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Thursday, 24 April 2014

Piano (and Other Life) Lessons

By Carl Hansen

I began taking piano lessons while I was in grade school under the tutelage of our church organist, Mr. George Lind.

I am not sure how many budding pianists in Denver were included in his roster of students but I do know that whatever income he received from the church was augmented by private lessons and by serving as the organist for a large Denver mortuary.

My lessons took place in our home on an old upright piano that stood in the living room. Mr. Lind did not own an automobile. He came to our house in east Denver by street car in the early years of my instruction and later by bus when street cars were phased out.

Weekly lesson times varied for they had to be scheduled on days and times when he was not scheduled to play for a funeral service.

Mr. Lind was a serious, stern man who always dressed in a gray suit and tie. He rarely smiled and to be honest, I found him rather intimidating for he expected a level of excellence from me that I was not sure I could ever achieve.

Only on rare occasions was he complimentary about my skill as a pianist but apparently I made enough progress that he continued to give me lessons well into my high school years.

The lessons, by the way, not only had to do with music but, as I was to learn, about life as well.

When I entered junior high, I became the pianist for the Smiley Junior High Jazz Band and a few years later for the East High Jazz Band. On weekends, I also played piano in a small dance band organized by a group of fellow students from East.

Our “gigs” consisted, for the most part, of church-sponsored dances with the size of our ensemble determined by the amount of money available to meet our huge fee of $10 per person.

Since I was still taking private lessons from Mr. Lind, I decided not tell him about these extra-curricular musical activities for I assumed this would not sit well with him. His focus, from my point of view, was on “serious music.” I assumed that what I was playing in these groups could not possibly be anything he expected from one of his students.

But one day he found me out and that was when I learned an important life lesson about what happens when we make unfounded assumptions about someone else.

In the midst of one of my lessons, he suddenly put his hands on top of mine, forcing me to stop whatever it was that I was playing. “Something is different,” he said with great seriousness. “Are you practicing more?”

The answer to that question, unfortunately, had to be an honest “no.” In truth, I never practiced as often as Mr. Lind wanted; just enough to get by.

With reluctance, I confessed what I thought would a great sin in his eyes: I was playing in a school jazz band as well as a weekend dance band.

To my surprise, this did not elicit a response of disapproval but a very rare smile from this normally stiff, formal man.

And with the smile, these words of commendation: “Keep it up. For the first time since I began giving you lessons you are playing music and not just notes. And what’s more, playing it with a sense of rhythm I’ve never heard from you before.”

So much for my assumption about reaping his disapproval.

And looking back, I now realize I made a second false assumption about Mr. Lind. I assumed he did not believe I had much promise as a musician. Two things lead me now to reassess that, for I now believe he was mentoring me in his own quiet way.

For example, during the last few years I took piano lessons from him, he frequently provided piano transcriptions from his own private collection for me to play. Although he did not say so, I now realize he was in the early stages of moving toward retirement, so the music turned out to be not a “loan” but mine to keep.

And most impressive of all, was his invitation for me to begin organ lessons with him using the pipe organ he played on Sundays for our congregation.

Unfortunately, the lessons were short-lived, for just days after my second lesson, I suffered a serious injury to my left wrist. The wrist was so severely broken that surgery was required leading to two separate times of having my left arm and wrist encased in a heavy cast for a number of weeks.

By the time the wrist was healed and I was able to regain full use of my left hand, Mr. Lind’s declining health had forced him into retirement. That brought an end to any further lessons.

Although I continued to play the piano - in a jazz group during my college years as well as for my own enjoyment until a few years ago - I regret that I never did learn to play the organ.

[INVITATION: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. Please read instructions for submitting.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 05:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


Lovely story, and I'm envious that your instructions led to a money making job!
I went to the convent every week for a piano lesson with a nun.
It was hopeless. Years of lessons left me with nothing but the knowledge that I was not "musical".

Yours is a neat story about how often our assumptions are wrong! And about how often we trust them.It's also nifty to have another Denver story.
Keep telling them.

Enjoyed the story Carl...

I can easily relate although my first teacher association did not end well. I began music lessons on accordion at around age 14 and after about six months of weekly lessons, my teacher called my mother and told her to not bring me to him anymore because I refused to learn to play by music. I never learned to read music and have for the entirety of my life played by ear. I converted from accordion to organ in the early 1960's when it organs became vogue in the rock bands and after a few years in small combos began playing as a single act in supper clubs and restaurants for another thirty years before hanging it up.

Loved it..bet your teacher was over the moon too..don't know if it is all about teaching or learning or sharing, but for about 7 years as part of my job I volunteered to teach a writing class to young people in a NYC Alternative School..some had left traditional classrooms because they were disruptive, others just dropped away the way that some teens do..my class was the last one on Friday afternoon, so that alone doomed it in everyone's eyes..But I just knew I could nail some of these young people..The Bd of Ed did not give me one ounce of supervision or oversight so I just proceeded to challenge the group, mostly l2-l8 of the registered 30 to write what they wanted..Half could do it easily, another group had to struggle and some had absolutely no prior writing or they thought, caring about writing..It continues to be the best thing I ever did in a long career of interesting jobs and assignments..because of FACEBOOK, I see some of them in print and it gives me great joy that they nearly always talk to me about how much they liked the class, even though they knew they were disruptive or mad or hated it, etc..they tell me about their lives, most are now in their 30s, some with kids, some with wives and partners..I get the most joy from the guys who fought me tooth and nail because they hated writing..I was blessed with great teachers my entire life, I bet I presented a challenge to them at times..I shared every trick any teacher ever used on me, am sure some Nuns in the heavens enjoyed those Friday classes as much as I did..I never wanted to be a Teacher of any sort for a career, but those Fridays were such a bonus in my life..I hope those I challenged when I was their student sit around the heavens and talk about the assumptions they had and feel pleased..

Good story. I spent many months of Saturday mornings taking lessons at a music teacher's home without developing much skill. Then baseball practices started at the same time, ending my pianist ambitions. In retrospect, it probably would have been more fulfilling to cancel practices on the diamond and continue on the keyboard.

My husband and I loved your story. Husband took piano lessons from his mother and transferred over to a vibraphone he bought used while in high school. He formed his own jazz group then and played on through college and on after our marriage. With our teaching jobs and his gigs, we were able to afford a new home and start our family. We were pleased to read that your wrist healed. Such an injury could end one's future in music performance. We would love to read a story from you related to one of your memorable gigs if there is a story there! Maureen

Brought back memories. my sisters went to East High the two years we lived in Denver.

For a year or more we lived with my grandmother who was the church organist. She had an old upright piano with heavy keys and a full sound. She gave me my first piano lessons.

My dad had bought a piano for my mom when I was four so it was great to know how to play when we moved into our own home. I continued with lessons from a teacher in town. I remember her wanting me to learn a piece last minute in preparing for a year end recital. In those days one had to memorize the piece. At the recital I sat down at the piano and couldn't even remember the first note. I was humiliated. To this day I am reluctant to play in front of a group.

My aunt, who graduated with a degree in music, completed my education when I was in 8th grade.

Now I teach in an after school piano program and have for many years.

Thanks for the article. You can see it brought up a whole history of mine!

Our son has had the wonderful experience of learning the piano. We benefit from listening to his playing daily and it is beautiful. We are so fortunate to have such a gift and you have no idea how much we appreciate his teacher. Thank you for sharing your story.

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