a short story by
Shoshanah Lee Marohn
copyright 2016, Shoshanah Lee Marohn
The university where I got my teaching degree changes its name every two or three years, and I can't remember what it calls itself at the moment. Every time they change the name, their purpose is to make the school sound more prestigious and noteworthy, but the actual result is that people like me can't think of the new name when they are asked where they went to college. I guess this has the opposite effect from that intended: if we ever do think of the name of the place, it always takes at least five minutes to remember it, and the person who asked clearly has the impression that only dimwits go to this particular university.
At any rate, when I was twenty-seven, I went back to school to get my teaching degree, and due to my impoverished state of being, I was given a Pell Grant. Pell Grants are the most wonderful things ever. People give you money, and you don't have to pay it back. I'm sure something has been done to stop them by now.
In the summer of 1999, I went to my nameless university's financial aide office to set things up for summer school, and found that I was one credit short of a Pell Grant for the summer.
"You mean I don't get my grant unless I take another summer school credit?"
"Yes," said the kind young man behind the desk. (Everyone was pretty nice there.)
"So if I take one credit, you'll give me five thousand dollars?"
"Yes," he repeated, most amiably, pulling a summer school course list out of his drawer. "If I were you, I would just sign up for a credit, any credit at all."
A perusal through the course listings showed that there weren't all that many one credit courses. I could take more than one credit, but unnecessary work was not on my summer itinerary. I started looking through the art classes for something easy. No luck. Then the music classes- I had always felt myself to be musical, although I'd never mastered any particular instrument. "Piano Camp" was listed, one credit, and it only lasted a week. I had a little electronic keyboard at home and I had been working my way through The Complete Piano Player for the last year or so. Beautiful! Perfect! I would learn to play piano better, and also get my grant in the least painful way possible. The summer was looking good.
Two months later, the first day of piano camp dawned, and the weather was as sunny and bright as my disposition. Since I'd never been to the music building before, I went early to find my classroom. Along the way, I became caught up in a crowd of children with their parents. Huh. Wonder what they were all doing? Field trip? Church group?
Interestingly, all of the children seemed to be headed towards the general direction of my classroom. Why do they always schedule people so close together? I wondered. Here we had a whole empty campus, and they had to schedule some sort of children's program right in the same building as my piano class.
I went to the correct room number and found oodles of people, most of them children, standing in various lines. Not knowing what else to do, I stood in one of the lines, planning on asking the person at the front where my piano class was and why it was listed as this room number? But, as I drew nearer to the front of my queue, the horrible truth because apparent. Little people were leaving the front of the line with tee shirts that said, "Piano Camp, 1999" on them. When I finally got to the front of the line, I was speechless. I was greeted by a smiling man with a very bible-school-youth-group-leader air about him.
"Piano or violin?" he asked me with an uninterrupted grin.
"Rooming here or off-campus?"
"Are you staying in the dorms?"
"No, no- I-" I owned a house with my husband on the West Side.
"Listen, I thought this was a college class. It's in the summer school course listing."
"Oh, so you're one of our music majors?"
"No, no. I just wanted to learn the piano better." I felt like this was a really lame excuse for being there- oddly, because it was the purpose, wasn't it?
"Oh, you can do that."
"Well, what do the music majors do here? They're learning, right?"
"No, actually, they help our teachers." Fuck.
"Am I the only adult student, then?"
"Oh, no," he was still smiling. "I'm sure there is someone else. Tee shirt size?"
After having been given my tee shirt, I was then herded into an audition waiting room. Apparently, we were all to be put into different groups according to our ability levels. Looking and the six- and eight-year-olds around me, clutching piano music books, I had a sudden urge to run. But it was five thousand dollars. And I had to take a credit to get my money. Piano camp, as it turned out, started towards the end of the summer and therefore it was too late to begin something easier on the ego, like, say, a four credit Calculus class, or Botany for Physicists. Those classes were probably all full of six-year-olds already, anyway.
It was a brief wait until I was sent into a small room with a grand piano and three skinny, intimidating professors dressed in black. I took a seat at the piano bench. I gave them my name, and they scribbled on clipboards. How was it that you had to audition for a children's piano camp? Every moment, my day was becoming more and more surreal.
"I'm going to sing some notes," said the only woman, "and I would like you to play them, exactly as I sing them, on the piano." It seemed easy enough.
She hummed a little melody. I played it as best as I could, starting on a high G note. The piano didn't play like my electronic keyboard at home; my notes came out all funny, one note strong, one weak, and I realized that my keyboard at home was not touch-sensitive. I had never played a real piano before, and it was obvious to my judges.
The lady who had hummed the melody looked at me disapprovingly, and I assumed it was the uneven volume of my notes. But, no, I was actually inadequate in several areas.
"The melodies all begin on Middle C," she told me, as though I should have known.
