A lesson in music that still resonates

I walked to piano lessons after school each Wednesday in fifth grade. From several blocks away, Miss Logan's apartment building rose like a tall brown box of graham crackers. As it came into view, my heart began to flutter, my books grew slippery in my hands, and I began to wish I'd practiced a little more.

Actually, I wished I'd practiced a lot more, since I'd practiced only when my mother stood over me, prodding me through each weary measure of "Go Tell Aunt Rhodie." My mother did this both too much and not enough, depending on how you looked at it.

I entered Ms. Logan's apartment by way of a long zigzagging fire escape, each filigreed step inching me closer to weekly confirmation of my musical inadequacy. On drizzly days - and Wednesdays seemed always to be drizzly - the inky steps were shiny wet. I'd clutch my piano books under one arm and grip the cold black rail to haul myself up that treacherous ascent.

But let me make this clear: It was the piano, not Miss Logan, that I dreaded. I knew I could make Miss Logan laugh - a stronger affinity between us than music could ever be, and my diversion of choice for frittering away our 30 minutes together. I'd finish an especially sorry rendition of "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" with a dramatic one-fingered tremolo on "rrrrringgg!" then mug expectantly for Miss Logan's forgiving chuckle.

Such foolishness ate up good chunks of my lesson time. Miss Logan good-naturedly encouraged me to practice more, which I always promised to do, but which I promptly forgot as I scuttled back down the fire escape.

When Miss Logan wasn't tutoring the stubby-fingered likes of me, she taught vocal lessons at the junior high. She was good at her work, as evidenced by Linda and Kelly, two of her school students who had piano lessons ahead of mine, and whose lessons I'd hear if I arrived early.

Linda and Kelly were, by my comedy-club standards, bland and boring. (That is, they played the piano with far too few mistakes.)

One wintry Wednesday, at the end of their lesson, Miss Logan asked Linda and Kelly to sing for me a duet they'd been preparing for their school Christmas program. Miss Logan accompanied while the girls sang "O Holy Night," their lacy voices crisp and delicate, filling the small apartment with something even I could recognize as lovely.

I should have listened quietly. They were, after all, using up my lesson time, a fact for which I should have been grateful. But Linda and Kelly's voices stirred me with a longing that was a close cousin to envy. The girls held a treasure out of my reach, all their own, just by opening their mouths to sing.

The sleet ticked against the windows, fueling my goosey pre-lesson agitation. As Miss Logan played, facing the wall, Linda and Kelly turned outward, into the room, and I sidled in front of them and began to make faces. No slapstick physical humor was too lowbrow for me, as I waggled my tongue and crossed my eyes.

Ellen and Linda clung tenuously to their notes, averting my outlandish facial contortions by looking to the ceiling, to the floor. And I - never knowing when a joke has gone far enough - stepped closer, my obnoxious buffoonery on the loose, in full force.

The girls finally laughed, of course, ruining their song with sputtering blurts. And I, you could say, had won.

I turned to Miss Logan like a tail-wagging puppy, expecting her to roll her eyes and laugh a little, as she always did, to let me know that even if I couldn't tell a sonata from Shinola, by crackers, I was funny.

But Miss Logan wasn't laughing. Her face wasn't even angry, which might not have been so bad. Instead, she looked sad, and I knew she pitied me.

Over the years, I've made far more laughter than I've made music. And I have even come to believe that a willing humor might be a gift in its own right. But each holiday season, I listen to "O Holy Night" with a shiver of reverence and a humbled appreciation. Some lessons are not easy to forget.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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