Piano Lessons

We practice to get closer to perfection, but often it's the mistake that brings understanding

“Call Mrs. Roth and explain why you’re not coming today,” my mother announced, her arm outstretched toward me with the receiver of the black rotary telephone.

My first piano teacher, Mrs. Roth, had dark, fussy hair and stylish glasses she constantly pushed up her small, straight nose, which I was sure had been surgically perfected. She sat to my right. She pointed one of her long fingers over my shoulder at the lines of music in front of me while I played. That matronly digit waved in the air on the periphery of my vision the way my mother’s did when she wanted me to do something.

My mother wasn’t going to pay for my lesson that week because I hadn’t practiced. This wasn’t the first time she’d handed me the phone to make the call.

I don’t recall why I didn’t practice. The upright piano sat against the wall in the basement of our ’60s ranch house. On my own, I’d spent hours at the keyboard. I taught myself to read simple piano music and then asked my mother for lessons. The piano sat at the end of the room, near the stairs to the kitchen, where my mother could barely hear.

Maybe I loved playing with my sisters in the basement more than playing the piano. We spent countless afternoons there, pretending to be characters from The Addams Family. A brick fireplace commanded the far wall of the pine-paneled space, and in the winters, my father would build a fire so we could make popcorn. Without parental presence, my sisters and I sat on the floor in front of the old black-and-white television, giggling endlessly at the wavy lines on the screen. Dim light from shallow ceiling fixtures glowed over us. We were free to put our feet up and let our half-dachshund/half-beagle mutt, Crunchy, snuggle on the tweedy sofa previously used in the upstairs living room. On Halloween, we took turns lying under a sheet on the sofa. We pushed the hands of blindfolded friends into a bowl of skinned grapes, saying, “These are the dead woman’s eyes.”

Maybe it was just practicing I wasn’t so keen on. The number of telephone calls I had to make to cancel my lessons grew, and eventually Mrs. Roth or my mother put an end to the whole project. A year later, when I was a sophomore in high school, my family moved to a bigger house. The piano came to reside upstairs. It was cornered by a long window seat in the living room, where bright light streamed in. I still played on my own, now in this more open, sunny space.

Next door, our new friends’ mother taught piano, and when I asked my mother to start lessons again, she agreed. Connie Grohlman’s three children all played; two of them would go on to major in music in college. When I told Mrs. Grohlman why I’d quit studying with my first teacher, she made it clear that I had to show up for lessons, whether or not I’d practiced.

Mrs. Grohlman sat to my left at the piano bench. She held a cigarette away from the piano and blew white puffs sideways out of her mouth, coughing throughout the lesson. The smoke never in my direction, only her words. She told me my first teacher hadn’t taught me much about hand position and would place her own hand— the one without the cigarette—on top of mine, like a comforting glove, as she guided it along the keyboard. I spent a lot of time learning to hold the fingers of each hand spread evenly and arched. Each finger, especially the pinkie, had to be trained to lift at the big knuckle and then come down straight and solid onto the key.

I was making a fresh start with lessons, so I tried to practice every day. I arched my fingers, raised them, brought them down strong, with special attention to the movement of both pinkies. But as far as my mother was concerned, I was still a lazy apprentice. I had made mistakes during one recital with Mrs. Roth, and my mother never let me forget it. Now, able to hear my practice in the living room, she would shout at me from the kitchen, “Why does Connie let you make so many mistakes?”

I never said a word. Leaving my music open at the piano, I would head to my room, waiting to practice, without my mother’s judgmental squawking, when she left to go out grocery shopping or to visit the hair dresser for her color and set on Saturday morning. Mrs. Grohlman never said a word about mistakes; missed notes were an opportunity to play a phrase again with a lighter touch, a different emphasis. She coached me to master preludes by Bach and Chopin, among others. I never missed a lesson with her.

My first summer home from college, I listened to the raspy cough drifting across our yard. Mrs.Grohlman—I had started to call her Connie by then— played and coughed and taught and coughed at her baby grand piano. At night, I heard her coughing from her bedroom window, which was directly across from mine. Connie’s husband, Bernie, told my mother, and her cello-playing daughter told my sister, that Connie refused to see a doctor. Bernie followed her around the house, putting out cigarettes as fast as she could light them. I considered taking another lesson with Connie during semester breaks, tough as she would be on my rusty strokes, but I didn’t get the chance.

Home early that second summer, there was no music, no cough. Just two months after she’d expelled clots of blood onto the keyboard, Connie died from lung cancer. Our family joined hers at a funeral instead of a recital.


Now, I play the keyboard of a computer instead of a piano. My patients range from young adults to the very old, and for each one, I type choices of living, chance, and genetics, in clinical shorthand, into my electronic medical records. I enter my office through the back door every day, to give myself a few moments to get ready.

I turn on the computer, and the screen lights up. I enter my user name, each letter visible as I type. The password is hidden, and my fingers move fast. My login fails. This tiny error is my warm-up each day before I face my patients’ stories of disease and dying. Before I listen and type, unconsciously focused on the fear of missing a diagnosis, of making a real error and what it would mean for a patient and her family—the background music to every clinical note. My mother’s voice echoes in my head: Why does Connie let you make so many mistakes?

My mother had wanted desperately to be a doctor herself but, like Connie, became a teacher instead. She’d developed her own physiology course at the high school where she taught for twenty years. She was also an excellent cook and wanted to open a restaurant, but, with no support, settled for impressing dinner guests. When I first brought my partner home, she bonded with him over an undercooked soufflé he made with her guidance. She gave him her worn copy of one of her favorite cookbooks: How to Cook Everything. She bragged about how many failed cakes she’d tossed in the garbage when she was first teaching herself to bake. My mother, the gourmet cook.

I raise my fingers over the keyboard. What would Connie think of my hand position now? What would it feel like sitting across from her, taking down her history of cough and sleepless nights, asking what her breathing felt like climbing that flight of stairs every night, discovering the truth about what she couldn’t say to her husband, and to her musical children? After reviewing her latest chest X-ray, filled with the spread of tumor, what would I have had to say to her if she had been my patient?

When my mother’s health was failing, she asked me, “Why didn’t we get along?”

I retype my username and password. My login fails again.

Mother, how could you throw away all those cakes and never tell me?

What did it feel like for her to watch me become a doctor? She didn’t know I wanted to be a writer. A writer needs to be able to make mistakes.

I take a deep breath. I find the first letter of my password on the keyboard. Why didn’t I think to ask her these questions before she died?

I perch my fingers above the keys, fingers that know where all the letters are in a way they never knew the notes on the piano. Out of the corner of my eye, I see my right hand rise in the air quietly, the pinkie arched.

About the Author

Ellen Michaelson

Ellen Michaelson is a physician in Portland, Oregon, and an MFA graduate from Pacific University. Her work has appeared in Portland Monthly, Women in Solitude (SUNY Press), and Literature in Medicine.

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