The story below is based on the piano teacher I had in high school. Ten years later, while teaching on a fellowship at Juilliard I spoke of her to Dorothy Delay, the legendary violin teacher. Miss Delay said, 'I'd like to meet your teacher.'
The day I took 'Miss Laudon' to Miss Delay's studio, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg was having a lesson. Normally she didn't like outsiders sitting in on her lessons (who would?) but for some reason, that day she made an exception.
Miss Laudon was wowed, rising from her seat after each piece and exclaiming, 'But this is simply wonderful!' I was embarrassed; I couldn't tell if Miss Delay regretted having allowed us into the inner sanctum of her studio or if she was grateful for the appreciation. Nadja was her usual blase, modest self.
In the city, a man and a woman ran a music school. The man handled the school's business affairs and the woman gave piano lessons. The woman, Miss Laudon, taught Art and Truth in her lessons and the man, Mr Eschenbach, gave her the most promising students.
The school was on the edge of a run-down neighborhood. One afternoon just after his fourteenth birthday, Michael Krasner passed it on his way home from the center where he earned community service credit for high school.
'Guit r Piano Ac ordi n Lan uages 10 cents,' read the sign in pink neon lights with letters missing. A repeated 'C' sounded through the window as an eight-year-old boy practised his scales without ever reaching the top. But from an inner room came other music; harmonies that were sad but that aroused in Michael a fierce desire.
He'd taken piano lessons for four years from a woman who came to the house on Thursday after her day job at a bank. She had fingernails of a red that reminded him of a toucan and she assigned him pieces -- a Clementi Sonatina, a movement by Kuhnau, -- that inspired no particular emotion. When Michael stopped taking lessons, she didn't seem to care.
But hearing the music now that sounded like muffled crying behind the wall, he wanted to play it the way he wanted to pitch for his school team, the Falcons. Who was playing like that? She (Michael imagined the student to be a pale, ethereal girl), must be some sort of prodigy! Michael was a shy boy but he opened the door of the school and climbed the rickety stairs to the office.
'May I help you?' bellowed Mr Eschenbach,
for he was hard of hearing. He was about seventy, with suspenders over a short-sleeved
shirt and a lopsided bow tie. He reminded Michael of Pinocchio's maker, Geppetto.
'I'd, um, like some information about piano lessons?' said Michael.
'Piano! Sure, we got piano! We got the best teacher in New York, Miss Laudon. She's the best -- ' he searched for a suitable place -- 'anywhere!' He spoke in clichés because English was new to him and the clichés seemed fresh. 'You wait here. She'll be finished, five minutes. Sit over there.'
Michael sat where Mr Eschenbach waved.
'You're a nice boy. I can tell,' Mr Eschenbach went on approvingly while they waited. 'Nice manners ... Don't worry. You came to the right place.' Michael squirmed nervously as he tried not to giggle at the old man's insistence. 'What's the matter, you don't believe me?'
Michael assured Mr Eschenbach he believed him.
'I tell you something,' Mr Eschenbach confided. 'Miss Laudon's not just a great musician and a great teacher ...' -- his eyes widened as though he were describing an apparition -- 'She's a great human being!'
The romantic harmonies from the inner room stopped and a young woman came out. She didn't look the way Michael had imagined, slender and beautiful. She was small and dark and dumpy.
''Bye,' she whispered to Mr Eschenbach
as though imparting a secret.
''Bye, sweetie. See you Saturday,' Mr Eschenbach called. 'Wait here,' he told Michael. 'She'll be right out.' And he went to get Miss Laudon.
A minute or so later, Michael heard arguing around the corner at the end of the hall.
'No, no,' a woman complained. 'That's
Tuesday, don't you remember? Arnold's Monday."
'Arnold's Monday?' That was Mr Eschenbach's voice. 'What happened to Thursday?'
'Aach. I'll show you later. Where's the new boy?'
A woman in her sixties appeared, walking towards Michael briskly, as though on a mission. She carried herself straight so that Michael didn't realize until she reached him that she only came up to his chin.
