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Piano Lessons

Piano Lessons

My short career as a budding pianist

Piano Lessons

When I was about three and a half, we left Darby, and moved to live with my father’s parents in their house in Catonsville. We had our own apartment in three rooms of their house, but since they were my grandparents, and their daughter was only six years older than I, I pretty much had the run of the entire house. Except I wasn’t allowed in my great grandmother’s room without being invited. She was very straight-laced, and often used to say to me, “Modulate your voice, Young Man.”

Downstairs in the big living room, there was an upright piano. I could just barely see over the keys, and used to pick out tunes on it. My aunt had a fife, and I could make sounds on that, too. (You blow a fife the same way as you blow a Coke bottle to make it whistle.) But my hands were too small and my fingers too short to cover all the holes on the fife, so I only had about three notes. Sometimes, my aunt would hold the fife and cover the holes for me while I blew, and we made music on it, but I begged and begged to have piano lessons.

When I was four, my mother and my grandmother took me to an old woman’s apartment to talk about piano lessons. I found out later she was a piano teacher at the Peabody Conservatory in downtown Baltimore, and had an apartment across the street from her studio.

She asked me about tunes, and I showed her how I could play the melody lines of the refrain from Buttons and Bows, and part of the verse to Shanty In Old Shanty Town. She had a grand piano. I remember the keys were very smooth; much smoother and much brighter white than the keys on the upright at home.

After a while, she played some notes and asked me to sing them, but they were too high.

I said, “I can’t sing them; they are too high. But I can whistle them.”

“All right,” she said. “That will do. You whistle them then.”

I remember she played intervals of what I now know were octaves, thirds, fourths, fifths and sevenths and tri-tones. At the time, I didn’t know the names of the intervals, but I could hear them, and was able to reproduce them by whistling. So she said she would take me on as a student, but I had to learn the alphabet.

So, when I was about four and a half, I started piano lessons. I was the youngest student in the piano class, and was considerably smaller than the rest of the children. I sat on telephone books to reach the practice keyboard.

I played my first recital when I was five. It was held on the stage at Hutzler’s Department Store, in Edmonson Village Shopping center. I don’t recall the name of the piece I played, but I am pretty certain it was one of the songs near the end of Bernice Frost, At The Piano, Book One. I think I still have my copy of that somewhere. I do remember the following year I played a piano arrangement of Schubert’s Trout Quintet.

I studied with Miss Zurstadt for the next five years. The fall of fifth grade, I finally rebelled against the piano, and quit piano lessons to concentrate on flute, which I had started in the fourth grade.

Had I realized then what I know now, I would never have dropped piano; it was the biggest musical mistake of my life.

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