"Oh, okay," said I, and I played her little melody again, this time starting on C. The woman stood up and walked over to me.
"This is Middle C," she said, and played a C note two octaves down from where I had started. That was a real confidence builder for me.
Piano camp turned out to consist of a week full of mornings in music theory classes, with afternoons full of small group or private lessons, followed by practicing with your group for the final performance Friday night.
So there would be a recital. I decided immediately not to reveal the time and place of the recital to anyone I knew- not even to my husband.
I was assigned to be in the same group as four adolescent boys, ranging in age from twelve to fifteen. And there was me, a twenty-seven-year-old woman who worked as a school bus driver during the school year and was studying to be an English teacher. So it was just your totally average musical group, nothing odd about it at all.
Most of the boys were at about my same playing level, but there was one, the fifteen-year-old, who was much better than all of us. Why he was in our group was a mystery to me at first, until I figured out that he didn't play classical music. He played rock. He could sing well, too- he's probably playing an Elton John tune in an off-the-strip bar in Las Vegas right now. He was an excellent sight reader, and the choice to not play classical was clearly a choice, and not a matter of inability to do so. Also, this kid was a maverick in that he carried around a harmonica.
For much of piano camp, the fact that there was any other music besides classical music was completely ignored. Interestingly, though, for two afternoons out of five, there was a jazz pianist who was available to give lessons, a man with two Emmys under his belt, who was inexplicably present for our benefit. My group, led by myself and harmonica boy, were the only ones who took advantage of his lessons. This guy wrote out chord progressions instead of notes; clearly he was in league with the devil. Learning licks from him, I could feel my brain growing. With the other teachers, my hands would progressively shake more and more until I wanted to die. With the jazz guy, I wanted to sing. Unfortunately, it was only a few hours, but I definitely learned a lot, particularly about the importance of a strong left hand.
Another thing mostly ignored at piano camp was the fact that it is possible to teach one's self music. I guess it's that self-preservation thing. If piano teachers taught you that you could teach yourself to play the piano, they would be putting themselves out of business.
I think harmonica guy and I were the only ones there who didn't have private lessons. The students all played for each other a lot, and time and time again, you could ask someone there why he or she had learned a particular piece of music (you could even ask the student teachers, the adults) and the pianist would say, "My teacher made me learn it." I couldn't wrap myself around that for anything. For me, music had always been about fun- sometimes even about excessive drinking. Here, it was reduced to drills, simply following notes on a page correctly. Correctly? But what about improvisation?
The second most embarrassing moment of the week (the first would be during the concert, of course) was when the teacher complimented me. When I was called upon to play, I played a song on the piano for the class, decently, and I was relieved when it was over. But it wasn't. Lots of questions came from my young classmates. They were curious about my presence. How long had I been playing? Who had taught me? Why did I suck so badly? (Okay, they didn't ask me that one...) Stupidly, I answered all of their questions honestly, and it came out that I had no teacher, that I had just been working out of this book for a year, and that I had no real piano. And, obviously, I was an adult.
That did it. According to the woman teaching the class, (the same one who taught me where Middle C was located,) I was a hero. She stood behind me and gave a speech to say as much,
"I find this so inspiring. Let Shoshanah be an example to us all. She has no teacher, she's well beyond the age when we usually start playing an instrument, and she doesn't even have a piano- not even a piano! and yet she's still here, today, learning how to play."
Well... sort of. I blushed conspicuously. How could I tell them that I just wanted my Pell Grant? That all of this had been a horrible mistake? That playing the piano was sort of like knitting or making homemade ice cream to me? A hobby. A pastime. But clearly, music meant a whole lot more, although I wasn't ready to admit it right then. I would never be so embarrassed over making a batch of ice cream or knitting a scarf. The lady made me feel like a freak for even considering teaching myself anything. Was I really such an anomaly?
The afternoons of practice were very trying for anyone over fifteen and female. The boys and I would be sent off to a practice room with some music which we were expected to, you know, practice. (Practicing in a practice room. Imagine that.) The boys would inevitably find some kind of trouble to get into instead of working. Part of their horsing around included just playing whatever they wanted, which, I have to admit, was fun. Music is a great equalizer. When we were actually playing music together, it didn't matter who we all were, individually. We were just musicians.
So it came about that we liked jamming together. We were each good at a certain part (I played the bass line). The great jazz musician we had seen for a few hours had given us some good tips. Now that we knew each other, we didn't want to play a classical piece for the concert. We wanted to jam together on stage and play a twelve bar blues. Our best pianist, the fifteen-year-old, didn't even want to play the piano for the recital. He wanted to play his mouth harp instead.