If Mr Eschenbach resembled a gatekeeper, Miss Laudon was chateleine of the house. She had an aura of grace which Michael felt as soon as she took his hand in both of hers.
'I'm so happy to meet you,' she said
and it seemed to be true. Her eyes, lively blue, looked into his. Her hair was
soft and white. 'What's your name?'
'Michael ... Krasner.'
'It's a pleasure to meet you, Michael. Come in, please.' She led him down the hall past the practise cubicles, each empty but for a lopsided piano with brown or missing teeth. When they reached her studio, Miss Laudon gestured towards the piano, the school's one grand, and shut the door.
'You've studied before?'
'Well, up until April. I had about four years but -- '
'It doesn't matter. What would you like to play?'
Michael named the piece he had played
at the eighth grade spring recital. 'Fantasy in D Minor by Mozart.'
Miss Laudon nodded. 'Please. Begin.'
She sat up straight. As Michael played the opening, she listened like a doctor to a heartbeat. The Fantasy wasn't Michael's favorite piece, -- it wasn't as exciting as Anitra's Tanz -- but he was a diligent student and played as his teacher had instructed him.
'Yes, I see,' said Miss Laudon, stopping him after eight bars. 'Thank you.'
She came over to the piano.
'Please start again.' Michael lifted his hand.
'Ssh...!' said Miss Laudon as he was about to play the first note. 'A shadow of sound ... far away ...' While Michael played, she described the emerging scene.
'And now ... the theme ... pleading.' She sang along with the piano, her voice heavy with pathos. 'Da da dee da da.' On the high D, Miss Laudon's voice croaked. Michael shook with suppressed laughter. But his hands shook too so he stopped laughing.
As he played the successive sections Miss Laudon frowned, waltzed or marched according to their mood. Michael was embarrassed as though she was dancing naked. He wanted the lesson to be over so he could go home and sit at the kitchen table with his mother and tell her about this crazy woman.
'So!' exclaimed Miss Laudon at the end
of the lesson. 'You're a lovely boy. I mean that sincerely.' She seemed to be
pleading with him to believe her.
Michael nodded. He did believe she meant it. The thought that he was a boy whom people might describe as 'lovely' calmed him, making him feel strong and gentle.
'And musical,' Miss Laudon went on with encouraging emphasis.
'So now! Would you like to study with me?" she asked, looking at him with the eagerness of a child. He could not betray her trust any more than he could lie to his mother about something important.
'Sure, I guess,' he said. 'I'll have to ask my Mom but she didn't want me to stop taking lessons anyway, so ...'
Michael's mother agreed to the piano lessons even though the price was many times that advertised by the neon sign.
The following week Miss Laudon gave Michael two pieces, a movement by Haydn that was too slow for Michael's taste and a Rhapsody by Brahms he couldn't wait to play. He worked hard on the Brahms and looked forward to showing Miss Laudon what he'd accomplished. The Haydn was a duty but he learned the section Miss Laudon had assigned. Then he went back and played his favorite part of the Brahms over and over the way he ate salted peanuts.
Miss Laudon praised the Brahms and sang
as he played, shaping the phrases. Michael saw that what he had brought in was
a piece of clay which had still to be formed.
Then he played the Haydn.
'Oh no, darling, I'm sorry,' Miss Laudon said when he finished. 'You've read the notes ... But you mustn't play without ... thinking about each note.' There were tears in her eyes as she mourned the piece he had just injured. 'You're such a thoughtful boy. I can see that, even though I haven't known you long. You think before you act. You try not to hurt people. Music is like a person too. When you care about someone you don't just learn their name. You learn all about them.'
Then she made him play it again, singing with him in her wavering, croaking voice. This time he didn't feel like laughing. He felt lost so he listened. And following her voice, he began to understand the music as one might a foreign language.
Everything Mr Eschenbach had said about Miss Laudon was true. Music was her blood, informing every gesture, moving her so as to waive the need for discipline, that mechanical substitute for love. From music came her happiness for, although she got impatient with Mr Eschenbach's forgetfulness, she was never in a bad mood.
