Growing up with the piano

The story of a student’s 12-year journey with piano lessons.

My classmates were gone, and I panicked.

I was 4 years old, alone and confused in the long hallway of The Swain School in Allentown, Pennsylvania. I had returned from the bathroom to find an empty classroom – we had a substitute teacher that day, who had clearly forgotten about my whereabouts before leading my peers to another location in the building.

Not knowing what to do, I began wandering throughout the school looking for my classmates. I aimlessly walked farther and farther up the hall, eventually reaching areas of the school I rarely – if ever – ventured into.

At some point, I stopped walking. As tears began to form in my eyes – surely, I must have thought, I would be lost in this place forever – a woman merged into my line of sight.

“Are you lost, sweetie?” she asked.

I looked up to see Ms. Bev – the school’s beloved music teacher. In my innocent pre-school eyes, though, she might as well have been Julie Andrews. My tears stopped.

Ms. Bev took my hand and led me down to the cafeteria, reuniting me with my classmates and the forgetful substitute teacher.

I didn’t spend much longer at Swain – even today, my parents sometimes bring up how enrolling me in the private school for my pre-Kindergarten years was a financial mistake. But they would do it all again in a heartbeat because, without having been there, we may never have known of Ms. Bev – and my 12-year journey with her and the piano would have been over before it began.

My first piano lesson was a few years later, at a music store located near the Lehigh Valley Mall.

I remember waiting on an ordinary maroon-colored chair, my feet swinging over the carpet as they were not low enough to reach it.

Ms. Bev eventually walked out to greet me and my parents, who had decided to sign me up for lessons with her after my cousin had done so about a year prior.

We walked into her classroom, which was about the size of a large closet – it was just me, the piano and Ms. Bev.

She pulled out a red book that had “Primer A” in its title. We went over a few of the basics, like posture and hand positions. The first song in the book was called, “Two Black Cats.” Ms. Bev played it first, and then it was my turn.

“Ready? Go,” she said, clapping along.

My small fingers pressed down on the keys, and we had begun – it was the first of hundreds of songs I would play in that room throughout the rest of my youth.

I don’t think I spoke a word to Ms. Bev that first lesson, and not much changed in that regard during the initial years that followed. I was shy, nervous and insecure about my musical abilities.

But somewhere along the way, between learning “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and “Fiddler on the Roof,” I came out of my shell. Wednesdays with Ms. Bev became the highlight of my week. Our annual recitals, where all of the students would come together to showcase a song or two of their choice, became the highlight of my year.

I didn’t become a musical phenom because of my dozen years of lessons, but I never stopped loving the piano. I had fun with it – often trying to impress people by how I could play songs like “Entry of the Gladiators” at lightning speed or how I knew “You’ve Got A Friend In Me” so well that I could play it with my eyes closed.

And Wednesdays with Ms. Bev became as much therapy sessions as they were piano lessons.

We talked about politics. We talked about our pets. We talked about school, movies, sports and vacations. We talked about our lives. She was a second mother to me, during a childhood in which I was already lucky enough to have one.

The piano itself became one of my greatest sources of comfort in life. During sad days, like the one when our golden retriever passed away, and the good ones, such as Christmas Eves spent with my grandparents, playing the piano felt incredibly cathartic and relaxing to me.

Students shuffled in and out of Ms. Bev’s classroom throughout the years, but we never strayed. She was eventually forced out of her original piano store after management decided to stop offering lessons. She soon found a new, more welcoming home close by – and we followed her there.

After all, the new location had a piano, and “that’s all we really need,” she would say.

Today marks the 16th anniversary of my first piano lesson. Ms. Bev continues to teach a sizable group of students, including my younger sister.

She’ll sometimes bring up retirement, but I’m not sure she’ll ever close the book on her lessons. If you sit outside the door of her classroom for even just a couple minutes, you’ll see how much fun she has doing it.

In a conversation we had a few months after my lessons ended, I asked her what the hardest part of her job was.

She said it was watching students, like me, graduate and leave after she grew to know them so well.

During my final lesson, held a few weeks before I left home for college, there was no agenda. It was just us, playing a few of our favorites.

I brought my first book, with the “Two Black Cats” song. I brought my Billy Joel songbook. I brought my Simon & Garfunkel book. I brought the sheet music from movies like “Indiana Jones” and “Harry Potter.”

I wanted to play them all, but we only had time for a few. Before I knew it, my half-hour was up.

“I want to play this one last song,” I said, opening one of the books to “You’ve Got A Friend In Me” as the clock ticked past my allotted time – we almost always went over, and this day was no different.

She gave a hearty laugh. “Ready? Go.”

I kept my eyes open this time, fighting back tears. The classroom was different than the one my lessons had started in 12 years prior – a little bigger, a little older, a little stuffier – but it felt the same.

Just me, the piano and Ms. Bev.

Avery Maehrer can be reached at avery.maehrer@temple.edu or on Twitter @AveryMaehrer.

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