My grandfather played piano. He had a stately, sumptuously decorated house in the wealthiest part of San Diego, with an elaborately wood inlay grand piano in his front hall that he entertained with when asked. I think he was self-taught, and I know that he didn’t read music. He played by ear and could play many popular tunes, and very well. I never knew how he learned, though I suppose if I had asked him, he would have been happy to tell me.
I played piano as a child, starting young in a children’s group class. The teachers name way Cindy, which I thought was the most beautiful name, much more becoming than my own, one syllabled name that was frequently stretched into two by my mother, a DC native who drew out the B so my name sounded like bah-ritt. Or my brother, who frequently toyed, not unkindly, with my name, turning it into buuurrrrito. When I imagined myself on horseback, loping across the golf course to my best friends house, I was always Cindy, a pink skinned, curly haired beauty fashioned after my piano teacher. Cindy sang in a soprano voice, and had cascading blond curls that fell upon her giant bosom She wore frilly blouses and pink lipstick and metallic eyeshadow. Jewelry adorned her fingers and I thought her the picture of feminine idealism. Myself, I was thin and tan, not pink and curvy (although I was only about 6 years old) and very self conscious of my long skinny legs. Though I did get compliments on my long finger –piano fingers the teachers called them—and learned to be proud of those.
A neighbor boy my brothers age demonstrated an amazing rendition of Scott Joplin’s The Entertainer to my astonished young eyes. Here was a boy, maybe 9 years old, putting forth a complex and raucous piece of music that I never imagined myself being able to play. In fact, I never thought any further than the lesson that I went to once a week and the practice I did each afternoon. I had no plans for becoming a piano player—though I must have indicated that I enjoyed it. But he impressed me and I frequently thought of him when practicing.
At the age of 10, I performed in recitals. Local, small town events, held on Sundays in an aging community hall with a stage. There, a grand piano was pushed onstage and student after student from the piano instructor who organized the event shuffled out, took a bow, and sat down to plink out some memorized tune. One recital, I was given two tunes to play back to back and, while I don’t recall what they were, I do remember receiving an enthusiastic applause after the first piece before launching into my next number. I wore a peach and white dotted skirt and dress combo, likely from Kmart, and knee high socks and white sandals. I must have played with feeling on this particular day because I received another resounding applause. I think I carried music sheets with me. Why I was allowed two tunes and a sheet music accompaniment, I don’t recall. But my mother told me years later how awed she was that I could get on stage and play, without nervousness or faltering. All I remember was looking forward to sneaking around with my friend back stage, getting into the dressing rooms and prying open locked doors. That old performance hall was built in the 1920s and was full of interesting nooks and crannies. For me at the age of 10, the performance was the price to pay to be able to poke around in the back rooms of that hall.
Of course, with puberty came the refusal to practice or do anything my parents wanted me to do. They were about to divorce and were already living apart, in fact had been for 3 years, and had new relationships of their own. My interest in pleasing them waned and I looked for a new identity. Out went the piano playing along with my childhood photos and other things I deemed reminders of my childhood, which was now completely gone. I burned all my journals and childhood school photos in a pile on the front porch. My mother asked later what the black mark was and I don’t remember if I told her what I burned or not. There was never another mention of it.
Years later, I longed to play piano again and moved the old upright piano I had practiced on and stained with hot cups of soup into the house I had just purchased on my own at the age of 29. I attempted more lessons but only found lonely old men who required more commitment than I was willing to give, or awkward gay men in sweat pants with electronic pianos with the volume far too low in their crappy carpeted apartments. I became busy with other things.
Fast forward a couple of years. I have a broken leg and a new relationship with a man that would become my husband. I sat with my broken leg and slowly learned to plink out a version of The Entertainer. I picked through the music, note by note, my ability to read music not any better than it had been at age 10 (I still had said acronyms for each space and line to figure out which note was shown on the music). But I learned to play that tune haltingly, to my delight and surprise. Shortly thereafter, the husband moved in a nonoperational organ that had belonged to his great grandmother into our place, and I sold my piano to make room.
Now, a decade later, I live in Europe in a tiny apartment that couldn’t house a piano even if I could get it up the three flights of stairs to my floor. But I need a piano now. I need to master The Entertainer. I need to be able to sit down play for that wide eyed 6 year old whose photos and diaries I burned. So I am looking for a place where I can give a piano it’s own space. A place big enough for all of me.