All winter Michael worked on the two pieces Miss Laudon had given him. He loved the deep, crashing bass of the Rhapsody even though he couldn't play it with the power of Arnold Gross, a boy who'd just gotten a scholarship to Juilliard. But Miss Laudon said he played 'like an artist.' And he loved the Haydn, now, too. When he rolled the chords, the sound filled the room like a spirit.
The competition in Michael's high school was ferocious and he did not stand out. His inconspicuousness depressed him and his depression made him even more inconspicuous. The teachers and girls he wanted to impress seemed unaware of him and he spent many hours each day devising ways to win their attention. Miss Laudon's praise gave him hope. Since he already had her attention, he did not spend hours devising ways to get it. Therefore he did not think he loved her. But she was the only person apart from his mother with whom he felt comfortable and happy and he was grateful for that.
It was her students, however, who captured his imagination. He wondered about them, envied them, copied their mannerisms. The dumpy woman's name was Marilyn. She was an accountant and she remained as shy as the first time he'd seen her. But when she played she was transfigured, like someone praying or saving a life. If Michael missed a lesson and had to come on Tuesday to make it up, he heard McGovern Samuels, a middle-aged man who managed a Burger King and smiled a lot. Mr Samuels was working on Goyescas . When he played it he became serious. Expressions crossed his face as they will a dreamer's. Even though Michael had never been to Spain he could feel the heavy, scented air and see people in the square on a summer night in Seville.
As the lessons continued the desire that Michael had felt beneath the open window of the school the day he first passed it was fulfilled. After the Brahms and the Haydn he learned three preludes and fugues of Bach, two Beethoven sonatas, a nocturne by Chopin, and pieces by Schumann and Ravel. He practised several hours a day. On Friday when he got out of school early, he went to Lincoln Center and listened to records of symphonies and concertos, pressing the headphones to his ears to distinguish in the tinny tune of the recording the strings from the horns or clarinets. Music did not make him less sad but his sadness now expressed itself in music. When he fell in love with Gloria Rivera, a girl whose first name seemed to refer to her proportions, he heard in his mind Chopin's G Minor Ballade. If she smiled at him his mind played Beethoven's Fourth Concerto, last movement. If, as was more often the case, she ignored him, it played the Rachmaninov Second Concerto. He also read about great musicians. The ones who were still alive -- Stokowski, Boulanger, Rubinstein, -- were old with long white hair. He studied their accomplished, exciting lives, and dreamed of his own following a similar path.
When Michael's upstairs neighbor complained
about the practising, he practised at the school which was open six days a week
'Take Room 8,' Mr Eschenbach would say. 'Over here. Quick, before somebody comes.' Or, seeing how seriously Michael was practising, "What you were playing -- Schumann? Sounds good. You work hard, maybe someday you'll grow up, play Carnegie Hall.'
On Sundays Mr Eschenbach and Miss Laudon took a walk together. Once Michael met them on Madison Avenue, looking in the shop windows and once in the park, where they were watching the 'young people'. Never having seen them outdoors, Michael took in their appearance with heightened awareness. Miss Laudon wore a black coat and a scarf imprinted with music in a composer's hasty hand. In venturing out of the school, Mr Eschenbach seemed to have donned years along with his overcoat; Miss Laudon had linked her arm in his in support. Michael saw it as characteristic of Miss Laudon's graciousness to repay her friend's loyalty in this way. Although he didn't think consciously about the odd duo, he saw Miss Laudon as a protagonist of infinite depth in a play in which Mr Eschenbach was comic relief.
One Tuesday after he had been taking lessons from Miss Laudon for three years Michael arrived to find the front door of the school locked. When he went home and couldn't reach Miss Laudon or Mr Eschenbach, he called another teacher, Mr Moskowitz. Mr Moskowitz said Mr Eschenbach had had a sudden illness. He did not know when Miss Laudon would be back but it would probably not be for a while. Michael asked if Mr Eschenbach was in the hospital. Mr Moskowitz hesitated before answering, 'He died. Day before yesterday.'
The next time Michael called Miss Laudon, a strange woman answered. She said that Miss Laudon was not available at the moment but that she had asked for Michael to come see her the following day at five o'clock, if possible.
