I knew that if I practiced, eventually I would play the piano better, but that meant nothing to me. I wanted to play better now. My mother was beautiful and intelligent, my father was handsome and charming, and they didn’t have to practice. I couldn’t imagine that Milton Berle or Maury Amsterdam had to practice to be funny, and I assumed that the first time someone put the score of Grieg’s Piano Concerto in front of José Iturbi he immediately knew how to bang his way down through that pretentious opening, hitting all the right keys, and then swan through the rest like a maestro. I couldn’t even do that with a simple melody written by Mozart when he was six years old.
My next piano teacher was Ginny Schwartz.
In one particular, Ginny Schwartz was the most startling, exotic person I knew: even though her name was Schwartz, she wasn’t Jewish. Proof of this fact, which had all the weirdness of something out of Ripley’s “Believe it or Not,” was that Mr. Schwartz was the pastor of the Lutheran Church. Otherwise, Ginny Schwartz was a florid, brassy imposter, who maintained a high level of cheerful exuberance, which sometimes shaded into manic hysteria, to keep her customers – that is, her pupils’ parents – reassured.
Ginny Schwartz was able to teach us some basics – fingering, sharps and flats (up or down to the next black key), the three-in-one mystery of triplets, the difference between ppp and fff – but nothing beyond them. She sent us home with Hanon’s exercises, hoping (beyond hope) that they would make up for her pedagogic deficiencies.
I liked the Hanon, which made them frustrating. It seemed to me that once I knew what the pattern of an exercise was, I should have been able to play it, up and down the keyboard, without having to keep peering at the notes, every one, and even then hitting the wrong key or two keys at once, or tangling up my fingers. And, forget about maintaining a regular beat – even a very slow one: I didn’t even try. I never reached the point where if I saw a G#, I played a G#; I had to pause to think G#. In my hidden inner world, I was so gloriously nimble that after I had discerned the pattern of a Hanon exercise I could see how to make it even more interesting, and funny, as well; in the unhidden world, I was an inveterate klutz. I couldn’t even catch a softball, much less prance my fingers through Hanon.
Ginny Schwartz’ only contribution to my attempts to master Hanon was to bang a rhythm on the piano top with the flat of her hand, while I tried to keep up. A true piano teacher would have played the Hanon to show how it should be done, but that was beyond Ginny Schwartz’ capabilities.
Someone’s parents once complained that their child, after years of piano lessons, did not even know what a key signature was, so Ginny Schwartz had a group session where she played us a series of chords and scales, announcing what keys they were in. That was the best she could do. She knew little more about music than we did. When she did assign us pieces that she, too, could play – minuets by Mozart and Bach, Offenbach’s Barcarolle, and the ne plus ultra of her teaching repertoire, which she had gotten down pat, Beethoven’s Für Elise – none had more than three sharps or three flats. Beyond that, for Ginny Schwartz, all was chaos.
What I most enjoyed about piano lessons was sitting at the Schwartz’ dining table, while waiting for my fifteen minute lesson, making lists of composers from A to Z, one for each letter. (We were allowed to skip “X” – Iannis Xenakis not yet having veered from architecture into music – but, completist that I was, I always wrote “Xavier”, thinking that someone of that name must have put some notes on paper sometime.) Ginny Schwartz was stricter about our making our lists of composers than about anything that happened at the upright in her living room – as well she might be, with the anxiety of leaving two or three unsupervised pre-teens in her dining room.
It’s a game I still play, sometimes, when I can’t get to sleep.