Parties can be difficult events to negotiate. Idle chatter. Questions about the family, the weather.
But even if the inclination is to hide, deep down many of us want to stand out. To be the center of attention. To be the talk of the guests without resorting to spandex clothing or stupid human tricks.
Some wish for the smooth tongue of Bogart or the shoes of Astaire. But for the more proletarian among us, the fingers of Liberace (replete with candelabra) are the keys to social success.
It seems as if a good three-quarters of the American population took piano lessons when they were about eight years old, then stopped because it took them 7-1/2 months to learn the "Star Spangled Banner." All those other people who could actually play a complete song without pausing and repositioning their fingers after every bar were either prodigies or had the patience of Job.
So then one day, you see this ad in the bottom left-hand corner of your local newspaper that reads, "Learn how to play the piano in three hours."
Skeptical: yes. Curious: indeed. Should you try it? Well, being a man whose crowning achievement was once playing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" all the way through without a mistake when I was a wee child, I considered myself the ideal candidate to test the system.
But can you learn to play the piano in one night? The answer: a qualified yes.
The class I attended was not about improving your piano playing during those three hours - I actually never touched the keyboard. The point is to give the student the tools and the knowledge to enable them to play better.
Now mind you, this is not Rachmaninoff here. Vladimir Horowitz was nowhere to be found. Although the teacher, Frank Dunne, claimed that any song could be played using his methods, the course was intended for amateurs who simply wanted to play tunes they liked, nothing more. It was called "pop piano," and you felt as if a bust of Jerry Lee Lewis atop the piano would have been far more appropriate than one of stodgy old Ludwig van.
The keys to the course were learning chords and tricks of the trade, which allow players to embellish ordinary tunes and win adoring fans at parties.
But regardless of what the promoters put in the paper to get people to come, Mr. Dunne made a straight sell from the start.
"There is no substitute for practice. You can't get better unless you put in the time," was his constant refrain. So what's the point of the class? Dunne claims that, using the methods he teaches, the members of the class could be competent piano players if they gave it one hour a day for 21 days. An enticing proposition when compared with lengthy piano lessons at $30 an hour.
THE dozen or so students hung on every word. To many of them, Dunne spoke words they had hoped to hear for years.
"This idea is totally new to me. I'm very excited to pursue it," says Mary McConnell, a veteran of years of classical lessons. "The things he does are very interesting."
Several times throughout the lesson, Dunne would call the students to the piano to show them simple tricks many piano players use to make their songs sound better. At one point, one of the students actually burst out laughing and commented, "I'll never be able to look at them the same way again."
But therein lies the inevitable catch. Because the class amounted to what was basically a three-hour lecture and presentation, the learning must be done at home with ... cassettes. Yours for this special, low, low price.
But rather than being fazed by the sales pitch, many made off with a considerable stash of the cassettes, grateful that they could now learn the piano on their own time.
"I figured [the method] was easy, and they probably had something you could walk away with and then do on your own, rather than scheduling a class every Tuesday night and cancelling for the rest of your life," says Rick Silver, who says he took the class to learn how to play blues and jazz.
"I've taken some piano, but I just couldn't meet [the teacher's] schedule. So when I saw this, I called a friend of mine who's a classical musician, and he said the guy's good. Kind of like ski instruction without thinking."
In fact, every member of the class who commented on it said they were glad they took it. So was I.
To be honest, I'm not as dedicated to the piano as were most of the attendees. One hour a day for 21 days is not a possibility. But the few times I have tinkered around since the class, I have felt - not so much better, as empowered.
I understood what I was actually doing much better, and because it made sense, I often found myself improvising. I even wrote a really bad song.
The point of all this is that if you do have the time and the desire to learn the piano, but you feel like practicing is more like slave labor than entertainment, this class is ideal. And even if you don't, it's fun, and you come out knowing practical things you can use any time you sit down to play.
And Dunne says he hopes all of his students take this one enduring lesson away from the evening:
"That they can do this. That it's going to add something to their life."
Candelabra not included.