Can You Play Me A Tune?

“Glenn, you are going to learn how to play the piano.” My father’s words fell upon my ears like a death sentence, and one that I had known was coming for the past year. “Mr. Kadir says that you are old enough to get started, and that’s what you will do next Saturday.  I expect for you to practice one half hour every day and pay attention to Mr. Kadir.”  “Why do I have to learn how to play the piano?  I don’t want to play it” I whined. “That’s fine,” Dad replied.  “I intend for you to learn about some of the more refined things in life than climbing trees and playing with your useless friends, and so if you would prefer to take dance lessons rather than piano I will agree to that.”

Dance lessons! Just the thought of it gave me the shivers.  That would mean holding hands with a girl, and sometimes even putting your arm around one of them!  I didn’t want to play the piano but I certainly did not want to dance.  Imagine the reception that I would get at the local playground when I told Wes and Ralph and Dutch and Jake and my other friends that I had to leave on a Saturday afternoon to go take DANCE lessons.  “Go put your tutu on,” or “Can we see you in your leotard?” were only two of the taunts that I could already hear.  It was clear as crystal that my nervous system would not be able to sustain that, and so I mumbled a half-hearted assent and turned to face the new spinet-style piano that rested in the corner of our living room.  The spinet is a small piano, and that is what was needed to properly fit in the tiny living room of our small stucco cubicle of a home in San Diego.

“Good,” Dad grunted, and walked away, leaving me to stare glumly at the blond-colored vehicle of my immanent loss of freedom.  Later I would have to face my neighborhood pals who would be suffering no similar loss of their freedom, and that thought hurt like fire.  I walked over to the piano and lifted the hinged wooden cover which slid back into the body of the instrument to reveal the eighty eight black and white keys, which looked to me like teeth which populated a smirking smile.  “Screw you Kid.  I own you now” they seemed to be saying to me.  I covered the keyboard back up and left the house to go play in the dirt and try to forget this new intrusion by grown-ups into my life.

My father was on a mission to civilize his two boys.  Brad, my brother, had begun to take violin lessons from Mr. Kadir a year before, and he was pretty good at it although he liked music lessons even less than I would.  Already we had attended a concert at Balboa Park where Brad had played his violin.  Many of the music teachers in San Diego would show off their best students at concerts like these, partly to gain experience at playing publicly for their students and partly to showcase the accomplishments of their own studios.  Many a young boy or girl found their weekends doomed as mine had been after a parent attended one of those concerts and said to him or herself “That’s just what my little Johnny or Judy needs.”

Dad had grown up dirt-poor on a farm in southern Georgia during the Depression.  There was very little refinement in his life, and it was not until he joined the Navy and visited the world outside of Tifton, Georgia, that he realized there could be a lot more to life than sweet potatoes and cornbread.  He was determined that Brad and I would be exposed to finer things from an early age, whether we liked it or not.  And what Dad decided for us was absolute, unquestioned law.

So the dreadful Saturday came and Brad and I were packed up by our mother and trundled off to Mr. Kadir’s studio.  Dad would dictate our removal from all things fun on a San Diego weekend but had no intention of sacrificing an hour himself.  Mom introduced me and then left to do some shopping or go back home or whatever it was that she did when we were not slowing her down, and I sat on a sofa and watched Mr. Kadir put Brad through some scales and other exercises, and then practice some piece or other from the thick, yellow music book with the black notes all over the cover.

I looked through the National Geographic magazines which covered Mr. Kadir’s coffee table, paying special attention to the bare-breasted women from Africa or New Guinea or someplace like that.  I was engrossed in those photos and didn’t notice that Brad had finished his lesson and was putting his violin and bow back into their case.  “OK Glenn, it’s your turn” said Mr. Kadir in the cheerful way that adults do when they’re trying to convince kids that they really want to do something which in fact they really do not.  I arose and trudged over to the piano bench while Brad took my place on the sofa and began to look at the magazines too.  And so began my eleven year ride as a piano student under the tutelage of Mr. Kadir.

Brad did not take violin lessons for very long after I began to learn the piano.  Brad was, and remains to this day, four years older than me, and was more able to assert his will against our father’s in some ways.  He was also a pretty good baseball player and was successful in little league play, and when Dad retired from the Navy and began to take college classes in a teaching program Brad’s disinterest in the violin and his considerable skill at playing third base, plus the idea of saving twelve dollars a month, looked pretty good to Dad.  I had no such skills in baseball however, and had shown an unexpected talent for playing the piano, so Dad mandated that I continue on that track.

And I suppose that I was pretty good.  At the concerts which students all over the city had to endure, the order of performance went from least to most accomplished.  I was steadily moving up later and later in those concerts, and Mr. Kadir was certain that I had a future at the keyboard.  That rise in my skill was interrupted one day when my parents announced that they were separating and getting a divorce.

