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WHITE THIRTY-SiX BLACK
In an environment
where the only women present were the cook and the aged Mother Superior,
I guess a flash of nubile, female thigh or a snugly encased bottom would
be far from convivial to maintaining a chaste and celibate, male state
If you lift up the
lid of a piano, you will find fifty-two white keys and thirty-six black
keys spanning seven and a half octaves. According to my parents, I spent
much of my pre-school years playing with two toy pianos. Although they
were fashioned to resemble baby grands they were embryos really. One was
black with one octave of notes and the other one was red with two. Displaying
musical propensity from such an early age, my parents decided to send
me off for some proper lessons.
The local piano, and singing, teacher lived in Clifford St. which lay
on the route from school to home. True to type, she was a fiercesome specimen
of her time. Although she may not have rapped you across the knuckles,
she could still reduce her pupils to quivering wrecks with a few sharp
words. In her first floor tenement flat, she housed two baby grands and
an upright. How she managed to install all those ivory notes into her
home was a mystery.
The weekly lesson was on a Friday after school. My heart used to sink
when the school bell rang at ten past three signalling the end of the
learning week for most but not for us all. Emerging from the bowels of
the underground station, my legs grew heavier and heavier as I made my
reluctant way up to her flat. But I took care not to allow my limbs to
become too leaden as she ran a very punctual show. If a pupil arrived
those last - and precious - few minutes early, the reprieve could be made
quite pleasant by immersing oneself in a stack of old Oor Wullie and The
Broons Annuals which Mrs.A. thoughtfully left on the two-seater sofa in
the hall where we waited.
Right, whos next for the dentists chair? she would
call out cheerfully, appearing greatly amused by her own wit. The younger
pupils would laugh in return but never more out of amusement than nerves.
And have we been doing our practising this week?
Yes Mrs. Austin. At least I had no worries there. My parents
made sure I did my fifteen minute, soon extended to thirty minutes, daily
practice. They certainly didnt believe in hard-earned money being
frittered away. And when I was a bit older, my mother, being also a great
believer in the full use of time, would make me do some of my daily practice
while she got on with the breakfast. Actually, she succeeded in killing
three birds with the one stone as my practising would ensure that there
was no danger of my father nodding off back to sleep - or the next door
I still find it worrying that when daughters become mothers, they start
to behave like their own. My father was always very punctual in delivering
me to school - except for that one fatal Monday morning when approaching
a deserted school entrance, my father and I caught each others eye
and simultaneously realised that the start of British Summer Time had
somehow managed to sneak past his notice. However, my futile attempts
at delivering my pair of sloths to school on time can resemble the doomed
labours of Sisyphus and his rock. And when I find myself wresting with
the urge to suggest, Solomon and Simon - why dont you brush
your teeth in the car? I cant help worrying about who it is
Im rapidly beginning to resemble
The Austin School of Pianoforte Playing, as it read on the metal plaque
on the gate, was staffed by mother and daughter. Mother was head pianist
in residence and daughter, Stella, roved. She roved all over the west
end of Glasgow from Kelvinside to Bearsden thus setting her sights and
fees beyond the more modest reaches of Ibrox. The extra shillings were
probably necessary to cover the incurred expenses of petrol, make-up,
hair-styling and the costly upkeep of her immaculate, one-inch, painted
talons. Whenever Stella played there was the improvised, stacatto accompaniment
of clicking and clacking. How Mrs.A. managed to quietly tolerate this
unwritten piece of percussion when she and her daughter performed duets
on the two baby grands astounded us all, as she certainly didnt
put up with it when listening to our solo efforts.
I sat my first piano exam when I was six. Rather than despatching her
protegees off to the exam centre, Mrs.A. would make the examiner come
to her which may bear echoes of Mohammed and the traversing mountain but
this major upheaval was purely for our sakes. We would be in familiar
surroundings and, more importantly, playing on a keyboard we were used
to. (Poor Mr.A. who was a shy and unassuming school-master would be forced
to sacrifice his home comforts for two days and retire to his bedroom.)
The only drawback to this ideal set-up was that while we were sweating
it out under the critical ears of the examiner, she would be pacing round
the kitchen table wringing her hands - when they werent better occupied
making cups of tea or preparing the examiners lunch on full
alert to any mistakes we might make.
No, no. Slow down, slow down. Shes taking that piece far too
fast. She wont be able keep it up till the end
oh do remember
the last section is allegro not presto
Such displays were not encouraging if you were still awaiting your turn.