By Thursday afternoon, it was apparent that we probably would not be able to play anything but the blues. We hadn't practiced anything that was formally written down. We were just screwing around and having fun. I, in my age and wisdom, had done nothing to encourage the boys to practice classical piano. I convinced them, in fact, that if we played the blues well enough, the powers that be would allow us to play the blues for the concert. So, on Thursday, we wrote an arrangement, ran through it a few times, and then two of the boys went to get the head maestro so we could play it for him.
Ten minutes later, the six of us (the four boys, the Maestro, and I) were stuffed into a tiny room with two grand pianos, and with a, "One two three four!" we played our hearts out for the Maestro. We were on fire. We were bumping into each other, playing over each other's hands, having a good old time. We were exuberant at the end. Sweating. Smiling. We'd done good.
"Well, what do you think? Can we play it for the concert?"
The Maestro (we really had to call him, "Maestro") wore all black and held a white handkerchief in front of his mouth, like a barrier to keep himself separate from the evil blues music. He was not smiling. He hesitated to answer.
"Surely you're not going to count out loud like that during the concert?"
None of us was really used to playing with other people, and in order to stay together, we had been sometimes shouting out, "One two three four one two three four!" to stay together. This had been a suggestion of the great jazz pianist's. The great jazz pianist who was now gone. On to LA for a recording.
"Well, yeah. We were going to count out loud."
"No, no. The audience will hear you! You can't count out loud."
So, we were cleared to play the blues, as long as we did not count out loud.
I was quite happy. I was ready to go home for the day. The boys had other plans.
"Hey, we gotta do this right! We should have costumes!" Oh, my.
"No, guys, we don't need costumes," I said. But everyone else was in agreement.
"Yeah, yeah! We should wear all black! We'll be like the Blues Brothers!"
"And sunglasses! Black sunglasses!"
"No, no, boys, I don't think we need sunglasses. That's okay."
"I know I know I know I know I know! We'll have the sunglasses in our hands, and then we'll like line up on the front of the stage, and then right before we play, like, we'll all put on our sunglasses together, like all at the same time!"
"No, really, boys, that's okay. Let's just wear black."
"Oh, that is so awesome! We have to do that!"
"That's bad!" (Bad apparently meant good in the teenaged vernacular.) "Everyone, let's bring our sunglasses tomorrow so we can practice!"
I was now definitely, definitively, indubitably not telling anyone about this performance on Friday.
Friday evening arrived on schedule, in spite of me.
It just so happened that piano camp coincided with a time period when I was briefly addicted to buying completely inappropriate clothing on ebay. Therefore, I had a dress which would, under the normal circumstances of my life, have been inappropriate for anything which I might normally do. Of course, preforming a blues number with four teenaged boys was not in my normal realm of activity, and the dress, unlike more of its closet mates, might actually be worn.
This was no ordinary dress. It was black, clingy, and low cut, but that wasn't all this dress was about. The fabric actually sparkled. It had some sort of willowy starlight woven into it. I was 150 pounds and wished I was 130, but the dress would have none of this. The dress said these curves were on purpose, these curves were there for a reason, and the dress knew exactly what these curves were there for, even if I didn't. It was impossible to walk in this dress without a slight seductive sway of the hips. The dress was a performer, and the dress could only be worn for a performance, and the dress insisted on being worn. Who was I to argue?
I met some of the boys' parents in the auditorium that night. They clearly had no idea what to make of me. Child molester in a shimmering black dress? What?
The program had cryptically labeled our act, "Dueling Pianos".
I sat with my band. "Do you have your sunglasses?" They kept asking me.
"Well, yeah, but you know, we don't have to do the sunglasses routine..."
"Yeah, we do."
We sat in the audience for most of the show. Some of the acts were amazingly bad. Of course, the players were six-year-olds.
By the time our act was up, my palms were sweating. We walked up the stairs to the stage. (I heard a lady say, "nice dress.") We stood in a line facing the audience, the boys all in black and me conspicuously grown up and in an evening gown. Then, on cue, we all put on black sunglasses at exactly the same time. There were chuckles in the audience. We gave each other a quick and serious nod (I have no idea where that came from) and took our places in front of the grand pianos.
We started playing horribly out of time with one another. We had never played together without counting out loud. Screw the Maestro! As the bass line, it was my duty to keep us all together. I started yelling, "One two three four one to three..." and the boys started counting with me, one by one. And then we were together, just like that. A miracle. We were good. Playing over each other's hands and sweating and smiling and having a good old time. And our best pianist stopped playing, stood up, grabbed a mike, and pulled out his trusty harmonica and started tearing it up. And for a few minutes there, to be completely honest, I was having a damn good time.
The piano camp recital was reviewed on the last page of the newspaper the next day. Of all of the performers, we were the only ones mentioned by name. We had made an impression. I don't remember the specifics, now, except for one detail: they spelled my name so horribly wrong that no one could ever possibly know I was there. Complete anonymity! I hadn't even told any friends about it. It was my secret week of piano camp. Until now.
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