It was an afternoon in April, evening hovering above the roofs of the brownstones, the sky already painted over the park. Cold gusts started suddenly in the warm, still air. Winter and spring mingled like currents bound in opposite directions.
Miss Laudon answered the door, her eyes
pink and washed-out blue.
'Come in,' she said. Michael followed her to a table on which lay papers in disarray.
'I don't know what to do with all these papers. Well, you can see for yourself what this place looks like ... What do you mean, 'not too bad'? It's chaos! It looks nice, usually.
'I don't know what to do. But you understand. You're such a nice boy.
'I don't know when I'll go back to school. Everybody tells me I should start teaching as soon as I can; it's better for me. But you see how much I have to do -- he died so suddenly.
'I don't know when they can open the school again. He did everything. Mr Moskowitz came in, I know, but he didn't really do very much.
'Why doesn't Mr Moskowitz help you with all this work?' Michael asked. 'Why do you have to do everything?'
'Darling, he was my husband. You didn't know that? Nobody knew at the school, except of course, the other people who worked there, who knew us for years.'
It had never occurred to Michael that Miss Laudon and Mr Eschenbach might be married. They called each other by their last names! He continued to look at Miss Laudon without showing his surprise.
'He didn't want anybody to know. Whenever we went anywhere, he just said I was his sweetheart.' Saying the word, Miss Laudon broke off her explanation to cry.
'Forty-nine years we were married. It'll be fifty in October. I can show you some pictures. They should be over here, somewhere.'
She went to a smaller table where more
papers lay on the photograph album. On top was a newspaper clipping.
'Here's the obituary. They put it in on Wednesday. He died Sunday night. No, Monday. No, no, no, what am I talking about. Sunday, Sunday. He went like that. They all tell me how lucky he was. Never sick a day in his life. Then, just like that. You know, he always said when he got sick, that would be it. Here, here's what they wrote in the column. Isn't that nice?'
She showed Michael the notice sent to
the Times by the school expressing their sorrow.
'Here are the pictures. This is Mr Eschenbach and myself when we got married. I like myself in this picture; I like it very much, don't you?' Michael smiled and said he did.
'You know I always say what I believe, don't I? Here. This is my daughter Margaret. You spoke to her the other day when you called. Now I want to show you my grandson.'
Michael watched in a trance like someone listening to the denouement of a court case when the defendant breaks down and tells the whole story.
'Wait a minute. Now where's that picture? Wait just a minute. Here it is. That's my little grandson when he was, I'd say, five or six.'
'What's his name?' Michael asked.
'His name is Simon. That's an unusual name. You don't find many people with that name although my daughter tells me it's more common over in ... What's that country ... you know, England! That's right. My daughter loves England. When she was little, she used to know all the kings and queens.
'I was talking to my daughter the other day and she said, "You know what I miss about him? His suspenders!" Oh I know it sounds funny but it's those little things!' she cried, her eyes blurred again in anguish.
When she had spent her grief, Michael went home. He didn't see her again til September, the week before he left for college. He'd decided to major in music. He couldn't turn his back on the vision she'd shown him.
She was calmer than she'd been in the spring. She showed him pictures of her family again, then remembered that Michael had visited her when Mr Eschenbach had died. Mr Moskowitz had taken Mr Eschenbach's place at the school, she said. Teachers often quit (the job paid minimum wage) and sometimes, until he found a replacement, Mr Moskowitz asked Miss Laudon to fill in. But she wasn't as young as she used to be; not like the old days when she could work til eight or nine and get up the next day. Her daughter told her to complain but Miss Laudon didn't want to. Mr Moskowitz needed her, she said.
Michael wrote her a letter from college describing his music courses. She answered in a fluently written letter punctuated by dashes about the death of her husband. Each sentence fragment seemed to stand for some ruin of her former world.
