Thanks, mom, for forcing me to take those lessons

It felt like torment at the time

but as usual, mother knew best

May 09, 2010|By Peggy Rowe

When I was 7, my mother decided our family needed some culture. She bought a secondhand piano and started calling our den "the Music Room." She loved referring to "the Music Room" as though it were "the Conservatory" or "the Drawing Room." (None of our friends had music rooms.) Before long, a floor-model Zenith radio and an RCA record player joined the piano. My father built shelves for albums of classical LPs.

Our family dined to Strauss waltzes and symphonic suites. On Saturdays, my older sister, Janet, and I were forced to listen to live performances from the Metropolitan Opera while we did our chores. In the evenings, my mother would sit at the piano for an impromptu concert. What somewhat limited the performance was the fact that Mom could only read notes in the treble clef. While she picked out the melody, her left hand free-ranged, striking bass keys at random. Houdini had nothing on my mother, who could make an entire family disappear simply by sitting on a piano stool.

When December came, the "Blue Danube Waltz" gave way to the "Nutcracker Suite" and Handel's "Messiah." As Christmas approached, Mom's eyes twinkled, and she smiled all the time. Could it be? Would I finally receive the pony I'd been begging for since I was 2? My mother's excitement peaked on Christmas morning as my sister and I reached into our stockings and found — vouchers for piano lessons.

While I galloped through neighbors' yards in my cowboy boots, whinnying and jumping over lawn furniture, my sister practiced the piano, nonstop. Tuesday afternoons at the Maplewood Music Studio found me butchering the same beginner exercises, while Janet played duets with our teacher. A half-hour on Ms. Shindler's wooden piano bench was a cruel substitute for Misty of Chincoteague.

My new purpose in life became convincing my mother that she was wasting her money. Her response was always the same: "Playing the piano will give you an appreciation for music — and expose you to culture." If this wasn't depressing enough for a 7-year-old tomboy, I was forced to play in the annual recital. Mom squeezed her Singer sewing machine into the "Music Room" and kept an eye on me while I practiced "'Here We Go 'Round the Mulberry Bush."

My debut was the stuff of nightmares. Sitting at the piano in my new Singer creation before a packed auditorium, I couldn't remember my name, much less the piece I'd supposedly memorized. After what seemed like hours, Ms. Shindler placed my fingers on the keys, and together we made our way 'round that darn mulberry bush.

The following year, I took no chances and drew the notes on the palms of my hands. By the time my name was called, my face and new dress were smeared with black ink. Janet, meanwhile, played Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata."

And still, my mother ignored my pleas — even when I suggested she take lessons in my place, which would have benefited the entire family. "Someday you'll thank me," she said.

The abyss of my recital career came when I was 9 and Mom presented me with a strand of good luck beads. I awaited my turn, nervously twisting the new necklace, until it broke apart and vanished down the front of my dress. I rambled down the aisle leaving a trail of beads bouncing on tile, like hailstones on a car roof. Audiences loved me. That was the summer my sister substituted for our church organist.

Years later, I bought my own piano, and when the time came, insisted that my three sons take lessons. "It will give you an appreciation for music," I screamed as I hunted them down and dragged them to the piano.

Watching her grandsons in musicals and choral programs delighted my mother, and when our oldest joined the Baltimore Opera, she was always in the audience.

Last Christmas Eve, at the age of 71, I accompanied our church soloist as she sang, 'O Holy Night,' and today I'll be playing my recorder in a trio at church. I'll remember my mother.

Happy Mother's Day, Mom. And thank you. You were right.

Peggy Rowe, a former schoolteacher, lives in Perry Hall. Her e-mail is peggy.rowe@comcast.net.

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