The Piano Lesson by Carole Duff

Carole Duff has earned an Honorable Mention in Streetlight’s 2021 Essay/Memoir Contest


“I love a piano, I love a piano, I love to hear somebody play . . .”
From Irving Berlin’s Stop! Look! Listen!

Soon after moving into our first house, my husband and I purchased a piano. It was a Belarus reproduction of a Yamaha upright with a shiny, red-brown acrylic finish. One of my husband’s university colleagues knew a Russian musician and piano tuner who knew an immigrant couple who wanted to sell their piano. In the late 70s, they were not allowed to take currency out of the Soviet Union, so they’d purchased one of the few items they could turn into cash. Hauling a piano halfway around the world struck me as odd, but it was probably the most expensive thing they owned. We offered $500 for the piano, transport, and tuning.

One morning, two movers arrived while my husband was at work. They lifted the dolly over the threshold and, as I directed, placed the piano in the spare bedroom down the hall. Thereafter, I photographed every room of our house, including several shots of the Belarus, and placed the pictures in an album. For a New Englander who had grown up playing a castoff upright and secondhand spinet, living in the Sunbelt with that gorgeous piano felt like a step up. Piano as status symbol, the first piano-role I embraced.

After adding two children to our family, we moved to a larger house and placed the piano in the living room. The central location felt right because of the second piano-role I bought into: piano as sign of a well-ordered household. To attain success, a third piano-role, I had to play it. That was my sticking point. Unlike girls in Jane Austen’s novels, I lacked the patience required to practice and perform with grace and gentility. So, instead of revealing the shameful fact that I couldn’t play much more than Chopsticks and a little Heart and Soul, I dutifully dusted the shiny Belarus in the living room every weekend.

Painting of Gershwin
Gershwin by Thomas Hawk. CC license.

My husband embraced a different piano-role from mine, maybe because domestic piano-playing traditionally fell to women while concert virtuosos were predominantly men. In Victorian times, women swooned over such matinee idols as Franz Liszt. Though my similarly dashing, long-haired husband enjoyed classical music, he loved jazz. His favorite piano tune—Gershwin, he said—began with his left hand shifting between two minor chords while his right dragged out a blues melody. Ya-dada-dada repeated, extended, and climaxed to a Ya-didily-daDada-dadadadadaDa-Da. Then he’d start again. Ya-dada-dada.

I thought he was brilliant.

His second tune—I remember only two—was an improvisation based on a harmonic chord held while his right hand raced up and down the keyboard, playing melodic scales. Leaning into the piano, perhaps he imagined himself as Thelonious Monk, his jazz idol. After each performance, my husband closed the keyboard cover and retired to his study.

Our house was filled with music in those years. Since our daughter loved to cuddle in her father’s lap and plink the piano keys, and our son sang before he talked, I figured piano lessons would be a good introduction to music, as it had been for me. Thus, I entered the world of working moms driving after-school carpool. I baked cookies for recitals and, using what little I’d retained from years of lessons, nervously plunked out the accompaniments to Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, Mary had a Little Lamb, and Frère Jacques (Dormez-vous?). In the living room at home, our children practiced, my husband performed his tunes, and I dusted.

If anyone had asked, “Are you sleeping?” I would have answered, “Not much.” I now realize I was sleepwalking through the piano-roles I’d internalized. Since I didn’t conform to Jane Austen’s piano-playing girl—or the 50s Donna Reed stay-at-home mom—I embraced the late 60s image of Peggy Lee’s empowered I’m A Woman. During the 70s and 80s, that woman transformed into the have-it-all W-O-M-A-N in the Enjoli perfume advertisement on TV. “I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never let you forget you’re a man,” the actress sang while flaunting her perfect figure, a fistful of cash, a sparkling-clean fry pan, and a sexy come-on—that is, after reading the children their bedtime stories. Tickety-Tock. I’ll bet she played the piano, too, wearing Enjoli: the eight-hour perfume for the twenty-four-hour woman.

Bacon! Pan! Man!

Having it all was harder than I’d been led to believe. I ran those three bases as fast as I could, filling my days with mindless effort to maintain a well-ordered home. I believed everything would be fine as long as I kept the piano clean and in the center of our lives.

Bacon! Pan! Man!

