Friday, February 27, 2009

The Piano Teacher

Last year, when I was visiting the folks in Forest City, I found out that the woman who gave me piano lessons throughout much of my childhood had passed away.

Mrs. Taylor was important to me in more ways than one.

Ever since I can remember, I have loved music. I loved the radio, especially WBBO, our local station and I listened every spare minute of every day. Whatever they played, I listened to and I learned all the words to every song. And I spent lots of my allowance on records, those flat black discs that revolved around 45 times per minute with a needle tracking the grooves until they were scratched and crackly.

My favorite aunt Martha, a self-taught musician herself, held me in her lap whenever I visited when she played the old upright piano in the room off the kitchen and she eventually showed me some easy tunes I could play myself. It was Aunt Martha who introduced the concept of music notes and how you could read them to turn them into sounds with your fingers. Sitting in Aunt Martha's lap was always a highlight because I relished the attention and her encouragement. She was possibly the first person who recognized some tiny kernal of talent I might have had in those days.

So, by about age 6, I had a passion to learn to play the piano myself . I begged and begged until mom and dad gave in and bought me my own secondhand Baldwin upright! And, they agreed to send me for some piano lessons to learn to play it.

I still remember mom driving me to Ellenboro , which was out in the country for us folks from the urban Forest City world (pop. 7000). I had no idea what to expect, but I was squirming with anticipation during the whole ten minutes it took to get there.

We arrived at what looked like a regular country house, pulled into the gravel driveway and circled around back of the house to a tiny, plain white building, I'd soon come to know like my own room.

We sat in the car for what seemed like forever before suddenly, a small white haired woman emerged from the main house back door, beckoning us towards the small white building with small windows.

I remember her as kind and funny, with a deep Southern drawal and a natural grace about her. When she opened the door for us, I could finally see the small studio Yamaha piano, back to back with the electric Hammond organ, just like the one at our church. She and my mom worked out the details of our arrangement while I tinkered with the keys: half hour lessons, once a week, $5 a lesson, plus the cost of the music books. With a gentle nudge that I would be expected to practice at least 30 minutes a day, she winked and smiled and thus it began.

My official relationship with Mrs. Taylor lasted for almost 10 years after that, the ups and downs of those lessons, week after week, month after month and she taught me to play.

I know I wasn't always an easy student. As much as I loved the piano and loved music, it was sometimes hard to stay focused on the practicing, earning me many pseudo-threats of the lessons stopping until I found the discipline to work at it. As much as I sometimes hated the thirty minutes of scales and music theory, I also continued to love the breakthroughs in my ability to play real songs.

No matter what else was going on in my life, every week I found myself in that little room sharing the love of music and the ins and outs of the rest of my life with Mrs. Taylor. She laughed at my jokes and brushed her tiny pomeranian's fur, pausing occasionally to correct my hand position or timing, with the gentle patience of a true teacher.

Under her guidance, I became fairly accomplished at the piano, enough to eventually perform at my parents' church and later at school and at the local arts council.

One day, at my regular lesson when I was 15, she surprised me by asking if I'd be interested in becoming the pianist at her church, Ellenboro United Methodist, for $15 per service (at the time, a fortune!). She had been the pianist for years and was ready to retire at that point she explained. She also felt that I was ready and could handle the responsibility as long as my parents agreed and could bring me to church and pick me up after.

I was a little concerned about my folks' reaction since they were devout Wesleyans and taking this job would mean that I would no longer attend church with them, but I wanted to try it more than I'd ever wanted anything. It strikes me as funny now that I seemed to have no fear about it. I was just a kid who could earn some bucks and have some fun at the same time- oh, and the opportunity to escape the harshness of the fundamentalist Wesleyans that I had come to despise as a young man. At that point in time, I had been struggling with my sexuality for a few years.

Although I respected and cared for Mrs. Taylor, I wouldn't say that we necessarily had an openly loving or family-type relationship. She was my teacher and I was her student. I knew virtually nothing about her life outside that little white building. We spent ten years together, sharing our love for music and the piano and occasionally we talked about other things and laughed. Twice we met outside of the white building and church, both times on her initiative to expose me to music at a larger scale: a piano performance at Isothermal Community College and a music teachers' convention a few miles away for the afternoon.

At close to 17, my life became much more complicated as I began my first love affair, struggled to maintain my grades and dealt with the horrible coming out process with my family. Being gay back then meant that you were evil or sick and my refusal to reject that part of myself led my mother to say things to me that a mother should never say to a child.

Piano lessons got pushed aside and although I continued to play professionally, I left the comfort of those weekly meetings . Within the next couple of years, I struggled to survive until I left town for college, rarely looking back to Forest City. Mrs. Taylor wished me well with a quick hug and one last prod for me to continue my musical life after high school.

Over the years, I'd occasionally give Mrs. Taylor a call to say hello. She always sounded the same- excited to hear from me and happy when I could say that I was still playing. But I can say that I thought about her on more than a few occasions, the woman who was probably the most consistently positive force in my young life. She was always warm, always gentle and always happy to see me, 50 weeks a year for ten years.

A few years back, when my second book, The Gay and Lesbian Guide to Self-Esteem was published, I included Mrs. Taylor in the Acknowledgements section, among the other important people in my life who made a difference. She believed in me and made no demands on me other than to practice and to make good music. I never told her about it. We didn't talk about things like that. But she was the only consistently positive and regular adult presence in my life, who didn't judge me or manipulate me. I owe her for my self-discipline, a virtue which has brought me successes that I never dreamed at 13 that I could achieve.

Two years ago, I was thinking about her again, wondering how she was and remembering our times together. It hit me suddenly that maybe I had underestimated my relationship with her.

It's hard to know what kind of kid I must have been to her. What kinds of things did I really talk about with her? How much time in the 30 minutes did I really spend playing and how much did I share with her the details of my life?

I had always thought about what a wonderful "coincidence" it was that, just as I was feeling the peak oppression of my parents' fundamentalist beliefs while trying to understand myself, she "retired" as the pianist for the somewhat more progressive United Methodist Church and convinced them to offered me the job. Was I really that good? or did she have something else in mind?

What if, I wondered, Mrs. Taylor knew about struggle I was facing, without even a conversation about it. Surely, even in the back woods of Rutherford County, she had experience with little boys with a talented ear and musical expressiveness. Was it possible that this wise woman knew me better than I knew myself? Instead of divine intervention that took me out of that homophobic church under the spotlight of the small town mind, maybe it was Mrs. Taylor's way of rescuing me. Did she know me and my folks well enough to understand that without her intervention at that point in time, who knows what would have happened?

I choose to believe now that she did. I choose to believe that she was proud of me and loved me, quietly and patiently. During the times that I didn't love myself and thought I had nothing good inside, she was there every week. Recently, I revived my keyboard life, fumbling through some easy Beethoven and beginner Mozart. I wish I had practiced more during my life.

Good night Mrs. Taylor and thank you for believing in me when no one else did. I love you.

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