I wish I could talk to you and tell you all sorts. There is so much to say. I can’t because 12 years ago, you died at age 94, tilting at windmills until the end.
So here I am, throwing my words into the wind. And hoping you catch my drift.
You were my piano teacher, but much more than that. Because your husband Ambrose loved horse racing and wasn’t averse to putting a bob or two on a horse at a local harness track, I would leave you the books I’d written about horse racing during my weekly visits to your house for lessons. Giving up my books to somebody, even temporarily, was akin to giving up my heart and my lungs. But I trusted you with them. Who better could I trust?
Once you said to me: “You should get these published!” I remember looking at you, quite stunned really, because it hadn’t occurred to me that anybody from a rural farm town of 400 could ever get published. Really? I had been writing all of these books – and illustrating them and designing the covers, and writing in the copyright icon (as if anybody would copy them) – just for fun, because I wanted to remember what I saw. And you opened a vista that hadn’t crossed my mind.
Years later, whenever I would return home to the village, after eventually getting a sports reporting job at Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, I’d run into you. Your eyes would light up and you would say: “THERE’S My GIRRLLL!” Remember?
I was proud to be your girl. Yes, I had done it.
Tinkling the ivories
As for those piano lessons, you took me from beginner status to the point that I earned my Grade 8 piano and Grade 2 theory from the Royal Conservatory of Music, all by the time I was 14 (going on 15.) You taught me everything I knew about music. You were my friend, too.
I wasn’t always the best student. And this I need to explain to you: I didn’t practice enough. It’s totally unlike me whenever I undertake anything. I underperformed. I lived in a small farmhouse with five other family members. The piano was in the same room as the television set. Therefore it was impossible for me to practice in the evenings. I wasn’t watching that TV so much. I was upstairs, working on other things. I had a lot on my tab. I had miles to go before I slept.
My time slot for practice was in late afternoon, when I got home from school. Everybody would have to shush while I did this. But remember, I’d have to ride the bus home. I’d probably get home at 4:30 p.m. My family probably had dinner at 5:30 p.m. And the quality of practice wasn’t high. I had been in school all day. I cut corners. I was dreaming of scalloped potatoes.
There were times when I was in tears at your lessons, because I couldn’t do what you expected me to do. I was failing to execute. That, I couldn’t handle. I knew it was my own fault. So I started to practice in the mornings before school, getting up at some ungodly hour. But remember, this was a small farmhouse. My three brothers would eventually trudge downstairs for breakfast, shooting me daggers, because I had awakened them. Who in their right mind would want to hear scales at that hour every morning? I would have felt the same, if the situation was reversed.
I don’t know how I did it, but I passed my Grade 8 exam, quite by the skin of my teeth. I think the big-city examiner felt sorry for me. I started playing the piece I had so diligently prepared – I had borrowed a metronome and everything – then stopped a dozen measures into the song and looked at him plaintively, embarrassed to the max.
“I’m sorry,” I told the man. “I am so nervous, I started at the wrong octave. May I please start again?”
He allowed it. Thank god. I had thought about continuing to wing it, then knew it just wouldn’t be the best idea. He might think that I didn’t know the difference. And I might have to pay the piper somewhere along the line. I might run out of keys.
Perhaps he appreciated honesty.
After I passed the exam, I continued to play – I inherited the family piano on which I had learned to play – then work and responsibilities took a toll on my spare time. Eventually, the old piano wasn’t able to hold a tune for very long. It needed thousands of dollars to fix and I couldn’t justify spending that money, because I played it so seldom. I got rid of the family piano, although I checked with my mother first. It had belonged to her parents. She didn’t mind. But I felt forever guilty that I let it go. I feel guilty to this day. Still, I really did not believe I would ever play again.
Last winter, everything changed. I blame it on Freddie Mercury and Queen, brilliant musicians all. I re-discovered them in 2015, and eventually, music began to creep back into my life. It began to matter. Really matter. I was inspired at first to pick up my old guitar. I had been watching Brian May’s fingers dance across the strings of his Red Special. I had been watching everybody’s fingers that ever touched a guitar string.
From Fender to piano
When I was in university, I had bought this sweet-sounding little Fender classical guitar for a little more than $100 from a local music teacher who had a little business at the back corner of a Stedman’s store in Kincardine, Ont. I took a few lessons from a young man in my hometown, but he had an overenthusiastic Irish setter who constantly romped all over top of me during the lesson. I spent my time trying to save my little Fender (and myself) from this nonsense. This truly wasn’t my scene. I gave up. I walked away with a few chords under my belt. That’s all.
But I never could let that little Fender go.
Over the winter, I unearthed it. It had survived all my moves, neatly stashed in a guitar case that I had bought with it. It’s spotless. It shines. Except that when I opened the case, the strings, especially the nylon ones, had gone SPROING. Busted. I had it restrung. And I re-learned how to tune it up. I used to tune it from my piano. I learned other ways.
I began to self-teach myself chords because I had forgotten absolutely everything that I did know. The plan was to play classical guitar and learn to read music onto the guitar. After all, I could read music, right? I had Grade 8 piano.
Then I slowly began to realize that maybe over many decades of inactivity, I might have forgotten how to read music. Change of plan: return to the piano to make sure I could.
