On current piano teachers

[POI: waking up to a “sorry, Cindy, I accidentally took the keys to the car in the garage” text, leaving me no choice but to cancel my morning with my piano teacher.]

Today, I’m missing my piano teacher–let’s call her “E.”–more than usual. It was supposed to be very straightforward: greet the doorman. Tap E.’s doorbell (just once). Place a customary can of jasmine tea leaves in her palm. Attempt to play piano for her. Afterwards, crunch on salad (her) and inhale some pastries (me) at Kafe Leopold. Instead, a key mishap left me at home, one hand clutching Prokofiev scores, the other angrily schmearing avocado on toast.

I met E. by accident. After a previous piano teacher (not this one, rest assured) decided it was worth my mother’s money to yell instructions from her kitchen, fifteen feet behind me, I quit. In a snotty voicemail, the woman blurted out a name in a teary garble, saying, “I think she would be great for her.” My mother shepherded me from house to house, suspicious woman to suspicious woman, trying to figure out who was supposedly so spectacular for me. Some appointments ended in disaster (potential teacher: “Okay, dear, now you can ask any question you’d like.” Me: “How old are you?” Mother [stammering]: “We’re leaving, thank you, goodbye”). Others, like anything J. Crew, simply didn’t fit.

The first time I sat in E.’s basement studio, fidgeting like a chick primed for slaughter, I couldn’t understand a word she said. Many years later, she would tell me that the strength of her accent once almost cost her her dignity. I played the first movement of Mozart’s a minor sonata, an ominous little number with strange, tragic weight. She stared wordlessly at a clumsy girl petrified of meeting her gaze (still am, really). “Will you accept her?” If my mother could have buckled to her knees, she would have.

“Yes,” E. said, and very little else. I will never forget how that word plunged from her mouth. She said it with a conviction that was almost fateful. For the past thirteen years, much of my musical life has been spent living up to that “yes,” a promise that she would not just teach, but indeed nurture, me; that she would shape me into a musician she could be proud of.

And so, once a week for ten years, with select weeks off only when she was glamorously sunning in Tuscany or on a pan-Asia cruise, I sat fidgeting in her basement. Its smell is imprinted in my nostrils (musky, floral, linear); its too-cushy couches will always delineate “parent sits here while recording child’s every move” (toffee-colored) and “E.’s throne” (dusty blue). I lifted my fingers as high as they would go in Czerny, I clung to her every instruction in Beethoven, I glared at her when she told me I would learn Liszt, again, and there was nothing I could do about it. I let her stoke my imagination in Debussy and Ravel. I stormed out when she said I would never learn Rachmaninov. I begged my mother to please, please, let me leave, I cried, I screamed, I threw tantrums like the youngest four-year-old in her studio, and I resented almost every moment.

One night in tenth grade, I noticed she had stopped calling me by my given name, “Cynthia.” It was very subtle, practically camouflaged, but I fixated on it the entire lesson. “You’re calling me Cindy now.” “Maybe we are finally on the way to ‘friends,'” she replied. Senior year, she told me, “I am very proud of what you have accomplished,” the same way she had said that “yes” nine years before.

It is impossible to articulate, even through music, the depth of meaning E. holds in the lives she touches. “You are like my daughter, I have watched you grow up. Don’t cry,” she once said, handing me a Kleenex® for the umpteenth time. A girl in her studio recital sniffled, “Ms. [E.] has taught me a lot more than just piano, she has taught me about life,” and nothing could be more true. I have learned a lifetime of perseverance sitting across from E. once a week. She has taught me strength, because she embodies all it means to never give up. She has taught me humility–“we must be hard on ourselves”–and honesty. She has taught me respect, granting it to me when I least deserved it. And, despite my best efforts to stop her, she taught me how to play the piano like my life depends on it.

She is more of a confidant now than a teacher (especially when the universe seems so against me playing for her #ugh). Her sagacity extends beyond tempo control and phrasing. It encompasses everything from “Don’t be nervous!” (getting a French visa), to “🤗!Did you like it?” (trying an éclair at the new Ladurée Georgetown), to “break your leg on Wednesday!” (a good luck charm, since 2006).

She still wears her hair in the same approximate side-part, and still asks me how to use Emoji properly. The other day, she texted, “No, you do not get what I mean by translation.” I had to chuckle–she basically pronounced the story of us. Two women from polar-opposite worlds, perpetually lost-in-translation, and still figuring it out, together.

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