Every few months or so, I go through a closet or drawers and get rid of stuff I don’t really need to hang on to. I’m close to getting rid of some of my notebooks from my days as a middle school dean. Yesterday I came across a folder my dad had kept on me with my report cards, awards, old pictures, and such. I found a newspaper clipping of me with other winners of a piano competition that had been held at Yale one spring. I was probably a freshman in high school at the time. It brought back many memories.
I started piano lessons when I was ten, full of enthusiasm and desire to be great it it. Mrs. Guthin, who had studied under someone like Bela Bartok or Zoltan Kodaly in Hungary as a child, was just the right teacher for someone like me. She was very demanding and expected perfection. I tended to be lazy, but I was also fearful of getting fussed at. So I had to work hard or suffer the consequences at the next lesson. I had some natural talent, but most of my success was due to hours of practicing and my desire not to disappoint my teacher. With each lesson, she became more and more convinced that I would some day be an excellent performer, maybe even a virtuoso. But I couldn’t let down for a moment. The more excited she became over my growing talent, the harder I practiced in my effort not to disappoint her. Sometimes I felt as if I were deceiving her. Did she really think I had so much natural talent? Did she realize how much I practiced?
When I memorized a piece, only my fingers retained the memory, not my brain. I could remember nothing of chord progressions and theory. I knew if I were to forget a piece in the middle, I would have to go back to the beginning and try again. The only way I could memorize a piece was to play it over and over until my fingertips automatically picked out the right keys.
Mrs. Guthin’s best friend was also a piano teacher. This friend had a prize pupil whose name was Barbara. Barbara was a natural talent. I knew she was better than I was, even though I usually tied her or even surpassed her in many competitions. But I knew it wouldn’t be long before I reached the peak of my abilities and Barbara would continue to soar.
I was Mrs. Guthin’s best. Barbara was Mrs. Guthin’s best friend’s best. And we were at the same level. You can imagine the rivalry and the pressure. The difference was that Barbara desired to be great for herself, and I wanted to do it for Mrs. Guthin.
Finally, in my junior year of high school, I could take the pressure no longer. I hated the endless hours of practicing. I was tired of Mrs. Guthin telling me I would go to Oberlin College and major in music performance and become a virtuoso performer. I hated her disappointment in me when I failed to perform to her satisfaction. Most of all, I hated the realization that I just wasn’t talented enough.
I changed teachers that year. My mother, bless her heart, was understanding and became the intermediary to break the news to Mrs. Guthin. My new teacher was our church’s organist. Though a talented performer, he was a rotten teacher. He had no hopes or dreams for me. It was a job to help supplement an inadequate income. Nothing more. I lost interest and quit halfway through the year. I always regretted leaving Mrs. Guthin. Sometimes, a good teacher can give you motivation that you wouldn’t otherwise have.