A Pianissimo Took the Breeze

AS a child, I felt little impulsion to play the piano. But my mother, an accomplished musician, had seen piano lessons in my future even before I was born. Fortunately, I was blessed with teachers of life, who were only cleverly disguised as piano instructors. Mrs. Baker seemed tiny even to a nine-year-old. Heavy makeup accentuated her age. With her face seven or eight inches from mine, she would say, ``Now, DEEP, play DEEP into the keys.'' I came to associate ``playing deep'' with her close face and the pink powder collecting in the crevices around her mouth. I mentally felt my fingers plunging into those pools of powder. It felt good. And it worked: ``That's it! That's how you must always play.''

Even though each of her students mastered the technique, Mrs. Baker was not content. ``Playing deep'' was easy when playing alone. The students needed to be tested in the fire of REAL LIFE. On the hottest day in August we found ourselves performing at the state fair with 1,000 young pianists in a one-of-a-kind, never-to-be-repeated, 500-piano duet.

The conductor was too far away. To my dismay, my sister and I finished first. We sat with conspicuously idle fingers as the last phrase of the duet rolled off the other 499 pianos over and over again like waves bounding into shore. I hadn't heard a note I played.

THREE decades later, when I find myself flitting from one activity to another midst the confusion of the world, I think of that state fair performance. It takes practice to ``play deep'' in a loud, diverting world. Practice apart and practice in the world. The piano lesson goes on.

After years away from the piano, I took up lessons again when I moved to Maine as a young adult. I went weekly to Mrs. Potter, a cultured Mainer of 80-odd years. She and Mr. Potter lived in a 200-year-old white clapboard house, where she had taught the children of three generations. He was a generous soul, but she was as serious as Maine's stiff winters. Even as a casual adult, I felt nervous when I came ill-prepared.

In the summer Mr. Potter would wave at me as I came in the door. ``Oh, it's Susan!'' He always said it in the same surprised voice that trailed behind him as he headed out to his backyard garden. During the lesson I could hear him shuffle over the kitchen's wide, pineboard floor and thump down his cabbages and carrots. I could picture him arranging his produce one by one, surrounded by crumbs of rich black soil, on the white porcelain drain. The lesson was usually cut short when he called me in to select my groceries.

In the winter, as I pounded my way through Schumann's ``Aufschwung,'' Mr. Potter would lean back in his recliner beside the piano and ease into sleep. I was never sure whether to feel insulted or honored by this, but I am certain he missed some of his wife's shining moments during those naps.

One dim, snowy afternoon I was playing Mozart - with no sense of how poorly. Suddenly Mrs. Potter's hands flew to the keyboard, plucked up my hands in hers, and held them firmly in her lap. ``Stop, STOP!''

I had learned by then not to be so impressed by her wrinkled frown that I missed the light in her blue eyes. Her drill-sergeant's mouth was sharp and merciless, but her eyes divulged the tenderness and compassion of a mother. ``What do you know about Mozart?'' she barked. I didn't hazard any of the lame information gleaned from the backs of children's sheet music. She didn't wait for an answer anyway.

``Mozart is like Queen Anne's lace. It is so delicate, so airy ... but it has the strength of a weed.'' Then, with a tender look and a playful jab in my ribs, she added, ``And you must be like that, too, my deah.''

Mr. Potter passed away the following spring before planting his vegetables and before I could ask his advice on my own first attempt at gardening. Mrs. Potter retired from teaching, moved out of her familiar house, and left her piano to her children. But during that summer I brought her tuna sandwiches (with fresh garden lettuce) in exchange for a little music instruction (without the piano) and a lot of instruction on life.

IT was barely spring, and I was afflicted with the 11-year-old's attitude toward after-school piano practice: Get it over with and get outside, before your friends pair off without you. I never considered liking piano music.

But that spring, during the wedge of time between elbowing my way off the school bus and pushing through the kitchen door, it happened. When the dry-throated roar of the bus was swallowed in the distance and the dust settled, the road stretched before me in silent light. I shuffled toward home, lost in the slow cadence of pebbles scraping underfoot.

At first I thought it was something inside me, like a vague feeling working its way to the surface. Then I realized it was coming from our house. The windows were open and my mother was playing the piano.

The music came as gently as the air that carried it. It was the air. And I breathed it - strange and fresh as early spring breezes, but comfortable and familiar as ancient harmonies. A slight breeze did what no required piano practice could: It leavened the music. Like a canal lock that raises its water level to match the neighboring lock, the breeze lightened the music outside me to match the music inside. Then, it just flowed. There was nothing between me and the music.

I think my mother knew why I was so long coming home that day. I never thanked her for opening the windows.

It's spring again, three decades later. When I hear the roar of the school bus as it crescendos toward our house, I throw up the windows, race to the piano, and play - hoping for a slight, northerly breeze. My eight-year-old son rambles home swinging his backpack and kicking stones. We never talk about it, but I wonder if he hears what I heard.

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