The Piano Story

November 29, 2010
By , Walnut Creek, CA
Jazzy chords from the finely tuned piano bounced off each wall of the one story house as my father, uncle and grandma, were halfway through washing all of the dishes after dinner. My grandfather, however, was not in the kitchen; he was at the beautiful, not so new Kimball piano, pounding at each key as though it was the last song he was ever going to play. Some would say that it was his excuse to not do the dishes, but I beg to differ. You see, every day after dinner that was the place you could find him, always. He did not live long enough for me to have ever met him, but I now know that we are very alike.
I guess you could say this all started in the second grade. My mom and dad thought that it would be a good idea to enroll me in piano lessons. I was, and still am, not a big fan of lessons. I am one of those people who does not read the manual, but figures it out on my own. My first lesson rolled around the corner and my mom practically dragged me into the car and drove me to Lafayette. I got out of the car, my legs turned purple and my mouth became itchy (sure signs that I was nervous). I walked up the steps with my three, orange piano books in tote and opened the door. A large, solemn lady greeted me in a thick Russian accent. I was not quite sure what she said, so I just smiled and nodded politely. She immediately sat me down and opened my orange, beginner’s books, already assigning me homework and writing down the page numbers on a yellow, legal pad that she gave me. “Who assigns homework for piano lessons?” I thought. I went home after the half-hour lesson and threw my orange books on the ground in the piano room.
I made the decision on the ride home that I hated piano lessons and never wanted to go back. My dad wouldn’t let me quit, telling me his famous line, that Magrath’s are not quitters. His dad did not quit after his first lesson, and he wasn’t going to let me. Each Wednesday for four months I would walk into the small room with the brown piano, hand my teacher my orange homework book and she would dash the answers that I got wrong with a red pen. After I would hand her my yellow legal pad and she would write down the pages of my next homework assignment, while I glared at her. Looking back, I realized that she would only talk when she was explaining the different notes and how to tell when to play each note. Like I said, I could not understand what she was saying through her accent, so I just looked at her and nodded. After four months of lessons I told my mom that I did not understand my teacher. I assumed that she would just cancel my lessons for good and each Wednesday I would just come home from school and not have to worry about finishing my stupid piano homework, but that was not the case. She signed me up for another teacher. That meant that I would have to go through the first day of lessons with a new teacher one more time.
It was Wednesday again, and I found myself getting out of my mom’s car with purple legs and an itchy mouth, walking to the door of a small, cluttered white house. After the greetings and introductions occurred, the small grey haired lady asked my mom, “Has she had experience with reading sheet music before?”
“Yes, and she has attended lessons previously,” my mom answered, not knowing that I did not learn anything from my old teacher.
This was the downfall of my second and third piano teachers. When my mom left the house and went to go sit in her car and read her Clive Cussler novel, my teacher sat me down at the unfamiliar piano and told me to play each note and tell her the name of the note. I tried my best to get every note right, but the truth was that I was never taught how to read notes (well I was, but in a thick, incomprehensible Russian accent). I sat there in silence, trying to think of what to say. My new teacher started to chuckle and she told me to not be shy. She quickly changed the activity and tried to teach me a new song that incorporated arpeggios. She put the sheet music for Indian War Dance in front of me and told me where to put my fingers and at what time to play what key. I learned quickly that she had a different method of teaching than assigning homework, packs of Double Bubble watermelon gum. Each Wednesday she would ask me if I had practiced. It became second nature for me to say yes, even if I hadn’t practiced. I don’t roll over for just anybody, and packs of gum were not going to make me practice. My parents never noticed if I practiced or not, yet. After a couple weeks of lessons my mom asked me why I kept coming into the car with a pack of gum. I told her how I got them from my teacher if I practiced. And that’s when it happened. My fourth grade self was scolded for two things: lying and not practicing. Life as I knew it was about to change. Ever since that day, I thought piano was bearable, with the added bonus of free gum, but after that day it became completely unbearable. Every other day after school my mom would sit me on the old, brown piano bench, set the oven timer for 45 minutes and make me play. I would play every song I memorized, just staring at the sheet music, wondering what all those little squiggly notes meant. Sometimes when my mom was not looking I would speed the timer up, making my time in front of the piano as short as possible. I hated the piano. Whenever I passed the piano room I would divert my eyes. I got enough of that thing during my lessons and couldn’t stand it any longer. I did what I did one teacher ago. I told my mom that I didn’t like my teacher, which was true. My mom did what she did the last time and scheduled me to attend lessons at a lady named Lavenia in Walnut Creek, every Wednesday.
With purple legs and an itchy mouth I walked into Lavenia’s house with my mom.
“Has she had much experience with the piano?” Lavenia asked my mom. At this point I was sitting on the small, black bench having a serious case of deja vu. “Oh no, here it comes,” I thought to myself.