Nevertheless, a pass was secured and I went on to take seven more of the
wretched things, picking up two merits and four distinctions on the way,
before she and her retired husband left the cold climes of Glasgow to
join her sons who had both emigrated to South Africa.
By the time she was leaving I was sixteen and being her longest serving
pupil, she bequeathed me some of her fledgings who happened to be the
offspring of my neighbours. And The Sunday Job. This was to teach piano
to ten boys of ages eleven to thirteen, on a one-to-one basis at St. Vincents
Seminary in Langbank in Renfrewshire. The school had a small teaching
staff of Catholic priests, some young and very personable (Mrs. A. had
kept very quiet about that one over the years
) and a role call of
just under sixty five good, Catholic sons whose parents were obviously
keen for them to be primed for priesthood. Ten half-hour lessons with
an hours lunch break meant goodbye to my free Sundays. Langbank
lies about fifteen miles out of Glasgow on the River Clyde and on a deserted
Sunday morning will take a good hour and a half to get to by underground
and then bus. My role as the piano teacher began at ten in the morning
and ended at four in the afternoon.
It was the season when the demure midi skirt was just coming into fashion.
I owned one dress of this style. It was crocheted in lilac, with a sweetheart
neckline, half-length sleeves, fitted at the waist with an A-line skirt
that ended one inch below the knee. I happened to be wearing it on my
last visit to Mrs.A.. Whether my dress reminded her or whether she had
left the slightly awkward subject to the last possible moment, she tentatively
asked me what I thought I might wear for teaching at St. Vincents.
I understood the hidden message and said, Oh, er, something like
this, I suppose, sweeping a hand in front of my dress.
Yes, I do think that would be most appropriate. I would try to steer
clear of mini-skirts. And trousers or jeans.
In an environment where the only women present were the cook and the aged
Mother Superior, I guess a flash of nubile, female thigh or a snugly encased
bottom would be far from convivial to maintaining a chaste and celibate,
male state of mind. Especially pubescent ones.
St. Vincents was built on a hill and it was a steep climb up from
the bus stop, past the rockery gardens, past the main house, past the
chapel and across the sloping yard up to the school building. The piano
room was long and narrow with a small window overlooking the yard and
contained one empty desk, a chair, a piano stool and a piano with a forgotten
copy of Jules Vernes 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea resting atop.
This became my reading matter (even although I had already read it as
a child) on those rare occasions when a pupil failed to appear for his
lesson. When this happened I was beset by conflicting emotions. One was
relief at the unexpected respite and the other was that ever ready to
pop out one of Guilt. For not making supreme efforts to scout out the
absent, perhaps ill or perhaps merely skiving truant. If he was a case
of the latter, then I would comfort myself with the thought that in the
end he would have to confess his sins and say a few Hail Marys. The fact
that this would not progress his piano playing skills was neither here
nor there. Well, being realistic, how much moral conscience do you expect
your average sixteen year old to be troubled by?
My lunch was kindly provided by the school and consumed over in the main
house where I ate alone at the large dining-table which could easily seat
ten. At half-past twelve, the teachers and the boys would file into the
chapel for a quick prayer before filing across the yard to the refectory.
The path from the piano to the dining-table and the path from the chapel
to the refectory crossed at an angle of forty five degrees, smack bang
in the middle of the yard. Being at that self conscious age when it came
to matters concerning the opposite sex; as well as still being the recipient
of curious stares when first sighted as an oriental person; crowned by
being the cause of a neat file of lanky legs to uneatly concertina into
each other if I tried to cut through the line; it soon became apparent
to me that getting to my much needed dinner was going to be a delicate
business that necessitated fine timing. My chosen plan of action would
be dictated by the extent of my hunger. Extreme hunger meant terminating
the last lesson of the morning a few minutes early, to make the unseen,
twenty yards dash over to the house whilst hunger that could wait would
allow for a few paragraphs of Verne until I espied the last pair of legs
disappearing into the chapel.
After nine months, I gratefully reverted back to being the last to rise
in our family, surfacing in time for Sunday lunch and trying to shake
off the last vestiges of dreams where lanky limbs trip a Busby Berkeley
across giant ivory keys and Mother Superior, singing Climb Every
Mountain, heads off into the distant hills bearing aloft my dinner!
