My first experience with a piano was hearing one hit a concrete floor.
I was a toddler, born in a northern Minnesota mining town— it was the area called the Iron Range, where in between cold, snowy winters miners would dig ore and put it on freight trains bound for Duluth, where it would be sent by ship across Lake Superior to eventually be unloaded and smelted in Gary, Indiana. My birthday is in April and there was usually snow on the ground then. Heck, it once snowed on a Fourth of July parade in my town. It was a beautiful, piney area, and not at all one that imagined itself producing pianists, or composers.
The piano was eventually cleaned and I listened to my parents attempting to work their way through the Howard Kasschau Piano Course, Book One (Revised Edition). One piece stood out, an easy-piano Tchaikovsky arrangement that sent my sister and I scurrying around in circles, faster and faster, each time we heard it.
There were no piano teachers in my town,
but my parents couldn’t have afforded one even if there had been. I made up songs: A Rocket Launch! A Thunderstorm! A Rocket Launch In A Thunderstorm! I loved to sit underneath the keyboard, in front of the exposed lower section of the strings, holding the pedal down with one knee while I plucked and scraped and banged the strings to get strange otherworldly sounds. My only wish was that I could somehow be there, doing that, while also playing the keys at the top.
When I was in my first year of school my dad was fired for trying to unionise his workplace. This being the 1980s, firing someone for unionising was still illegal. Eventually they had to offer my dad his job again, and back pay. He accepted the back pay but decided that it wasn’t really the sort of job worth returning to, and anyway he had by then found a job in Colorado. So the family moved. It was the only time in my childhood I rode an airplane.
The Colorado job paid well enough that I got to start actual piano lessons, with a man named Andy. There were a lot of rhymes and some Saturday morning group lessons and while I think it was pretty good, compared with lots of formal lessons, I mostly remember being confused about why I was meant to be doing any of the things I was meant to be doing. Andy’s teenage son could climb the walls by putting one foot on each side of the narrow hallway and shuffling his way up. This, however, I thought was fantastic. Andy was less enthusiastic.
The lessons were downtown. Downtown had two key features: A dinosaur museum with animatronic foam-rubber dinosaurs, and a terrifying statue called something like “the horrors of war”. It was basically bits of metal welded together to form a man who looked like he’d rather not exist, but couldn’t do anything about it, and was also in terrible pain. I closed my eyes every time we walked past it. More relaxingly, there was also a bison statue constructed out of chrome car bumpers.
Our first year in Colorado we rented a big 1920s house a couple blocks from my elementary school. It turned out to be affordable because the house across the street ran a booming trade in street drugs. Once a man came to the house asking to use the phone to call an ambulance because someone had overdosed. We moved to a new neighbourhood for the next school year. That school’s claim to fame was being the only elementary school with a canyon on school property.
Wow, you made it.
Thanks for reading my story. Now we’re friends forever.