I had no idea how much happiness this would give me.
Shooting for the moon, piano-wise
So Marion, after all these years, I have returned to the piano. I have come home, to where it all started between you and I. This I need you to know. I found all my old Royal Conservatory books in a box in the basement. They did not leave with the old piano. I hadn’t been able to part with them. I’m so glad I didn’t.
I put myself back in Grade 3 to nail down technique, strengthen my fingers and hands, and give myself the building blocks. I had no illusions that I could jump straight back into Grade 8. And I wanted to do it all the proper way this time. I wanted to shoot for my moon.
I opened up the lemon-colour Grade 3 book and began to play the first piece by Handel. Someone asked me: “Is it like riding a bicycle?” NO. Definitely not. You forget.
My left hand was more lost than my right. I had to drill and drill and drill that piece before I got it up to speed. And note: it was a simple piece.
And oh yes, did I tell you Marion that I bought a used digital piano keyboard over the winter? That’s a whole separate story, but I had to wait a long time for it and I couldn’t believe how antsy I became, tapping my fingers until it arrived, pumping myself up for it by watching others play my keyboard model on Youtube videos, imagining my fingers doing the same. The love started even before I got the keyboard. I can’t quite explain why. I began to want this badly.
Marion in the room
The most amazing thing is that I feel that you are sitting beside me every time I play, Marion. That’s because you wrote all sorts of notes and advice on the yellowed pages of my Conservatory books, all in pencil. I can see so easily what you were trying to tell me. It’s all there. I’m being taught by you all over again. I think of you every time I play. How can I not? Your presence is on every page.
You issued different coloured stars to indicate how well I had completed a piece: gold (tops, baby), silver (pretty darned good) and then there were the reds and blues (ouch). I don’t remember which were worse. The reds and blues were like a sigh: “Well, at least you tried, honey.”
Also, I found a note with an urgent tone that you had once written me, telling me I needed to get all of my scales up to snuff before I could move onto another grade! Obviously, I lagged behind in this duty. I hated scales. I found them boring. I just wanted to play. I wasn’t diligent.
This is what I need to tell you most, Marion. I wish you could see me, hear me now. I can’t imagine what your face would be like, if you knew. I’m tackling the scales with great joy. I have also learned how to practice, using techniques from a lively new online teacher, Zach.
So now, I practice scales like crazy. When you play them with both hands at speed – and each hand requires different fingering – there is a sort of lovely sway to the movement up and down the keys. Your hands are like water running over stones in a creek. I get a rush while I’m doing it, especially if I do it at high speed. I love playing scales. I know you never thought those words would ever pass my lips, Marion, but it’s true.
After a few months of this, the music is coming back, more quickly than I had dreamed. I can’t stop playing that keyboard. I love that keyboard. It has its own corner, its own dust cover, its own floor lamp. It beckons me whenever I walk by. It gives me more happiness than many things. This, I did not expect.
Freddie Mercury? Albumblatt? Really?
Case in point: Albumblatt (Fur Elise) by Beethoven. One day, probably a tad bored with Grade 3, I took a curious peek at my more advanced books. And I stumbled on Albumblatt in the Grade 6 book. I had a moment when I saw it. It was my favourite of all Conservatory pieces. Well, I had to give it a go, didn’t I? For old times sake?
The notes, painfully sought at first go, were still beautiful. I always loved its plaintive arpeggios and its dramatic thundering energy. It’s intense. It’s poetic. It’s a passionate piece, a work of contrasts. It always spoke to me. It expressed something that was inside of me.
Ever hear Freddie Mercury sing “Barcelona” with Spanish opera star Montserrat Caballe?
To me, the music of Queen and Freddie Mercury is all about the celebration of life. And life to the edge of experience. I feel Beethoven was the same, an artist who was a force of nature. Chinese rock star concert pianist Lang Lang loved Beethoven’s “exciting rhythms, the explosion of his lyrical sounds, the sweep of his imagination, and the beauty of his musical voice, big and grand and never afraid.” (That actually describes Lang Lang himself. Ever see him play?) And Freddie, too. When he performed, he gave everything. It all echoed something in me. Both Albumblatt and Freddie.
Marion, you and I have never talked about Freddie Mercury. If you were still here, you’d get an earful. And get this: he was a fine pianist, albeit with an unusual left hand position, the heel of his hand often bent back down over the keys. You might have rapped him over the knuckles for it. But it worked for him.
I couldn’t stop playing Albumblatt. And strangely, I found my hands taking over, hitting the right notes almost without looking at the page. How could my brain be remembering something I hadn’t played in decades? It’s remarkable. It’s been magical. Almost eerie.
You gave me only a silver star for Albumblatt, Marion, but I know why. I had never fully conquered it, as much as I loved it. But I will conquer it now. I guess you could say I’m going for gold.
I wish, Marion, that you could see how I play now. It’s not just a matter of playing all of the notes correctly, with the right fingering. It’s the emotion I can give to it now. I’ve lived a life. I’ve heard things and seen things. I’ve travelled the world. I’ve felt joy and pain. I’ll never play a piano the same way again. I understand how Freddie plays. I’m there.
And know above all, that when I play, I play for you. Your son, Wilfred, says he knows you will be out there, listening. No doubt.