altivo: Plush horsey (plushie)
[personal profile] altivo
So a couple of weeks ago I happened to get this notion that it would be funny to find a copy of the music book I remembered from my piano lessons (50 years ago when I was a kid) and see how easy or hard it is to play now. Youth and Beauty was the series, and I remember using volume 1 briefly before being "promoted" to volume 3 by the teacher.

Well actually I had two piano teachers after my mom, who started me out when I could barely read. I didn't get formal lessons until about fifth grade, I'm pretty sure. My first teacher was Mrs. Neal. I'm fairly certain she was a schoolteacher who gave piano lessons on the side, which wasn't all that uncommon and maybe still isn't. She put me on the John Thompson method, starting I think with the fourth or fifth grade level and we quickly rushed up to the sixth. I liked her. Then she moved when summer came around. I don't know where or why, probably she retired or took a new position elsewhere. But I got a new teacher, one she had suggested to my mom.

The second teacher was Mrs. Sawicki, also a schoolteacher I think, and like Mrs. Neal she lived just a few blocks from our home and my school. My younger brother started lessons with her at the same time that I moved over, and that's when the funny stuff started. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I did locate volumes 1 and 3 of Youth and Beauty a couple of weeks ago at used booksellers on the web. They weren't expensive, particularly, and I ordered both. Volume 1 arrived in the mail today. Once my chores were done I sat down at the piano with it and in about 45 minutes sight-read my way right through it. Most of it was vaguely familiar, none of it particularly difficult, though I'd certainly want to polish a bit before playing it to anyone else. Notable in particular were a simplified arrangement of "Chopsticks" made for one player instead of the usually four-handed version pounded out by kids back then; a waltz called "You and Me" that actually is the tune many of us know as "Oh where oh where has my little dog gone?" and finally a rather nondescript but lyrical waltz called "Primrose" that I'm pretty sure was the first piece I ever played that was more than two pages long and therefore had a page turn in the middle. XD

The interesting thing though was that even though most of the music wasn't that memorable, it brought forth other memories. Mrs. Neal was old enough to have some gray hair. The piano in her living room was a rather elderly baby grand, and the walls were painted a darkish blue-gray, I think. I don't remember the carpet or the furniture, but I do remember her patience as she explained things and pointed out where to get louder or softer in the music.

Mrs. Sawicki was more memorable because she was more eccentric. At first I thought I remembered her living room walls as green but I'm pretty sure now they were pink. Her baby grand was a bit brighter in tone (if I put it politely, or "jangly sounding" if I don't.) She seemed more nervous, and her lipstick was always a bit crooked. Nonetheless, she did teach me things. Some of them probably weren't quite what she intended. She didn't make me memorize music, for which I was glad because I've never been good at that. She emphasized sight reading of the printed music, and the unintended result was that many times I didn't practice much or at all between lessons. I would go back and sight read the music for her a second time, having gone through it slowly the lesson before, and she'd consider it good enough and move on to the next piece.

She normally taught from the Schaum method books, which were much simpler and slower to advance, and my brother started in those. She left me in Thompson since I was already well along, to the point where it introduced simplified versions of classical piano melodies by Beethoven, Chopin, and Liszt. Compared with those, the Youth and Beauty recital pieces were pretty easy. And of course they were designed to be easy, and for use at recitals. I'm pretty sure her students gave recitals, but I was never in one.

The main reason for that was the embarrassment about my younger brother. He was, as far as we could tell, working along through the beginner's pieces for several months. Then one day Mrs. Sawicki called my mom and expressed her shock at discovering that, despite her best efforts, he seemed unable to read a line of music. That surprised me and my mom. However, after some questioning of both of us, she figured it out. Brother was getting me to play through his set pieces for him, and memorizing them by ear and by watching my hands. No wonder he now earns probably ten times what I do. He was always clever at bypassing the work and finding an easier way. In the end he was asked if he wanted to keep taking piano lessons and he said "No."

I kept on for a while, but I felt guilty about my part in the fiasco. This even though I had played my role unwittingly. Both of us joined the school band that year, he on clarinet and myself on flute. You have to learn to read music for that, and he really did pick it up then. Not much later the band instructor told my parents that I had gone as far as he could take me and he felt I should be taking lessons on the flute from a regular instructor who knew the instrument better. I was given a choice. I couldn't have lessons on two instruments at once, because we couldn't afford it. I chose the flute, and that was the end of the piano lessons. Everything I've learned, good or bad, on keyboard since then has been self-taught. For an amateur, I'm pretty advanced on the flute, too.

As for brother, he eventually got his college degree and teaching certificate in music. He worked as a salesman for a music store for a while before going into the Navy, where he conducted the base military band in at least one of the places he was stationed. In spite of that, he has made a big success in business with military contractors since retiring from the Navy. At this point in our lives, I'm much more involved in music than he is, though I don't think he has forgotten anything much.

Back when I was ten or eleven years old, I'm not sure I ever said a proper thank you to those first music teachers, Mrs. Neal, Mrs. Sawicki, or Mr. Roose, the band leader. I imagine they are all gone now, but I owe them a lot. The most important thing to me is that they made sure I could read music. It's a skill that has proved useful many times, and one that many musicians lack or at least are very shaky at.

Date: 2013-08-02 10:41 am (UTC)
hrrunka: My small wire-strung harp (harp)
From: [personal profile] hrrunka
I figure being able to pick up music by watching and listening is a different skill, but just as useful in its way as being able to read musical notations. Being able to do both would have distinct advantages...

Date: 2013-08-02 11:54 am (UTC)
hrrunka: My small wire-strung harp (harp)
From: [personal profile] hrrunka
My own piano experience never got past the scales, arpeggios and more scales stage, and neither my parents nor my siblings are any much better, but my Welsh grandfather had a fair voice and would play the piano from time to time.

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