On summer nights when I was growing up, I used to listen to the lady next door play the piano for hours. The best seat for those solitary concerts was my sister Jeanne’s bedroom, on the west side of the house that faced the sprawling porch of Mrs. L’s brooding Tudor.
During the day she taught piano to children like me. Whether the song of the week was “Indian Drum” or a Bach Two-Part Invention, she suffered wrong notes with unwavering grace. At the end of each lesson, she wrote out the next week’s assignment, along with a personal message. “Keep up the good work,” she might prod. Or, “Concentrate on that fingering!” if there were a particularly tricky passage to master.
The best part of every lesson came when Mrs. L. motioned the student aside and slid onto the ebony bench to demonstrate how a new song should be played. Even the simplest tune was a masterpiece when she coaxed the melody from her massive Steinway. I always left her house inspired to practice until my playing sounded as faultless as hers.
Long after the cries of “Home free” had faded and all the neighborhood kids were getting ready for bed, she played the piano in the dark. She could go on for hours, pausing just long enough between pieces for the silent applause of her invisible audience. Her playing entranced me with its brooding power. It was obsessive, transporting. I imagined her aloft with her splendid grand, spreading Beethoven and Chopin far into the heavens, like a scene from a Chagall painting.
I was only a child, no more than 9 or 10, but I recognized the passion that was spent on those hot nights in the days before air conditioning. She must have been lonely, a middle-aged widow with two children to support in a small town that specialized in families as scrubbed and symmetrical as “Ozzie and Harriet.”
As a young girl she wanted to perform on the concert stage, she told me, but had given up that dream when she married. She saw Paderewski play at Carnegie Hall once, she said, and his hands were the size of shovels. “An octave was nothing to him,” she assured me.
I spent some of the most important hours of my childhood with Mrs. L., seated next to her at the Steinway. She taught me self-discipline, self-reliance, and the deep joy that comes from giving yourself up to the wellspring of creativity that music inspires. I still have some of the music she coached me through; her penciled notes have faded with the years.
On summer nights when I play the piano in my own darkened living room, I can hear her tapping out the rhythm lightly with her foot and whispering, “Don’t forget the melody! You have to let the melody sing out.”
Now I understand she did not play because she was lonely or sad; she was just reaching for the stars.