If a woman of seventy goes back to college to get her degree and makes the cheerleading squad as well, the world applauds her ambition and vitality. If a grandmother of five takes up sky diving, everyone envies her youthful verve. However, if you decide to study piano at an age when your contemporaries are honing their rocking chair techniques, people think you're really off yours — your rocker, that is.
"The piano? At your age?" my friends scoffed when I confided my plan. "With those arthritic fingers? And your shriveling brain?" The taunts would have discouraged me had I not impulsively invested a chunk of my retirement fund in a lovely spinet to complement my living room decor.
Anyway, how hard could it be, I thought. I wouldn't even need lessons. I still had all the yellowing music books from the lessons I took as a child. It would be a breeze to whip through them and get up to speed. I'd be playing Mendelssohn's Rondo Capriccioso again in no time.
Wrong. I couldn't even master Sister Sally's Seesaw. Obviously, I had to restart from scratch, and I needed help. I decided to enroll in a highly-recommended music school in the next town. I dutifully reported for my first lesson to the instructor assigned me — a lady even older than I, with pince-nez glasses.
"Do you know how to read music?" she quavered. She was delighted when I said yes.
"Wonderful!" she trilled. "That will save a lot of time. Let me explain our system of sight reading to you," whereupon she unrolled a sheaf of paper decorated with gaudily colored birds perched on limbs resembling a musical staff.
"Here we go!" she said. "The canaries are eighth notes, the bluebirds are quarter notes, the green parakeets are half notes, and those big fat robins are whole notes. Now, let me see you try to play this lovely little song!"
Even if the big fat robins hadn't been in the process of eating big fat worms, I would have felt slightly ill. I peered at her. No, she wasn't kidding. She apparently had never taught anyone over the age of five.
"Do you suppose," I asked gently, "that we could try it with regular music? I think I could manage."
She couldn't have been more dismayed if I had proposed that she dye her hair shocking pink and pierce her belly button. "Heavens, no!" she said. "We couldn't possibly do that yet. That's not our system!"
I managed to refrain from telling her that I thought their system was for the birds, but I never went back for lesson two.
Instead, I checked out another music school in the area that had a marvelous reputation. It took only one lesson to realize why the school was, indeed, highly regarded — at least, in the financial community. Its prime focus was its bottom line, not the cultivation of its students' musical aptitude. When the time was up, the bell rang shrilly. The lesson was over. If a hapless student had a hand raised at that moment, ready to launch an intricate arpeggio, that hand would remain upraised until the next week's lesson.
I had paid for six weeks in advance in accordance with the school's play-safe terms, but my frazzled nerves couldn't take it any more after two.
I was ready to put an ad in the classifieds: "For Sale, brand new spinet, untouched by human hands." But I knew my skeptical pals were itching to unleash their smug "I told you so's." I couldn't give them that satisfaction. At least not yet.
As I pondered what to do next, my phone rang. A friend who had recently returned from a long trip had just heard about the funny things that had happened to me on my way to Carnegie Hall. "Your search is over!" she said. "I know a terrific teacher who specializes in adults. What's more, he doesn't know how to tell time. You'll love him."
I did. He persuaded me to abandon my Mendelssohn aspirations, at least for the time being, and to just have fun at the piano. But first I had to memorize something he called "chords." This was a whole new concept. During a decade and a half of piano lessons in my first childhood, I had never been taught that those groups of notes on top of each other were chords — and they had names!
He then gave me some "music" written in letters and numbers on paper ruled off in squares. At least it looked a bit more sophisticated than colored birds, but people who saw it invariably asked how I could play geometry on the piano.
Though it appeared strange, it was effective. In three weeks, I was doing so well my teacher figured I was ready for my debut.
"I can arrange for you to play at the opening of that new supermarket down the street," he said. "On second thought, maybe not. Too many fruits and vegetables handy for the amateur critics to throw. How about a cocktail lounge instead? You could start late in the evening when the customers are so mellow anything will sound good."
When I accused him of not having any faith in my musical ability, he said,
"Not true. A few more lessons, and you'll be a pro. Stick with me, Kid; I need the money."
Well, I did stick with him for another year or so; and I really did have fun with it, as he had advised me at the outset. But when I stopped taking lessons, I stopped playing. And, again, my musical neurons stopped functioning. Another example of the truth of the caveat, "Use it or lose it."
I'm now back where I began — wondering how in the world I had ever played Sister Sally's Seesaw.
It's time for a new hobby.
Hey! Maybe I can go on eBay and swap my neglected spinet for a bungee cord!
Rose's new book, The Stranger in My Mirror and Other Reflections is available by special order from most book stores, or on the web at www.amazon.com and www.barnesandnoble.com
Editor's Note: Rose Mula's most recent book, The Beautiful People and Other Aggravations, is now available at your favorite bookstore, through Amazon.com and other online bookstores, and through Pelican Publishing (800-843-1724), as is her previous book, If These Are Laugh Lines, I'm Having Way Too Much Fun.