in church. She was good at that, but she was best when she just closed her eyes and made her music.
She and my dad both encouraged us kids to learn instruments. Most of us were in band, although I was only in dance band playing a guitar by looking at chord signs, not by actually reading music. My mom talked my dad into letting me order my first acoustic guitar, so that’s one more thing I owe her. I may not have been the piano player she hoped for, but I could chord and sing Elvis and Jerry Lee songs while she hammered away on the piano keys. All these years after she passed, I still think of those rare duets and smile, grateful that I didn’t step away completely from learning to play an instrument.
I’m also grateful for the times I sat with her and the rest of the family and watched Liberace on television. She loved that guy. She loved his flashy costumes, his flourishes at the keyboard and his marvelous music, made while he laughed and talked and gently teased his brother George. His show was a highlight of our family’s week. We especially liked it when he closed each show by softly playing and singing the late ‘30s ballad, “I’ll Be Seeing You.’’ Few songs touch me as deeply as that one, maybe because of the times I came home and heard my mom at her piano, playing her heart out to that song.
I read recently that NASA transmitted the Billie Holiday version of “I’ll Be Seeing You’’ to the Mars space rover when its mission ended last year. I kind of wish it had been my mom’s version.