Tasks clamored without end. “Mom, I need supplies for the project due tomorrow. . . . Department Chairs, the accreditation report’s deadline is Friday and we’re short a chaperone for the field trip. . . . Sweetheart, there’s a university job candidate coming to town, and the search committee doesn’t have funds to take him to dinner. Thanks, there’ll be eight of us.”

Bacon! Pan! Man!

It never occurred to me to say no, because everything was top priority—except the matinee idol on third base. I’d long-since given up listening to his tunes. Constant busyness prevented me from seeing what was happening. To have it all I thought I had to do it all but could never do enough. Every part of me was exhausted—body, heart, and soul.

Bacon. Pan. Man.

Arriving home after another long day, I dropped my purse, car keys, and schoolwork on the kitchen counter and glanced at the piano in our living room. Through my dormez-vous, sleep-deprived fog, another image formed. Not Peggy Lee’s empowered Woman but her lounge singer persona, leaning on the piano and sighing, Is That All There Is?

Is that all there is to a house on fire, a circus, to love, to life? “Then let’s keep dancing,” she sang. And so, I did—dancing and singing from one thing to the next, as my tunes muted.

Bacon. Pan. Man. Is that all there is?

Maybe things would have been different if my husband and I hadn’t bought into our respective piano-roles, but we did with predictable consequences. He moved out—purchasing a classic Steinway baby grand to play his tunes for someone else—and my well-ordered, have-it-all life fell apart. I retained custody of our children and the Belarus upright.

Bacon. Pan. That’s all there is.

After my children left home for college, I sold the big house in the Sunbelt, purchased a little Cape Cod back east, and moved cross-country to a new job. One morning, the moving truck pulled in front of my house. The driver strapped the Belarus to his back, hefted it up the front steps, and placed it in my living room, as directed. A sofa would have been a better fit, but I couldn’t part with the piano. It was the most expensive thing I owned.

Several months later, I fell in love, though it didn’t have anything to do with the piano. He didn’t play an instrument or read music but sang by ear. After we married, I sold the Cape Cod and moved into his-now-our townhouse, dragging the Belarus with me. Looking back, I wonder to whom or what I was wed.

The third piano-role still held me in thrall. With nothing standing in my way, I decided to try for success again. I opened the keyboard cover and pulled out a songbook of popular tunes I’d kept for this moment. “Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do,” I plinked the right-hand melody for On A Bicycle Build For Two. But when I added the left-hand chords, I sounded as graceless as Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day character during his first piano lesson.

Without his endless, time-looped day to practice, and with Medicare in my near future, I heard a different Tickety-Tock. “To what do I want to give my time?” I asked myself. The answer was immediate: not to the piano because it’s not my gift, and I’m enough without it. That’s the tune my new husband and I sing in harmony every day. We are enough.

Photo of open piano with music sheets
Mein Herz Brent by Drejsenka ( CC license.

I told my children I was letting the piano go. To my surprise, my daughter asked for the Belarus as a birthday-Christmas present. Giving her the piano as a gift struck me as odd, but I figured we all have to make peace with the piano-roles in our lives.

So, one afternoon, two movers strapped the piano to a dolly and lifted it over the threshold. I handed them a check for $800 to cover the move.

Today, when I see shiny posts on Facebook, well-ordered household ideas on Pinterest, matinee-idol videos on YouTube, and never-enough tweets on Twitter, I think of my piano lesson. I don’t miss having a piano, though I love to hear somebody play. I stop, look, and listen.

That’s all there is, and it’s quite a lot.

Carole Duff
Bio: Carole Duff is a veteran teacher, flutist, and writer of narrative nonfiction. She posts weekly to her long-standing blog Notes from Vanaprastha and has written for Brevity blog, Mockingbird, Streetlight Magazine blogand The Perennial Gen, for which she is a regular contributor. She is seeking publication for her manuscript titled Wisdom Builds Her House: A Memoir of Finding Grace in the Third Stage of Life. Carole lives in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains with her husband Keith Kenny, also a writer, and three, large overly-friendly dogs. 

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One thought on “The Piano Lesson by Carole Duff”

  1. Hi Carole, what a great read, emotional and reminiscent of parts of my own childhood and piano. I grew to really love the instrument and am trying to inspire that love of learning and music with my own kids by sharing stories like these. THanks so much

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