Keyed Up for the Piano

By Ellen Weiser

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I have always loved music. Musical notes scattered on a page fascinate me. Along with the joy, however, there is also frustration. My almost 60-year-old hands and slightly-past-middle-age mind sometimes have difficulty synchronizing and creating the sound the composer had in mind when a particular piece was written.

The piano has been blessed with a celebrated past, a magnificent present and a glorious future, a work of art that does the music of the four Bs (Beethoven, Brahms, Bach and the Beatles) incredibly proud.

My parents believed that their eight-year-old daughter had enough musical desire to warrant the expense of piano lessons. They were offered after school every week at the exorbitant cost of $2 apiece.

I was petite, though you’d never think it to look at me now. As a result, I only had to concentrate on the keyboard, since the pedals were so far from my feet. They wouldn't become an issue until I finally had a growth spurt.

I still recall the red John Thompson piano book and the gold stars my teacher, Mrs. Cowan, placed beside each piece I managed to play with a minimum of mistakes. I would proudly carry my music dictation book (lined on one side, music staff on the other) and my “John Thompson” back and forth, week after week, dreaming of one day being able to play as well as Mrs. Cowan.

To purchase a piano, however, used or otherwise, was more than my parents could manage. A piano? They could barely afford the air I breathed. And so, I would practise at my friend Miriam’s, a couple of houses away. We shared our practice time, and then the inevitable happened - Miriam and her piano moved away. And with that, my lessons ended. How inconsiderate, I thought! Did she have no concern for my feelings? I could’ve been the next, well, the next someone.

Though my lessons ended abruptly, my love of music continued. The desire to learn never subsided. When I reached Grade 6, I discovered I had a decent singing voice. I was certainly no threat to Streisand, but I was able to carry a tune.

My Danesbury debut, as I like to call it, in reference to my elementary school, plus wanting to throw in alliteration wherever possible, was a semi-decent version of "Getting To Know You" with my dear friend, Bernice, whose musical skills I envied.

With the transition from Grade 6 to Grade 7 came another opportunity for musical renewal. The junior high school music program had an interesting way of deciding how students would participate. The level of one's vocal expertise determined which group of instruments he or she would be assigned. For example, students who sang well were placed in Strings, followed by Band and, for some unknown reason, those who were not good singers were placed in Vocal. Go figure!

I was assigned to the Strings group and chose to play violin; again, my small stature was an issue. Although the viola produced a beautiful sound, I did not have the proper dexterity. There was also the added panic of having to learn an alto clef when I knew that the “treble” was more than enough “trouble.” As for the cello and bass, the thought of playing an instrument that towered over me didn’t, shall we say, sit well.

I’m sure that world-renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman didn't lose much sleep over my talent. However, we do share the same birthdate and that’s where the similarity ends. I did fairly well with the violin and enjoyed it immensely. Bernice and I were half of a string quartet, and we would practise during lunch and any other time we could squeeze it in.

I cannot account for the reason why my musical involvement stopped at that point and didn't continue until twenty years later.

By 1985, I was married with a daughter who was three at the time of my next musical go-around. Again, I ventured into the world of piano lessons, this time including a course in Royal Conservatory of Music theory. My teacher, Anna, thought I should write the exams, which, if successful, would give me lovely certificates, as the saying goes, suitable for framing.

I took her advice. However, this time I wasn’t a petite eight-year-old. I was surrounded by children whose feet, like mine at the single digit age, had difficulty reaching the floor.

While I tried my utmost to fit practicing into my already tight schedule, my three-year-old decided I should be devoting my time to her. She expressed this to me in her subtle way. Whenever I would practise, she would take my hands off the keyboard. Perhaps she knew something I didn’t.

Not being one to give up easily, I am proud to say that I am yet again at the piano, taking lessons every other week. While struggling with one particular piece, my teacher, Kathleen, asked me, "So, where is it that you're having the most trouble?" I answered, "Somewhere between the first key signature and the double bar line at the end of the page."

"That's the whole song," she replied.


My theory is that anyone can play what’s on the page. It takes a unique talent to play something other than what’s written there.

Now, the most exciting part is that I am composing. I’m realistic enough to know chances are slim that I’ll be taking my place among past and present musical giants. Not to worry. Whether it’s playing the standards of Tin Pan Alley or turning blank pieces of paper into Tin Pan wannabees, in the words of lyricist Fred Ebb, I’m having a “perfectly marvellous” time!




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