The ability to extract a tune from eighty-eight ivory notes is extremely
useful if you wish to keep a pair of six-month old babies quiet, attentive
and occupied. As my two sat in their rockers, I would plough my way through
all three movements of Beethovens Pathetique Sonata, and other rousing
classics. They could sit there with receptive ears for up to sixty blissful
minutes, without a murmur, as long as I kept those notes a-coming.
No doubt, you probably all expect me to have acquainted my sons with the
intricacies and rewards of the pianoforte keyboard. I also considered
this to be my maternal duty and shoving reservations aside, embarked upon
teaching them the rudimentary skills when they were five years old. On
occasion, an uninitiated friend might elevate an eyebrow and enquire wasnt
that a tad young? But I was of the opinion that what was feasible for
their mother should be perfectly feasible for them. Things were progressing
swimmingly until it came to learning to decipher the dots. My canny, wee
lads reckoned that it was much easier just to learn the piece by heart
and Mum would never know the difference. Yeah, right. Their second ploy
was to felt-tip the first seven letters of the alphabet over the middle
two octaves. That didnt go down very well either. Nor was the suggested
compromise of bits of paper and sellotape ever agreed to. Eventually,
I realised that to salvage any good will left in our relationships, I
had to go the Taoist way and let their musicality flow its natural course,
unimpeded by obstacles of their mothers placing. And so, Im
ashamed to say that, in a nutshell, I gave up. But I did instill in their
minds that whatever they chose to play had to be performed with all of
the five, flexible digits that I had provided them with. There was to
be absolutely no poking at the keys with rigid index fingers. Fortunately
for us all, Chopsticks was way out of fashion by then. As
you rightly conclude, their musical education tends to be a sporadic and
imitative one. They are usually keen to learn theme tunes, such as Mission
Impossible and James Bond, and are always over impressed
by my unfailing ability to pick out any request on the piano.
Not long ago, I arrived home from work to find four, young bottoms squeezed
up alongside on the double piano stool. Despite initial appearances, this
turned out not to be a double-duetting, forty fingers act but merely an
innovative arrangement for four hands. Seeing as only one of the quartet,
also the arranger, possessed double-handed skills, the single-handed contributions
of the other two were called upon. The fourth member was sound engineer
and had the important job of pressing the record button on the tape recorder.
And finally, from the distinctive but sadly, very familiar hectoring tones,
I surmised that it was my son, Solomon, who had assumed the role of Musical
Come on! Are you lot ready?
The commanding tone brings about a certain amount of settling of bums,
clearing of throats and flexing of fingers.
The rest of them look askance. I politely put up my hand.
Er, excuse me, Maestro, can I make a suggestion? I think "four"
is the number youre after and perhaps a count in might help the
A disdainful look is shot in my direction which I interpret as what do
I know? Kindly allow the matter to rest in his fully capable hands. And
bloody well stop interfering. Fine - suit yourself.
Right! He jerks his head three times. Four!
Four hands all dive in simultaneously.
No! Stop! Stop! Mike, man! I told you before. You dont come
in yet. Lets start again
Three hands on and four bars in followed by a collision of elbows and
a discordant spluttering of notes.
Joe! Whatre ye doin? Youre so dumb! Im playin
that part. You play there not here!
After a further ten minutes and as many false starts, one prima donna
tantrum and a swiftly averted punch-up, okay, Im exaggerating somewhat,
everyone finally gets their ears, fingers, and rhythms sorted out and
their patient audience is duly rewarded with a suprisingly authentic rendition
of the first twelve bars of Forget Dr. Dray by Dr. Dray and
Eminem. Repeated twice for good measure. Four exultant faces turn to where
Im standing. I give them a hearty round of applause as I can identify
with that triumphant Ye-ess! which I see radiating from each
of their eyes.
In those glorious, pre-motherhood days, I too, alongwith other tireless
musicians, underwent similar trials in cold, rehearsal rooms; then going
on to spend oblivious, time-lost hours laying it down in sweaty, recording
studios. Finally to share in the same, ensuing ecstasy. As we always,
unfailingly, got it right in the end.
© Amy Chan 2002
a.chan at londonmet.ac.uk
MAKING AND BREAKING
felt completely devastated, but did her best, in front of Him, to disguise
her feelings as mere disbelief. He just felt dead chuffed. Probably taking
it as sure fired evidence of his virility. The pathetic and shortsighted
vanity of men, she thought glumly. In actual fact, it was more due to
her fecundity than anything to do with him. She knew from accidents in
the past that she could fall pregnant as easily as ripping open a packet
Further Chapters in Amy Chan's evolving biographical novel
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