A History of Jacke in 100 Objects #14 – The Bass Guitar

Are you familiar with the Suzuki method? I wasn’t. Oh sure, I’d heard of it—all those cute little violin prodigies, and something about kindergarteners learning how to play by ear that sounded impressive—but I didn’t know many details until I signed my kid up for piano lessons with a Suzuki teacher.

It turns out that Suzuki is great for kids. And really, really rough on parents.

Want to drop your kid off at a lesson once a week and pick him up an hour later? Nope. Because you’ll be sitting there during the lesson, watching and taking notes and cringing at each flaw that you were supposed to work on that week. How about listening to your kid practice in another room while you check your emails? No, that will not be your life. You’ll be in the room, listening, watching, helping.

Every night.

I won’t bore you with the other details except to say that you practice the same songs many times and by the end the kids turn into tiny musical geniuses. What they do is incredible. They can switch hands and play the right hand part with the left hand and vice versa. They can play songs by heart, and they can do things like play the songs backwards, and they can improvise. They can switch keys in mid-song. It’s astonishing. And they all can do it.

Halfway through our first year I realized my kid had developed perfect pitch. It really could not have been going better.

But there I was. Night after night I sat in the chair, listening patiently to my seven-year-old run through the same songs. Twinkle in every possible variation. Honeybee. Cuckoo. Lightly Row. London Bridge. Mary Had a Little Lamb. Long, Long Ago.

All these songs, night after night. And me just sitting there, smiling and nodding and making mild suggestions.

The boredom creeping in. The tension building. Waiting for something new. But no. Back to the Twinkles. Variation A. Variation B. Variation C. Variation D. Honeybee. Cuckoo. Lightly Row…more Twinkles…

Until finally one night I walked out in the middle of practice. I went to my office, closed the door, and turned on the computer.

That was the night I bought a bass guitar, an instrument I did not play, because I needed something new to happen.
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100 Objects Special Interlude: The Music Teacher and the Artist

music-teacher
Gui Lessin, circa 1981.

Okay, this is simply awesome.

As regular readers know, I’ve been posting a series called A History of Jacke in 100 Objects. These short stories are fictional versions of things that have happened to me. Like most fiction, they’re based on real-life experiences and drawn from people I’ve known, though the characters are typically exaggerations, or composites, or both.

The stories have been popular, and I’ve been pleased by how wide their appeal has been. That was my intention, of course – not just to share with those who were there, but to express something recognizable to those who were not. So I’m grateful when people I’ve never met tell me they knew coaches like the ones in #1 – The Padlock. Or that they’ve felt the same way as the father in #8 – The Burger Car. Or that they were inspired by the teacher’s triumph in #10 – The Spitwad. Even the ones who say they smiled at my battle with Jerry Seinfeld in #3 – The Blood Cake.

One post in particular, #7 – The Keyboard, about a young boy and his burnt-out music teacher, seems to have touched a nerve. And it has led to a couple of follow-up moments that left me shaking my head with wonder.

The first was from a music teacher who, like the narrator, was given a paper keyboard on which to practice as a young child:

Very, very moving, Jacke, and indirectly very nostalgic for me too. When we lived in Hong Kong in the 50s my parents tried to persuade a Russian piano teacher to take me on when I was four, again even though we didn’t have a piano. Too young, she assured my parents; instead, a dummy keyboard made from black and white paper strips glued to a cheap table was advised, on which I practised for a few months. Then we went abroad.

Fifteen months or so later we returned from the UK, and I was interviewed again and allowed to actually play on a real piano. Said teacher was amazed. “Why didn’t you bring him to me a year ago?” Clearly a few thousand miles was no bar to starting lessons properly. I haven’t looked back, and still teach and accompany now six decades on. Luckily for my students, I’m no Miss Steiner in my approach to pedagogy.

What a wonderful story, with such a lovely ending. So much better than the place I left the narrator in number 7.

An even bigger surprise came from a former schoolmate of mine:

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A History of Jacke in 100 Objects #7 – The Keyboard

 

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.

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