Aunt Evy taught the piano for 75 years. She began her career as a teenager and, widowed early, supported herself and son by giving private lessons. Charging $2 for each lesson in the 1950s, she drove from house to house in her Chevrolet of turquoise-blue and white. Later, students came to her studio instead.
I was 5 years old when I started my weekly lesson. She was a good musician, and I learned about musical theory, too. Each time I mastered a certain level of playing, she would give me a small, white, marblelike statue of a classical composer. But when I got to seventh grade, I somehow convinced my mother that I didn't need to study piano anymore.
Mom is no longer here, yet I still jokingly blame her for letting me stop. I've regretted my decision for a long time. As a result of my folly, I never improved beyond the level I played at as a 12-year-old. In musical terms, that means I never progressed beyond the ability to play Clementi sonatinas.
A sonatina is like a small sonata. Muzio Clementi composed many sonatas for piano, and some of the easier ones are called sonatinas. These have long been popular in piano pedagogy.
I recently learned that in Vienna, on Dec. 24, 1781, at the request of Emperor Joseph II, Clementi entered a musical duel with Mozart. Playing their own compositions, both entertained the guests of the ruler, who later declared the competition a tie. History tells us that Clementi's review of Mozart's playing was less critical than Mozart's remarks about Clementi's playing.
The other day, I decided to sit down at my piano, which I haven't played in quite a while, and see if I could still play the sonatinas I had learned at the height of my preteen career, after a half century of not taking lessons. I surprised myself. My playing was certainly not flawless, but somehow my fingers still knew where to go on the keyboard, and the melodies were familiar. And I had great pleasure playing despite the passage of so many years.
To improve my musical ability, I may think about taking lessons again. Or I might just practice a bit every day. I haven't decided.
But one thing is certain: From now on, I shall play Clementi sonatinas and an easy little Mozart piece on Christmas Eve. Unlike the famous composers, who competed more than two centuries ago, I won't improvise. My event will be private. There will be no royalty or guests invited to make the evening special. The joy of still being able to play the music will be the only reward – unless I can find a Clementi statue to wrap and put under the tree.