Fall 2013



Piano Recital

Susan Knox

            I believe children get clues to their calling, episodes where they can learn more about who they truly are, moments when they are tested and surmount their own expectations. Sometimes they understand and grow from the experience; sometimes another person enlightens the child; sometimes a wise adult, not wanting to override individual discovery, subtly points the way.
            My first piano recital was one of those defining moments for me; an experience I tucked away and didn’t fully appreciate until I was older.
            It was spring 1956, I was a freshman in high school, and it was time for Mrs. Bates’ annual recital. My first teacher, Gretchen Elliott, didn’t hold recitals because she only taught a few students in the evening. We lived on a farm in the country, and it was more convenient for me to walk down the dirt road to Gretchen’s house than for my parents to drive me to lessons. When I went to high school, I began studying with Mrs. Bates. Her small studio in the back of her home was next to the high school. She was considered the best teacher in Minerva, Ohio, and I worked harder for her than I ever did for Gretchen.
            I loved classical music. Church services provided my introduction. Forrest Kail, the organist at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, not only played hymns for the congregation and conducted the choir, he performed Bach preludes, fugues, and toccatas—his feet tapping a floor of thirty-two pedals, his hands playing two levels of keyboard, his fingers manipulating pipe organ stops. Forrest was a marvel. He was the reason I went to church.
           I played an old upright piano with missing ivories, and one hammer that did not sound when I played low G. There was no money for regular tunings or repairs. But it didn’t matter. I loved to make music. I had wonderful daydreams as I played. I imagined becoming a concert pianist or a Rockette at Radio City Music Hall or a Hollywood movie star. Sometimes I envisioned myself living in a large city with my own apartment, the walls lined with books, a baby grand in the corner, closets full of beautiful clothes. These were dreams. I never expected actualization; I didn’t think a farm girl could achieve these things. I did not become a concert pianist, Rockette, or movie star, and my current piano is an electric keyboard rather than a baby grand. But I live in a condo in downtown Seattle overlooking Elliot Bay, my living room has a floor-to-ceiling wall of books with a ladder, and my closet is filled with beautiful clothes. Children need to dream.
           I was excited to study with Mrs. Bates but she intimidated me. She was in her fifties, dark hair pulled back in a bun, spare figure with a cardigan always around her shoulders, black oxford lace-up shoes, brown eyes. My mother told me she was a widow, and I always wondered if she was sad. I don’t remember her ever smiling or touching me.
            I had been taking weekly lessons for six months when Mrs. Bates told me it was time to prepare for the recital. She ceremoniously presented me with a hardbound book of music, open somewhere in the center, and said, “This is what I have chosen for you to play. It’s a special piece; not everyone could play this.” She gave me “Spring Song” by Mendelssohn; a short piece with lots of triplets, playedallegretto grazioso—fairly fast and gracefully.
            While I appreciated her comment that not everyone could play “Spring Song,” I didn’t believe her. I had little confidence in my musical abilities, even though I had evidence that I was accomplished: I was pianist for my seventh- and eighth-grade school choir; I played hymns for my catechism class at the beginning of our Saturday sessions at St. Paul’s; I was hired by another music teacher to play piano accompaniments for her horn and reed students when they went to competitions.
            I began studying “Spring Song” note by note, bar by bar. I practiced. I played for Mrs. Bates. She corrected chords, timing, and interpretation. She penciled notes on the score. I practiced some more. Finally she said, “You’re ready to memorize this.” I’d never memorized music before, but I had a prodigious memory. I’d been eighth-grade district spelling champion; delivered a memorized speech at grade school graduation; could remember family and friends’ birthdays, ages, street addresses, and phone numbers, and every secret I’d ever been told. Memorizing four pages of music should have been easy.
            I couldn’t do it. I tried and I tried. I managed to get segments memorized, and occasionally I was able to combine the segments into playing the entire piece from memory, but I wasn’t consistent. My confidence in my mind’s ability was shaken.
            I don’t remember Mrs. Bates’ giving me any memorizing devices or special tricks to help me fix the music in my mind. It seemed like it was all up to me. Like so much of what I learned in the fifties, I had to figure it out for myself. Why was that? I know I was shy about asking for help, but why weren’t adults willing to share their wisdom? Or did Mrs. Bates try to help and, in my insecurity, I didn’t hear?
            It was the day of the concert, and I was rehearsing at the United Methodist Church for the evening performance. I had a bad rehearsal. I played from memory, lost my way, had to stop, consult the music, and start all over again. In a moment of kindness, Mrs. Bates took me aside and said, “I’ll prop the music book against the piano leg.” She demonstrated where it would be. “If you think you’re going to need it tonight, you can put it on the piano stand and play from the music. It’s up to you.” I was relieved and I knew it was a big concession from my strict music teacher.
