Before long I was hearing chords and arpeggios

LAST year I started taking piano lessons again after giving them up 35 years ago. My reason for stopping had been simple. Because of pressures from friends, it was difficult for the biggest 14-year-old in his class to take piano rather than play football. Or at least it was difficult for me. So I told Mrs. Goodgame I wouldn't be coming back for lessons that September. I was going out for the football team. She said that she would hold my 4:30 time slot on Monday and Thursday afternoons, just in case I decided to come back. I never did.

Until last year, that is. My teen-age son is taking guitar at a music center in the neighborhood, and one night I was waiting for his lesson to end when I fell into conversation with a young man who teaches piano while working on a graduate degree in music. I told him there were things I never learned in nine years of study during grade school and junior high. Could he possibly teach them to me now?

He said he might be able to. What things in particular? I was ready with an answer. Three of Chopin's preludes, I told him. And some of Bach's two-part inventions. A little Debussy. And then, when I'm comfortable with chords and scales, maybe he could help me improvise some jazz on my own.

We started the following week, and I found that picking things up again wasn't nearly as hard as I had feared. Over the years, I had continued to peck away at the piano, so my fingers were more or less willing to go where I told them. But my playing habits had become undisciplined, and there was no order or design to the way in which I worked up a new piece of music.

My teacher changed all that. With tolerance and humor, he made certain I followed the correct fingering and wouldn't let me slide along in counting time. We took up only those pieces I wanted to learn, and before long I was hearing chords and arpeggios I had lost all hope of claiming for my own.

The composition I most wanted to learn was a Schumann arabesque I had just begun to work up when my earlier career in music reached its abrupt end. It seemed important for me to make this particular return. With one finger I could still pick out the dominant strain, a graceful melody described by the composer as ``leicht und zart,'' but the bridge and transitions had left me long ago. For weeks I worked on this single piece, laboring over runs with my right hand and, with awkward stretchings of my left, bringing the bass into some acceptable compliance with the treble.

One night last fall my teacher finally approved the way I played it. He didn't paste a gold star on the title page as Mrs. Goodgame would have done - piano teachers must have dropped this custom along the way - but he did say, ``Well, this piece is yours.'' And at that moment I felt a tremendous satisfaction, as though I had come full circle after all these years.

Which reminds me. Last summer I visited my hometown and drove by the vacant lot where Mrs. Goodgame's house had stood, the house in whose wide and sunny front room I had learned my scales and chromatics. The old two-story frame was torn down some years ago, but nothing has been done with the property and I'm sad to say it was overgrown with pigweed and goldenrod. I found myself wishing I had stayed with Mrs. Goodgame. I was no good at football and eventually quit that as well as piano, leaving myself with neither sport nor song.

Now, at almost 50, I'm trying to get back what I lost at almost 15. Since learning the arabesque I have had the nerve to face even more demanding challenges. My teacher suggested that I join his other students in the Christmas recital, but I begged off when he told me the next-oldest pupil would be a ninth grader. Besides, these days I'm playing strictly for myself.

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