At college Michael studied piano with a well-known teacher, Ernest Kroll. Mr Kroll was a Renaissance man. In addition to music, he was knowledgeable about literature, art and wine. His walls were hung with pictures of himself laughing with Messiaen, at a rehearsal with Stockhausen; receiving an honorary degree from a college in Georgia. But he did not love music in the primal, maternal way of Miss Laudon. When Michael played the Chopin Fantaisie Mr Kroll sighed, 'You know, Michael, the world runs according to Darwin's theory of the survival of the fittest.' Then, referring to his star pupil, 'Have you heard Donna Kim play this piece? Ask her to play it for you.' Mr Kroll was not able and, had he been able, would have felt it beneath him to explain to Michael in song, dance or drama the meaning of a musical phrase or particular harmony.
Meanwhile, other subjects beckoned to Michael. The temptation to study them was one which he resisted. He felt guilty about his desire to drift from the straight and narrow path of music. For a while Psychology and Literature nourished his brain, music still lived in his heart which he considered the superior organ. So although he got better grades in English, he felt that music was his path to enlightenment.
But fate did not agree. Perhaps Mr Kroll was right and Michael, as one of the less fit was, as a pianist, less equipped to survive. Or perhaps what changed Michael's attitude was Malamud -- when he gave a series of lectures at the college -- and a handful of other writers and professors who, like Stokowski, Boulanger and Rubinstein had accomplished, exciting lives. (All were old and many had long white hair although Malamud was bald.)
More likely it was a question of hormones; a satisfaction and resulting ebb of desire. For as Michael grew older, music drained from him. The facility he gained in college put the music he'd always wanted to play literally at his fingertips. But it was too late. The greatest works -- Beethoven, Chopin, Bach -- maintained their power over him but he was no longer in love. No longer did the harmonies of Schumann play all day in his head. He left music behind as though waking from a dream. He spent his twenties in a series of unfulfilling jobs and put his energy into writing a novel. All that was left of music in his life was an ideal to strive for in his writing.
One day Michael saw Miss Laudon on the street, looking in the shop windows as she walked home with a bag from the supermarket. She was wearing the same black coat she had had when he was a student. When Michael reached her she was studying the components of a model bathroom with faux-brass faucets and claws on the bathtub.
'Miss Laudon?' Michael said.
'What?' She turned around and focussed on his face. 'Michael!' She opened her arms and they embraced. Beneath her coat, Miss Laudon was thinner. 'How are you?!'
Her enthusiasm had the same inflection that it had had years before but now it seemed forced. As the two talked they scanned each other's faces for change. Miss Laudon's eyes were duller, the blue turned the color of dish water.
'Fine. How are you?'
'Oh, well, you know Mr Eschenbach died. Yes, yes, of course, what am I talking about? You were there. You were such a lovely boy. I know you must be a fine young man. Yes, yes,' she insisted over Michael's demurral. 'I can tell. I have an instinct about people, you know. Did you know that? I'll bet you have it too. You can tell if someone is a ... a good person, a fine person, what they call in Yiddish a 'mensch!' Do you know what that is? You do. I can tell that about you, see?
'How's your mother?' she asked, the attempted
'Have you been to any concerts?'
'Not recently,' Michael said.
'Did you hear De Larrocha when she was here?'
'Oh, it was something! And Bolet, did you go to hear him?'
'Beautiful concert! I was there all day for the rehearsal. He came in the afternoon around one. First he played the E Major Scherzo of Chopin, you remember -- Dah dah dee dah dum ...' She became hushed as she sang the opening and Michael saw that as a teacher and musician, she hadn't changed.
The conversation which consisted of accounts of concerts Michael had missed, and questions about matters he'd left behind years before, lasted an hour and twenty minutes. The next time he saw Miss Laudon on the street, he pretended interest in a newsstand until she passed.
Over the years that followed Michael called Miss Laudon twice -- once when he married and again when his first child was born. She talked of artists -- especially De Larrocha and Bolet -- the mention of their names reawakening her enthusiasm for their playing. Michael listened with the patience of a sober guest pacifying an intoxicated one. He saw that music was her element and that her spirit was like a deer: Though unwanted in the garden of his present life, it had been beautiful in the woods of his youth.
Copyright © 1 September 2005 Jenna Orkin , New York City, USA