There is nothing more doleful on a bright summer’s day than the dull sound of thudding piano keys floating out of a window; they indicate that inside some poor child is chained to a Baldwin, tortured by Czerny while dreaming of baseball or swimming – or anything else under the sun that does not include the unfeeling beat of the metronome.
Back in the tawny days of my childhood I would wait on the front porch for my best friend, Wayne, to finish his piano lesson, so we could go explore the delights of our Southeast Minneapolis neighborhood in the mellow golden sunshine. There were milkweed pods to pluck and hurl. Green crabapples that needed to be swiped and ingested. Gutters to inspect for pennies and nickels. Innocent ants to incinerate with our magnifying glasses. Van Cleve Park was a mere three blocks away, where we could while away the hours at the turquoise cement wading pool, laying on our mother’s old kitchen towels and surveying the goodly green landscape as if we owned it in fee simple.
I felt keenly sorry for Wayne, having to sacrifice an hour each weekday to the tyranny of those ivory keys. But I was not above pulling a smarmy face, in the best manner of Edward Everett Horton, when I thought how sweet it was that I never had to worry about such a thing. My mother broached the subject of a piano and piano lessons to my dad once; his ensuing soliloquy on the imminent collapse of the family fortunes and our enforced journey “over da heel to da poor farm, qvick as a vink!” should have garnered him an Oscar for Best Dramatic Performance, although it did not move my mother one bit. “The old skinflint” she hissed to me as he stalked off to grab a slice of brown geitost cheese from the fridge, “he’d charge his own mother rent if she ever came to visit longer than an hour!”
Needless to say, I was in dad’s corner on this one.
But it came to pass that I developed an obsession with the violin, after watching too many Jack Benny TV programs. Renting a violin and arranging for lessons cost so little that mom could do it out of her grocery money. I practiced assiduously, astounding my dad – who had prophesied I would abandon my instrument forever after the first ten minutes of doing scales.
When school started up I was a second violin in our grade school orchestra, and at our first concert that September I sawed away at my Schmitt rental like a virtuoso. Two of the strings snapped in the middle of an improvised adagio, so the conductor, a hatchet-faced martinet, silently bade me leave the sacred precincts of the orchestra by pointing sternly with his baton. I was humiliated, and vowed never to pick up my violin again.
I kept my hasty promise, so mom eventually returned the violin. I took up the kazoo instead.