{September 16, 2012}   Piano Lessons

In the eighth grade, I had a huge fight with God. I was angry at him. Not because he wouldn’t answer my prayers or because he didn’t make me prettier or smarter. I was mad at God because of how he made my body. My fight with God started when I learned that my body would change. Once a month, my body would bleed. I couldn’t believe it. How could God do this to me? The idea that this was my fate sickened me. Friends who had already started this routine seemed okay with it. But I would use every ounce of resistance I had against this betrayal. Plus, I hated those horrible contraptions in the bathroom that took coins for sanitary pads like grim bubble gum machines.

When it happened to me, I was in my third year of piano lessons. Mr. Bolza was a strict teacher who believed that repeating Bach’s Inventions was the only way to train a student of the piano. I was tired of Bach and begged him to assign me the Beatles, or Simon and Garfunkel. Anything but Bach. He said I could play Mendelssohn. Or Chopin. Or Haydn. But never the Beatles. Mr. Bolza worked on oil paintings in the basement while I played my assigned piece. He dabbled with herbs and chemicals sometimes while he listened. He made all of his wife’s cosmetics, creams and perfumes. Mr. Bolza was a genius. Even though he was in a separate room during my lesson, I never got away with misplaying a single note.  Most of the time I couldn’t hear the mistake. But Mr. Bolza always heard the mistake and he’d yell from the side room, “look at your left hand. It’s D-flat, not D!” I feared his booming disapproval when I didn’t practice. I didn’t care for practicing every day. I’d rush through the assigned pieces the day before my lesson.  Mr. Bolza started the lesson by asking if I’d practiced. I always said yes, but I was pretty sure he knew I didn’t practice as much as I claimed.

I was playing a Nocturne for Mr. Bolza one day when I suddenly felt something wet on my seat. I was wearing shorts and was afraid to look, so I finished playing the piece before looking down. Mr. Bolza was in the next room. He ordered me to play the piece again–this time slower. I stood up from the piano bench and saw a pool of blood where I sat. I didn’t know what to say so I sat back down on the bench. Mr. Bolza walked into the room. “Start again!” he commanded.

“Mr. Bolza, would you ask your wife to come down?” I asked.  He looked puzzled, but he went to the steps and yelled for Elsa to come down. She still had on her apron when she descended the stairs to the basement studio. Mr. Bolza went back to painting in the other room. I felt ashamed having to tell her that I got blood on their piano bench. Elsa said, “Dear, it’ll be alright.” After cleaning up, I said goodbye to Elsa. I didn’t say goodbye to Mr. Bolza. I would see him again in two weeks.  Next time, things would be different between us.

The next lesson, Mr. Bolza said that this time, instead of having me play Schumann for the whole 45 minutes, he would talk about yoga. He practiced yoga every day. He did breathing exercises and meditated for thirty minutes every day. He said it helped with his music and his life. He told me I should learn this practice because I was a good student. He told me that I had inner beauty and that I should nourish it instead of outer beauty. I was grateful not to have to play my lesson. I hadn’t practiced enough anyway.  I changed my mind about Mr. Bolza after this lesson. He wasn’t so mean and strict. He was wise. I could learn more from him than how to play a waltz.

Mother was waiting in the car during my lesson. When I got in the car, Mother said she didn’t hear the piano. She asked me what I did for 45 minutes. I told her that Mr. Bolza and I talked instead of playing piano the whole time. I told her about his yoga practice and how it made him a better piano teacher. I told her that Mr. Bolza said that I had inner beauty. Mother cackled. “You little fool! Don’t you know he was telling you that you’re ugly? When somebody tells you that you have inner beauty, that’s what they mean. They mean you’re ugly.”

There she goes again, I thought. Sullying whatever is beautiful and pure. Mother couldn’t stand it when somebody was nice to me. She asked, “Should I buy you birth control pills now?”  What a shocking detour in the conversation! “Why are you asking me that?” I asked. “You know, you can get pregnant now. I don’t want any little bastard of yours. I’d rather buy you some pills.”  How vulgar, I thought. “Are you implying that I’m having sex?” I asked. “Well, I didn’t hear a piano play today,” she snarled.  “You’re accusing me of having sex with Mr. Bolza? Are you kidding me?” I felt sick talking about this with her. Mother has a sick mind. It’s probably because all she ever reads are those disgusting sex books she hides in her closet. I decided that her comments would not damage the purity of my lessons with Mr. Bolza. I would never share anything high minded with her again.

I continued piano lessons for one more year. During that last year, the last ten minutes of my lesson were reserved for discussion. Mr. Bolza talked about philosophy. He favored Wittgenstein. He said we use language to think about the world. Music is such a language. He told me about the Buddha and compared what he taught with what Jesus taught. That was the best year of lessons I had with Mr. Bolza. But, I didn’t want to practice piano anymore. I told Mr. Bolza that I wanted to quit taking piano lessons. He urged me to continue. He said that if I just stuck it out a little longer, I’d reach a point of mastery on piano that most people don’t possess. It would be a talent that no one could ever take away from me. But nothing Mr. Bolza said would change my mind. I had other interests now.

One week after my final lesson, Mr. Bolza died suddenly. Mother said it was a heart attack. If a great man like that can die, I thought, anyone can. I would have to forgive God. God sent me a good teacher. Then, God took him away. I sat down at my piano and played a Largo for Mr. Bolza.  I thanked him for teaching me how to play such divine music. I think he heard me.


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