I remember being young and thinking adults were so other.
My mom had me when she was 19 years old. I am the oldest of five, and by the age of 27, she had brought the whole lot of us into the world. When I was 19, I was only starting to feel like a real adult. When I was 27, I had just delivered (surgically, but after many hours of labor) the first of my own five, and my children should all be thankful that I didn’t have them when I was younger.
Apart from the moments where I was rolling my eyes or stomping out of the room, my mom and I had a close relationship. She would tell me stories about her life, was not shy about introducing me to sensitive topics, and I felt like I could talk to her about pretty much anything.
Even with that level of closeness, both in age and relationship, I still felt like she was on a different plane of existence. When she would tell me about her childhood, it was as if she were speaking of someone other than herself. I had no context for imagining my confident grown-up mom as young and vulnerable.
This is the point where it would be very natural for me to write more about my mom, which I will do at some point, with her permission, but I fear I am meandering and must divert the attention to Mrs. B, the piano teacher from whom I first heard the phrase, a Jack of all trades is a master of none. If my mom was on a different plane, Mrs. B was from a different universe.
Be forewarned that the following tale is told from a kid’s-eye view and may or may not be 100% factual.
Do you remember the feeling you had when you were a child, and there were certain things you knew you wanted to do or learn—not the ones that were forced upon you, but those inner stirrings that emerged from nowhere while you were just sitting around with nothing to do? Writing was a big one for me, as I wrote about last year, but another was playing the piano. From day one of my first encounter with a piano, I could imagine nothing quite as fun as learning to turn those keys into music. I would poke around, playing Chopsticks and Heart and Soul, but what I really wanted were piano lessons.
In fifth grade, at a time when some of my friends were already well on their way to becoming accomplished elementary school pianists, I finally got my wish. My mom arranged for me to take lessons through a lady in the neighborhood at $2.50 for a half-hour lesson. I played my little three-note pieces (C-D-E, E-D-C) from Ada Richter’s beginner book with gusto and loved every minute of it until suddenly, it was time to move on to bigger and better things. It turned out that my beloved piano teacher, whose name I do not recall, also needed to move on, either to a new location or a new stage of life.
Through some recommendation or another, I ended up walking down the stairs of Mrs. B’s typical Kansas City-area ranch-style home, taking my seat at the very grand piano (one of three pianos in the small home), and starting in on my scales and arpeggios almost every week for the next 5 years of my life. I had entered the big leagues. We drove all the way across town for those lessons—about a 15-minute jaunt—and my parents forked out a whopping $4.00 per week, doubling that amount once I moved into the even bigger league hour-long lessons.
Mrs. B was a master pianist with two very masterful pianist daughters. She was tall and slim, with fingers matching her build, and could sit down and play almost any musical composition, if not by memory, by sight. She was a firm believer in classical instruction and required that every work be perfected and memorized and that the metronome be used consistently. She was kind; she was also very serious about the piano. There was no messing around.
Somewhere along the line, Mrs. B decided that I had the potential to go somewhere with my piano skills. This decision marked my introduction to the master of none idea. If I said I had to miss a lesson for, or said I didn’t have time to practice because of, any other extra-curricular activity or interest, I might as well be doomed to becoming a cursed Jack (Jill) of all trades instead of a master pianist.
Maybe Mrs. B wasn’t wrong about the necessity of dedication for future masters. She was just wrong about me. Little did she know, and little did I want to tell her, that I really didn’t want to be a master pianist. Or maybe I did … if it were possible to be one with minimal practice and multiple other pursuits. But then I guess that would be a Jill of all trades, and we have now come full circle.
Even though Mrs. B and I saw each other almost weekly for what amounted to almost a third of my life at that time, we didn’t really know each other. She didn’t know that I rarely, if ever, devoted the hours of time to practice that I was supposed to. She didn’t know that I probably spent more time practicing my photocopied modern hit songs than I did my scales and arpeggios and my Bach and Beethoven and Chopin. She didn’t know that I dreaded every lesson, every performance, every competition. She didn’t know that I had discovered about five to ten other things I enjoyed as much as, if not more than, piano. It wasn’t her fault that I saw her as a towering standard of perfection whom I did not want to disappoint, and before whom I did not want to fall short. I didn’t know that she was just a person who had mastered the piano and was excited to pass her expertise along.
And now we arrive at the part of the story where I share a few random snapshots that illustrate the nature of this kid’s kid’s-eye view of life, memories that weighed on my conscience for years. (Just so you know, I have always tended to have an overly sensitive conscience.)
There was the time in 11th grade when I interviewed Mrs. B for a school project and gave her the impression that I wanted a future career as a piano teacher. I already had my first student. She was so happy.
There was the time when Mrs. B loaned me her very special compact music dictionary that she told me to be very careful not to lose. I was so honored.
There was the time when Mrs. B entered me in a somewhat prestigious competition at an area college where I was to play scales and arpeggios along with a very difficult Beethoven I had been working on for quite some time. I was so not called to be a concert pianist.
This one deserves a little more detail.
As I awaited my turn to appear before that dreaded panel of judges in that vacuous auditorium, my panic meter began to rise. “Wait, does my left-hand lead-in chord start on the low E or the low G? Actually, which octave does it start on?” I suddenly drew a complete blank on a piece I had been playing by memory for months and lost all confidence in my fingers’ ability to do what they were supposed to. In the end, I made it all the way through my performance, but not without missing that starting chord and having to restart. It was humiliating. Perfectionists do not like to miss notes. Both Mrs. B and I were perfectionists. It is kind of the nature of piano performance.
Standing outside after the event was finished, I could see that Mrs. B was disappointed. I was probably crying. It was time for my mom to drive me back to school, but Mrs. B and I would have time to talk it all through at my lesson later that afternoon.
I never got to hear what Mrs. B might have had to say to me. In fact, I never saw Mrs. B again. You see, I had already decided, along with my mother, who was on the same plane of existence with me at this point, before that performance, that I was not going to that afternoon lesson, nor to any other lesson again, ever. I had had enough of the pressure. I would fulfill my commitment, and then I was out of there.
I didn’t even have the courage to tell poor Mrs. B myself—Mrs. B, whose hopes I had raised and who had dedicated so much of her time to my training. My mom called her when we got home and broke the news to her. Mrs. B, understandably, was shocked. And I was free.
And that is the not too long and short of my not-so-masterful piano career and my less than stellar adolescent character.
Last year, my mom forwarded Mrs. B’s obituary to me. I read about how she was born in 1927, grew up in England, and married her WWII B-24 pilot husband whom she had met at a dance in Norwich, near where he was stationed, when she was only 16 years old, and how she had arrived in the U.S. two years later to marry him, and how they had recently celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary.
I thought about how nice it would have been to get to know her story and who she was as a person and how I wish I would have thanked her for her investment in my life, even though I was never destined to become a master pianist. It would have been nice to tell her I was sorry for disappointing her and treating her so badly and that I really, really wish I would have returned her special music dictionary.
And then I thought: I am pretty sure that Mrs. B understood that I was only sixteen, and while disappointed, probably got over the news quickly, especially after that last performance. And if the music dictionary were really that important to her, she would have called my mom and asked for it back.
From an adult’s-eye view, I am pretty sure that Mrs. B understood what it felt like to be a child.
Thanks for reading! Tune in next week for more reflections from a non-expert parent’s-eye view on Jacks, Jills, and masters. And maybe just a little bit more about my mom, if I can get her permission.
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