“Yes, she has played for two years,” my mom answered.
I thought it was normal when I realized that I could not tell what notes all the small black circles with stems were, and what key to play that corresponded with those notes. Lavenia was my best teacher, not because of how she played or what she tried to teach me, but because of her stories, her personality and her animals. Looking back, I remember one day, walking into her house seeing her goat, Molly, in the backyard, Jack, the jet black cat, and Lavenia, a lady of almost 80 years sitting on her knees on a hard wooden chair, just like a teenager would do.
Before I knew it my first recital was here, and it felt just like the first day at a new teachers house (purple legs and an itchy mouth). My family and I were sitting on the wooden chairs, surrounded by many other families. A little girl a lot younger than me was before me. She sat down and played like she was a professional pianist. I immediately wanted to run to the sliding glass door and just sit outside with Molly, and completely forget about piano and what was going on inside. But I didn’t. “Magrath’s are not quitters” rang in my head as I stood up, said my name and the title of my song, and began to play. People in that room probably thought that I had only been playing the piano for a couple of months, not three years. Although I felt like running away, I sat there and played. Looking back, I can see it’s because I am a Magrath, just like my grandpa.
I stayed with Lavenia for 3 and a half years, enjoying her animals and her stories, but still, not enjoying piano. It was the summer going in to eighth grade, and I simply asked myself why I was playing piano. The answer was for my parents, and no one else. I did the only thing I knew how to do and told my mom that I did not like my teacher, expecting her to tell me she booked me to attend lessons at a new teacher’s house, but she surprised me. She simply said O.K, and called Lavenia. And that was that. No new teacher, no purple legs, no itchy mouth. No more piano. I took a three month break from piano, until my father told me the piano story.
“Every day after dinner, instead of doing the dishes, your grandfather would sit at the piano and play. He didn’t care who was listening, he just played for the pure reason that it made him happy, something that he did not get a lot of when he was sick,” my dad told me. After that moment, every day after dinner I would run to the piano and play the songs I memorized from my 5 years of lessons. At first I did it just to get out of doing the dishes, but then I realized that I was searching for the happiness that my grandfather found in playing the piano, and I finally found it. I realized I wanted to prove to myself, and my grandfather that I can read notes. After all 3 teachers, I quit, realizing that reading the manual was not working for me, so I taught myself, with the help of my guardian angel Gramps. I taught myself “FACE” and “All Cows Eat Grass”, on my own time. I learned that the space between the four strange bars that held notes on the top stand for FACE, and that corresponds to the keys f, a, c, and e and the lines between the spaces stand for All Cows Eat Grass, and that corresponds to the keys a, c, e, and g. It was simpler than I thought, and after 13 years of people telling me I had “piano fingers” I could finally put them to good use. A couple months after my dad told me the piano story, he told me another piano story. He told me that the old Kimball piano that we have in our piano room is the exact same piano that his dad, and my grandpa, used to play every day after dinner. I realized that the dents and the small nicks in the keys and the weird sounding F note that somehow always seems to come up in all of the songs I play were all there when my grandpa sat at that same bench. After I learned how to read sheet music, I realized I could play anything I wanted to, just like Gramps could. After I quit piano, I started playing the piano.





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