It was during the spring of 1971 that I started playing piano. Or maybe it was during the fall. Even now I scratch the top of my head as I ponder which season it might have been. One can’t really blame me for not remembering which season it was. All I know is it was late afternoon and the sun was out as I stood with my mother on the covered porch of my godparent’s enormous home located in the west side of Portland, Oregon. I was three years old.
My grandmother on my mother’s side played several instruments including saxophone, trombone, the accordion, organ and piano. My mother would, of course, follow in her footsteps a bit by learning how to play the piano, organ, and accordion. As for me, it was the piano that ended up becoming my passion. Eventually, both my mum and grandmother tried to get me to learn how to play the organ and accordion, but that was too much work for me. Getting your left hand to be on this keyboard whilst your right hand was on that keyboard, your shoeless feet to be down there pushing on keys of yet another keyboard, pulling this knob, pushing that knob, and don’t forget the crescendo pedal! Oi, I’m getting frantic and working up a sweat just thinking about it! I dabbled with the accordion in my early thirties, but that interest lasted about five minutes. And accordions are so heavy! Therefore, it was to be the piano and only the piano.
How Don and Loanne became my godparents is beyond me. All I know is they were a couple from church that my parents became good friends with. Loanne would become my piano teacher and Don would, in time, be my mother’s more advanced instructor for the sake of learning theory and composition as Don was a professor of music at a local college.
I do believe my lessons were once a week, either on Tuesday afternoons or Thursday afternoons, depending on the season. My mother would drive me to and from or my father would, depending on who was more available. I remember the journey was a long one, especially during the time my parents and I lived just outside Vancouver, Washington. Still, my parents were faithful in getting me to rehearsals on time and I was, in turn, faithful at rehearsing at the piano for anywhere between half an hour to an hour four to five days a week.
I practiced on a very old upright piano. The model of the piano was a Clarendon made out of Chicago, Illinois. I remember the white keys were made out of real ivory because two pieces of plated ivory were on each of them, some edges chipped from wear.
For eight years I would be taking lessons from my godmother. I was classically trained. During the hour-long piano lesson, whichever parent brought me would wait in the living room which set across from the welcoming area just past the front door. The room immediately to the right of the front door as you stepped in was the music room. It was lavish and elegant, the black grand piano placed in front of the bay windows.
Twice a year Loanne would hold recitals for her students and each recital, to me, as a young lad, were grand events indeed. The recitals took place in the early evening. Several chairs were set in rows to accommodate the students and their families. Each student would play one or two pieces, depending on the age of the student. At a few recitals, Don and Loanne’s teenage son, Nicholas, would be the last student to play. When the recitals were over, everyone would gather to the dining room just down the hall. Atop the satin and lace clad long dining table was the most incredible spread of desserts, snacks, pastries and candies amongst lit white candlesticks placed in two silver candelabras. Being a child with the usual cravings, I set out to make sure my cravings were satisfied. My parents, however, were set out to make sure not all of my cravings were satisfied at once.
Ah, eight years of that, with the summers off for obvious reasons. During that eighth year when I was eleven years old, something happened that brought about the end of my piano lessons. An appointment was made for me by either Loanne, my mother, or both. My parents drove me, on a particular evening, to a particular place on the west side of Portland — a certain advanced, posh school or college, I think. There, I was to play a piece selected by Loanne in front of an absolute stranger in a very large and mostly empty room. The stranger was a man. A specialist, I assume, or perhaps he who would most likely become my next piano instructor. It seemed Loanne and my mother hoped so, anyway.
Looking back, no one told me this was going to happen. No one said, “Willy,” (derived from William, my middle name, Willy was my nickname everyone called me whether I liked it or not), “next week you’re going to have an audition that will determine your fate as a pianist.” Nobody said that. Not Lianne, not my mother, nobody.
Did Loanne believe she taught me all she could? Was this to be Phase 2 of my piano tutelage? All I remember was that I was very nervous and didn’t play well in front of him whatsoever. I fumbled quite a bit and was embarrassed. At the end of this appointment, at eleven years old, I learned for the first time what it felt like to be a failure.
The long drive home late that evening was a quiet one. The end result was that I was to never have another piano lesson from that moment on, whether from Loanne or even my mother. I was told piano lessons were getting to be too expensive. Back then, I believed that. But today, deep down, I believe there was something more to it than just that. There had to have been. If there was another reason or maybe a few reasons why I never took piano lessons again, I’ll never know. What I do know is this… I didn’t want to stop playing the piano!