Every kid in school was afraid of the music teacher.
The grownups didn’t understand this. Miss Steiner had been teaching forever – she had taught the grandparents of some of my classmates – and when she had been young she had apparently been kind and patient and not yet disillusioned. To us, though, she was impossibly old.
And worse than being old, she had gotten mean.
At least it seemed mean at the time. Now I think it was probably a vast internal cauldron of frustration, simmering for years, now boiling over. Decades of teaching music to elementary school children had taught her one thing: children are terrible at music no matter what you do. And the corollary statement: if you are someone who loves music, then observing this phenomenon up close, day after day, year after year, will destroy you.
By the time our generation came along, Miss Steiner was desperate to save Music from the butchering hands of grade school kids with no talent. She would accompany soloists at recitals, pounding the keys of her piano in an attempt to drown out some poor clarinetist murdering a rendition of “I Love You Truly.” She played with desperation, as loud as she could, sweating and clenching her teeth and gasping for breath at the end of each song. It was as if she had no choice – as if Music itself had demanded it of her.
Music class was taught on the school’s stage, a dark, cavernous area separated from the gymnasium by a heavy curtain. Someone said Miss Steiner lived back there, like a troll, which I doubted but could never quite disprove. Sightings of her outside the school were rare and unconfirmed. Someone said they saw her at a restaurant once, where she was eating pancakes, and someone else said they saw her walking on a sidewalk with a man during Cheese Days. Both of these were impossible to imagine.
Another rumor informed us that Miss Steiner’s gray, wiry, bouffant hairdo was actually a wig. A girl reported that she’d seen Miss Steiner with her hands on her scalp, adjusting her hair as you might a poorly fitting helmet. I don’t know why the idea of a wig terrified us so much, but it did, as if Miss Steiner were not a music teacher at all but secretly some kind of space alien or bald monster.
Now that I’m an adult, my guess is that she was not adjusting her false hair. I would bet she was trying to press out a migraine headache. She was anxious and angry and had pretty much lost control of both her classroom and herself. If you told me she drilled holes in her skull to release the pressure, I would not be all that surprised.
During small group sessions she was usually fine. She could even demonstrate patience, now and then. But when conducting the entire band, she had completely given up any hope of sanity or rational behavior. Wearing a blue pantsuit and nurse’s shoes, she stood on a raised wooden platform, whipping a baton that had long ago splintered from the abuse it had endured at her hands. The way she whipped that thing around, slicing the air and battering the music stand in front of her, was simply incredible. More than once I had seen her hit herself in the eye with her own baton, an obviously painful event, but she only blinked and muttered and resumed screaming.
Yes, screaming. It was the hallmark of her performance: in both recitals and concerts, she screamed through every single song.
Kevin, no! Kevin! Kevin Schlotzky!—NO NO NO NO NO!… Not yet, drums. DRUMS! DRUMS!! NOT YET!!!! You—you with the flute! Like this! Like this! Da-DA-da. Da-DA-da! [whipping baton against music stand] KEVIN SCHLOTZKY, WHAT ARE YOU DOING? YOU ARE PLAYING THE WRONG SONG! PUT YOUR INSTRUMENT DOWN, KEVIN, PUT IT DOWN AND DON’T PICK IT UP AGAIN!
I would say Miss Steiner was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but that can’t be right. Surely the breakdown had happened long ago. By the time I reached fourth grade we had to be at least a full decade in.
You might think that all this had soured me on music, but here was the thing: somehow I had gotten it into my head that I wanted to learn to play the piano.
And as everyone knew, Miss Steiner was the only piano teacher in town.