            I wore a pink strapless formal, the ruffled bodice held up by boning, with a taffeta skirt covered with two layers of scratchy net, bolstered by a crinoline underneath to make the skirt bell out. I accessorized with pink high heels and pink plastic daisy earrings. This was my first prom outfit, and I had purchased it on my own when Jenny Lee’s mother drove us to Canton to shop at the Bon Marche. My mother was busy with my three younger siblings and trusted me to make a good choice. Mom curled my brown hair, swept it back from my face, and pinned a garland of pink artificial flowers around the curls. I went to the piano to practice “Spring Song” once more before we left for the church. My hands were shaking.
            My new boyfriend, Rich Nash, was not coming to the recital and I was disappointed. I had not heard from him since the prom two weeks earlier, and in those days proper girls did not call boys—they waited to be phoned—so I had not been able to invite him. My dad wasn’t coming either. The recital was on Wednesday evening, and he had to work at the Minerva Leader, putting the paper to bed. He missed a lot of my school events because of his job. My Aunt Helen, whose husband owned the weekly newspaper, appeared instead and I was grateful. Mom dressed up with hat and gloves and sat with Aunt Helen.
            I waited with the other pianists in one of the church’s back rooms. We chattered and told each other how nervous we felt, and I became more anxious. I was scheduled about a third of the way into the program. Mrs. Bates called my name, and I waited at the doorway for Sandy Swearingen to finish playing. As soon as Sandy started back, I walked down the aisle and up three steps to the church chancel, where an upright piano had been installed for the recital. I saw the score on the floor beside the piano. I don’t know why I didn’t pick it up. Maybe it was pride. No one else used music. It was as though I was floating through this experience, and I was focused on getting to the piano and performing my piece, and I sat at the keyboard without music and I began to play.
            I played “Spring Song” note-perfect and, because I’d been to several professional piano recitals in Alliance with my Latin teacher, Miss Hazen, I knew how to take a bow. As I softly touched the last note, I elevated my right arm then slowly lowered my hand to the keyboard. I lingered two beats, relishing my music-making, rose from the piano, turned to the audience, and made a deep curtsy.
            How did I gather the courage to play from memory? I was not a brave girl. I could have been safe and picked up the music. Why did I linger at the piano after I finished? Ordinarily I’d think that was showing off, and I did not show off. I didn’t like to draw attention to myself, and yet I presented myself to the audience as a seasoned performer. Where did this come from?
           My mother came up to me after the recital, her lips pursed, and said, “Bob McMillan told me your pink dress matched the mood of ‘Spring Song,’ ” and that was all she said. But that’s the way we were in Minerva: reticent, retiring, correct. Mom believed compliments spoiled a child. There were no good jobexclamations in my era. I don’t remember any words from Aunt Helen either. Were they embarrassed by my theatrics? I was secretly pleased with my showmanship, but my teacher was the only person who commented.
            Mrs. Bates praised me.
            I put away this memory. I didn’t consciously use it to bolster my self-worth. I didn’t have anyone take me aside and observe how I overcame my fear, drew upon my musical knowledge to play from memory, point out that I’d risen to the occasion and would undoubtedly do so many times in the future. It was only many years later that I retrieved this event, dusted it off, and examined it for meaning.
           I now know how fortunate I was to have women in my early life with wisdom to help me explore. By taking me to piano concerts, Miss Hazen presented knowledge about performing before an audience, and I drew on that protocol the night of my recital. Mrs. Bates realized I needed a safety net, and hoped the proximity of my music would give me courage to play from memory. She understood I lacked confidence, but she expressed belief in me and encouraged me to explore my musical ability. “Why don’t you major in music when you go to college?” I remember her once saying as we finished a lesson, “You could be a church organist in Canton.”
           I can still picture her taking me aside at the end of the recital evening. She was standing in the doorway and as I approached, she shifted her body to the side, blocking others’ vision, as though to tell me a secret; leaned against the wall; looked me in the eye, and said, “You were the best of the evening.” She did not give compliments easily, and I knew she meant it. I never told anyone what she said. I absorbed her comment, enjoyed her praise, and through the years when I appeared before people to deliver a speech or give a reading, I called up my piano recital memories, remembered my success, and used the experience to bolster my confidence. Mrs. Bates was a true teacher.

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