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••• The International Writers Magazine - Fiction - 22 years on-line - Archives

Amy Chan

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.
piano teaching

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, who’s next for the dentist’s 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 didn’t 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 neighbour either.

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 other’s 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 don’t you brush your teeth in the car?’ I can’t help worrying about who it is I’m 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 didn’t 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 weren’t better occupied making cups of tea or preparing the examiner’s lunch – on full alert to any mistakes we might make.
‘No, no. Slow down, slow down. She’s taking that piece far too fast. She won’t 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. Vincent’s 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 hour’s 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. Vincent’s. 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. Vincent’s 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 Verne’s 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 Beethoven’s 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 wasn’t 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 didn’t 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 mother’s placing. And so, I’m 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 Director.
‘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.
‘After three…Three!’
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 you’re after and perhaps a count in might help the others?’

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 don’t come in yet. Let’s start again…’
Three hands on and four bars in followed by a collision of elbows and a discordant spluttering of notes.
‘Joe! What’re ye’ doin? You’re so dumb! I’m 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, I’m 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 I’m 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

Amy Chan
She 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 of three.

Further Chapters in Amy Chan's evolving biographical novel
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