I entered the Longy School of Music as a singer, but could not read music. I faked it by getting classical records out of the library and learning songs by ear. I was an exceptional student until I could not locate the recording needed, then my voice teacher would shake her head in wonder at my apparent lapse of ability.
Giving a recital on an instrument was a requirement of the school, but I didn’t play one. To comply, I sat next to an overweight man who smoked cigarettes and wiped bored sweat from his brow. He tried to teach me piano and how to read music. I had only been playing for three months when the concert rolled around. The public was in attendance and so was the faculty. Grades were issued accordingly. I went to the dean.
Surely, you can’t expect me to perform on the piano when I’ve been playing such a short time. I’d only make a fool of myself.
It’s a requirement of the school, he said, there are no exceptions.
The afternoon of the recital I was escorted across a grand stage amidst enthusiastic applause to a piano fit for a master student. Positioning myself I said a silent prayer and began to play. This was a student’s time to shine, to show the community and faculty that they held professional status. Naturally no sheet music was allowed. I was sick with nerves, knowing full well that I possessed no skill whatsoever. If only I could sing for them, I thought, everything would be fine.
I played for ten measures before my memorization collapsed. Determined not to fail, I reached into my bag and pulled out the forbidden sheet music, praying for a miracle of comprehension. I envisioned red ink marks being splashed across my report by the faculty seated in the back row, but no longer cared. This was an exercise in survival. The notes on the page ran together, while restless whispers from the audience amplified. I stopped to gather courage, took a deep breath, and straightened my posture. A vast landscape of black and white ivory lay before me. I had only to place my fingers on the right tract to make my way to safety, but I could not. I missed the mark over and over again.
Finally an authoritative voice from the back of the auditorium rose and called out to me.
Miss Banfield, may I make a suggestion?
Yes, please sir. I was in desperate need of a lifeline.
Try playing a D with the third finger of your left hand, instead of an F. I think you’ll find it gets you back on track. I changed my fingering and it momentarily eased the pain.
Dear God, can someone tell me how a gentlemen in the back row could indicate which finger was amiss, while I, giving it my full attention was completely lost?
I played on, being guided by whatever saints take mercy on inept musicians. When I finished, I closed the sheet music and returned it to the bag. I pushed back the piano bench with what dignity remained and prepared to leave. The same man stood again at the rear of the concert hall.
Miss Banfield, I have a question for you before you go.
A renewed sense of panic filled my body.
I’d like to inquire, do you enjoy playing the piano?
Shielding my eyes from the glare of the spotlight, I probed the sea of faces before me, searching unsucessfully for his.
No sir, I answered, I hate it.
He made some marks in his book and dismissed me by saying, it shows.