Dutifully slogging through the John Thompson piano series as a 12-year-old (well, mostly dutifully – I had been known to sneak into the kitchen to shave a few minutes off the practice timer), I came to a realization: I was never going to sound good.
Even six years of lessons (including Hanon book exercises complex enough to knot up E.T.’s fingers) couldn’t give me the ability to play in public. So, in the time-honored tradition of piano students everywhere, I quit.
Barbara Hall’s witty, downbeat new novel, The Music Teacher, looks at what happens to those children who, although they will never make even fifth chair in an orchestra, love music so much that they can’t quit. (Hint: They grow up to teach kids like me.)
“I became a very good violinist, which is about like being a very good mathematician. It means you cannot actually make your living at your chosen profession. It means you have to teach others how to surpass you,” Pearl Swain explains to readers, after declaring that she’s “the mean music teacher” they remember from their youth. “Here’s why your music teacher was so mean: She didn’t want to teach. She wanted to be a musician.”
In addition to being a self-described musical failure, Pearl has also failed at marriage. (Actually, her husband says she failed. A reader may see it differently, since he’s the one who had an affair with one of his college students.) Pearl now works at McCoy’s, a quaint Los Angeles music store.
Franklin, the owner (on whom Pearl has a crush) dreams of being a session musician, “which is not unlike dreaming of being a ghost writer.” In between private music lessons, the staff stands around arguing about how overrated Jimi Hendrix was and sobbing over Stevie Ray Vaughn. (The tears are courtesy of a bass teacher named Clive, who has a crush on Pearl.) McCoy’s is like the record store in the movie “High Fidelity” starring John Cusack, with Pearl serving as a female Cusack. Two of Pearl’s co-workers vie for Jack Black’s opinionated, mouthy slot, and one – an ambiguous character named Patrick – opts for the quieter role played by Todd Louiso.
One day, a teenage girl walks into McCoy’s. Hallie Bolaris possesses multiple gifts, with the kind of innate understanding of music that can’t be taught, and Pearl imagines she is going to make up for all the bored children of yuppies she’s endured.
“Music is the closest you will ever get to God,” Pearl tells people when drunk. “Some people need to have God explained to them through scripture and ritual. Others just go right to the source.”
Hallie, Pearl thinks, can tap directly into the source. But the orphan, who lives with an aunt who says that “it seems pointless to adopt her,” is almost as troubled as she is gifted and as their lessons progress, Pearl becomes alarmed. Her tentative efforts to help end up backfiring – on both Hallie and Pearl.
Hall, who has written eight other novels, is probably best known as the creator of TV’s “Judging Amy” and “Joan of Arcadia.” That show specialized in a confluence of religion and science that reminded me a bit of Madeline L’Engle’s young adult novels. Both those disciplines remain undercurrents in Hall’s new novel, as Pearl uses them to explain her devotion to music. Sometimes the results are overly facile – and “The Music Teacher” suffers from an overload of navel-gazing – but at their best, they give the novel some needed depth.
Hall is also wisely stingy when doling out second chances to her characters. Pearl has been deeply injured, and the admiration of a 28-year-old bass player isn’t going to fix everything. But while the unexamined life may not be worth living, at some point, you’ve got to stop examining and start living. “The Music Teacher” is the story of one woman’s grudging, half-hearted efforts to do just that.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.