Freedom at last!  No more would I have to disrupt my Saturdays and waste a half hour every single day after school banging on the piano’s keys.  “Oh yes you do” said my mother, but she enjoyed little of the persuasive ability of Dad in making me practice and go to my lessons.  Consequently I learned little, and frequently “forgot” to practice or to go to my lessons.  Mom was working at a drug store in the evenings and could do nothing about my rebellion.

That all ended six months later when Mom, at her wits end with two boys who were spinning out of control, dropped her divorce proceedings and invited Dad to return.  This he did, and with him came the LAW.  On the first Saturday that I “forgot” to go to a lesson Dad came up to the Park where I was playing wiffle ball with my friends and walked me home, where he began to point out in unmistakable detail the error in my logic and the behavior that was expected of me, with a level of persuasion similar to that which was exercised upon two unlucky cities in Japan on August 6 and 9 of 1945.  Sitting on the piano bench was uncomfortable for the next day or two, but there was never any doubt thereafter that for one half hour every day and a full hour now on Saturdays I would be sitting on a bench practicing at home or learning from Mr. Kadir.

With my return to an enforced diligence of my practice habits I began to advance once again in my studies.  A year after Dad’s return I was accepted by our junior high school Boy’s Chorus leader as an accompanist.  My job was to learn a certain piece of music in order to play it while the chorus would sing.  I never really got the hang of this however.  My model for learning new music was to practice over, and over, and over again, for weeks or months or more until my fingers seemed to remember where to go on their own.  This model was not at all suited for a setting where the boys would begin to practice their singing almost immediately, and the accompanist must be up and running from the beginning.  To say the least, I failed miserably at my mission, and only accompanied one song before I was installed in the baritone section as a singer rather than a player.  It all worked out in the end however.  As a result of my dilatory effort as a pianist I was standing on the risers with the rest of the Chorus when we sang as President John F. Kennedy rode past us in 1963, which was one of the most stirring moments of my life.

I played the piano for four more years after that, gradually improving in the complexity and length of the pieces which my fingers came to remember.  I had moved up to the point where I was always last or second to last at concerts, and usually I played a boogie version of “Flight of the Bumblebee” by Rimsky-Korsakov or “Malagueña” by Ernesto Lecuana.  I had become very good at playing both.

One day Mr. Kadir took me to a gathering of students where he took his own lessons from a Mr. Strahan.  That worthy teacher was a retired concert pianist who had studied under a student of a student of Franz Liszt, or something like that, and gave lessons to piano teachers from around the city.  I got carsick on the way there, which was no surprise since I got carsick all of the time, and Mr. Kadir and his teacher took great pains to patch me up with Alka Seltzer and Seven Up.  Later, I was introduced and asked to play “Bumble Boogie”, which I did, and rather well as I remember.  Later, on the way home, Mr. Kadir told me that his teacher virtually never allowed people who were not his pupils play at his gatherings, and that this was a great honor that had been shown to me.  Fortunately I had been too carsick to worry about anything, even if I had known about this, and performed at the top of my game.

The last piece of music that I was working on when I gave up the piano was “Rhapsody in Blue” by George Gershwin.  I loved that tune then and I love it today, and I set out to remember all thirty two pages of it.  I had memorized something into the twenties of pages when, in my junior year at high school, my interest in the piano collapsed completely.  My father had begun to recognize that his son might be a reasonably skilled technician at the keyboard but would by no means ever become a real musician, and so he was not entirely surprised when one day I told him that I just didn’t want to do it anymore.

To my considerable surprise Dad agreed.  The freedom that I felt was immense!  I do not remember exactly what I did that moment but a good guess would be that I went directly to the Park and hung out with my friends like all of the other teenagers in my neighborhood were doing, happy as a pig in mud.  To my mother fell the task of driving over to Mr. Kadir’s studio and telling him of my termination of lessons.  My mother told me many years later that Mr. Kadir cried upon hearing the news.

I have hardly touched a piano since that last day.  Two years later I was in Vietnam, a future that my father could perhaps see when he allowed me my freedom.  A few years after that, in college, friends at parties might ask me to play when they learned of my lessons, but they wanted improv, honky tonk and rock and roll, not “Bumble Boogie” and “Malagueña.”  I eventually stopped mentioning my piano history.

But there is a legacy.  Fifty years after my last lesson I still love the great music laid down by Bach, Beethoven, Lecuana, Chopin, DeFalla and Gershwin just as much as I love the work laid down by John, Paul, George and Ringo.  Mr. Kadir, don’t cry for me.  You made a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, and I will always remember you as one of the most appreciated guides of my life.

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