Maxims for a short career

"When you put your shirt on backwards," my grandmother admonished me, "nobody can tell if you're a preacher or just foolish." She was a sweetcake with a bit too much lemon, my grandmother, and her mysterious pronouncements were spices from a faraway clime where the garden variety of communication was not cultivated. But in her obscure commentary there was usually right, and this time was no exception.

What she was telling me was that if I had been really honest with myself, I would have realized I had no business auditioning for the piano staff at the local radio station in the first place.

You can follow her if you start with Shakespeare's "To thine own self be true ," add countless hours of hearing a teen-ager pound the piano in his own self-taught style which was appropriated from elementary ukelele chords, and include her clear perception that my efforts left not merely much but practically everything to be desired. Then you'll arrive at a concerned adult's duty to tell me I was pretentious in the extreme.

The swift rejection by the radio station and my grandmother's twitting did put the soft pedal on me for a day or two. But I was soon banging away again as if my knuckles had never been rapped.

I soon learned that the ability to play the piano by ear is a gift of wide distribution, second only, I've come to believe, to whistling. The more I circulated, the more ear-powered keyboardists I encountered, and most of them put me to shame.

I was playing dum-de-dums like "Show Me the Way to Go Home" and "let Me Call You Sweetheart," and they were ripping off "Tiger Rag" and "Black Bottom" and the football fight songs of the Big Ten colleges. Big, full chords, they played , with a driving, strutting bass. All by ear, they said. Clearly, if these players also derived their glissandos and strides from ukulele chords, they were hearing a diffeent strummer.

It was discouraging, especially for my family. I resolved that if I couldn't do as well, at least I could do more. I filled the house with the thin and brittle plinking that was my erratic tiptoeing though Tin Pan Alley. Percussion accompaniment was occasionally provided by the slamming of doors and windows in the immediate neighborhood.

Dauntless, I charged into the classics: Rubinstein's "Melody in F" (only in C ,m which was my one key), MacDowell's "To a Wild Rose," Chopin's lovely "Prelude in A Major," and even the opening movement of Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata." I cannot apologize enough -- not to my parents or to the neighbors, but to the composers.

On through high school and into college I Kerplunked away, never getting any better, just wider-ranging in demonstrating my lack of proficiency.

I did develop one skill: the instantaneous breakup. Let me strike a chord at a party and people would scurry as if parents had suddenly shown up. With a few bars I could empty the fraternity house faster than the collector for the shirt laundry. I dissolved ad hocm male quartets just by touching the bench.

You notice things like that. At first I was hurt; then I turned mean. I guess I was like a naughty child who wishes someone would tell him to stop doing that so he could stop doing it.

The debacle with Mel Chatsford finally did it. Mel was a schoolmate and an amateur tap-dancer. Because his stepping drowned out most of my feeble chording , he let me accompany him when the bored loungers at the fraternity house urged him to kick up a little excitement. My thumping helped him pace himself.

He had been asked to provide the entertainment at a social meeting of the French Club, and he wanted me to back him up. The performance took place at the front of a gloomy, wanly lit basement room of a building on campus. There were perhaps 25 members present.

We entered right. Mel took the center, and I walked behind him to the piano, left. We did our things and acknowledged the desultory applause, and Mel went out the way he came in, while I, seeing the door to my left and anxious to escape, exited there.

What I tell you is exactly what happened. The door I had chosen led not to another room or a hallway but to a closet where the custodian kept his brooms, mops, floor wax, and, for a few panic-stricken moments, me. I considered spending the night there, but the air was inferior. Finally I had to throw the door open wide.

I got the ovation of my life, but then and there and permanently my waning enthusiasm for the piano was extinguished. Sic transit musicum dum-de-dum.m At home I never mentioned my humiliation, but I'm sure they suspected some painful reason for the silent piano. I was to marry and move away in a few weeks anyway , so everyone accepted this head start on overdue relief without comment.

Except my grandmother. A few days before the wedding she took me aside, folded a check into my hand, and said, "There's a lot of rain that falls doesn't get anyone wet."

Maybe so, but a wet blanket had settled down on the piano keyboard for me, and it's there to this day. I've never touched it since. Just th inking about it makes my palms clammy.

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