Once upon a time long, long ago—in the 1960’s—a little girl named Suzi learned to play the piano by taking lessons from the very same teacher who taught her mother, Wilma, to play beautifully when she was a little girl. Wilma learned to play piano so skillfully and so beautifully that she and her teacher often played duets during recitals. Sometimes they even played “Rhapsody in Blue” on two different pianos at the same time!
“Don’t forget to use the bathroom here before you leave for Miss Virginia’s house, Suzi,” her mother told her every Tuesday afternoon before her lesson. “Remember, you can’t stop in the middle of a lesson or Miss Virginia will just send you back home!”
As if that weren’t scary enough, Little Suzi had to walk a whole block down Magnolia Avenue along a crooked old sidewalk shaded by giant magnolia and maple trees all the way to Miss Virginia Lee’s tall, dark old house perched on a low hill surrounded by a black wrought iron fence, like the ones you see around graveyards in the city.
To keep her company on the way, Suzi always brought along her imaginary friend Albert. As Little Suzi clutched her thin “Piano for Beginners” book under her little girl arm, she and Albert walked the long block from her house to Miss Virginia Lee’s house. There weren’t many other houses on the block in those days, so Suzi was glad for Albert’s company.
Suzi held Albert’s hand (or was he holding hers?) so that she could be brave and not scared to walk all the way to the tall house on the corner, up the tall steps from the street to the iron fence, and then up four more high stairs to the front porch of the grey and white house.
I heard your granny say once that Miss Virginia lives in ‘Victorian’s’ house, Albert told Suzi. Is Victorian her mother?
“I don’t know, but she told me to call her ‘Miss Virginia’ the way my mommy did when she took lessons here,” was all Little Suzi could tell her friend Albert about the house and the people who lived there.
When they arrived each time, Suzi would ring the door chime by pushing a black button in the middle of a tarnished brass bell attached to the thick wooden door frame around a huge mahogany door. On three sides were stained glass windows through which they could see only dark shadows until Miss Virginia’s sister, Miss Annabelle Lee (or ‘Sister Anne’, as Miss Virginia called her) would open the door for them.
“Thank you Sister Anne,” Miss Virginia always said as Suzi entered the music room and hopped up on the piano bench covered by a needlework pad showing saints and sinners from medieval times. It smelled a little musty, but it matched Miss Virginia’s purple and gold wallpaper and her purple and gold dress perfectly.
I bet she taught Moses how to play piano, Albert whispered to Suzi the first time they entered the music room together. She must be over fifty years old!
Shhh! Suzi shushed Albert as she followed Sister Anne into the music room. But she forgot and shushed loudly enough for Miss Virginia to hear.
“What dear?” the teacher asked her little student. “To whom are you speaking?”
“No one ma’am.”
“Then, are you ready to begin?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Little Suzi answered as she thought about how to slide up on the high piano bench without catching her skirt on the corner. It was always a challenge, but Miss Virginia was too small to help lift her up, and Albert was no help at all because he was only barely as tall as the bench (although he did sit by his friend during her lesson).
“Please child,” Miss Virginia said most every Tuesday to Little Suzi, “do not bang on the piano keys. You must learn to play skillfully, not just loudly.”
Miss Virginia, only as tall as most elves and nearly as round, wore dark button-up dresses and lace-up shoes. She had silver-grey hair always braided and wrapped in a bun atop her head. Little Suzi had never seen her hair any other way, and her mommy told her it had always been silver and always done up in a bun. She always smelled nice, too, like lavender soap, which Suzi’s mommy told her was a kind of lady’s ‘toilet water’. (Really!? was all that Albert ever had to say about that.)
The upright piano stood proudly against the mahogany paneled wall in the music room off the main hallway that led to the back side of the house. Along the way, Miss Virginia Lee’s students passed the sitting room and the dining room next to the wide wooden staircase that led upstairs. But they were never invited to go upstairs—not ever.
That must be where the ghosts live, Albert told Little Suzi one time just before Sister Anne led her into the music room.
“What ghosts?” Suzi asked nervously and challenged Albert to explain.
The ghosts of Miss Virginia’s students who banged on the piano too loud, that’s who! Albert replied in a way that made Little Suzi giggle.
Miss Virginia rarely stopped a lesson once it started, but on this day she stopped Little Suzi right in the middle and said, “What are you playing, dear? You seem very distracted today, and that is definitely not ‘Ode to Joy’ that you have been playing, now is it?”
“No, ma’am,” Little Suzi confessed to her teacher. But what she did not say was that she was still thinking about the funny joke Albert made about the ghosts of Miss Virginia’s students upstairs.
Standing directly behind her student for nearly the entire half hour as she always did, Miss Virginia told Little Suzi “No time to waste, dear. You must focus on the music as it is written.”
But when Sister Anne called Miss Virginia into the foyer for just one minute, Albert and Suzi started playing “Heart and Soul” like when Suzi and her mommy played together at home just for fun.
“Stop that banging this instant,” Miss Virginia Lee called out to Little Suzi from the hall. “That is not part of your lesson today!”
The child was so startled that she nearly slid off the high bench onto the floor, but, luckily, Albert was sitting close by on part of her skirt and kept her from falling off.
How could she hear that all the way out in the hall? Albert said sheepishly in Suzi’s ear.
Then, Miss Virginia Lee came back around to the front of the piano bench, sat down beside her pupil, lifted her age-spotted hands to the black and white keys, and began to play “Heart and Soul” so loudly that the nearest neighbors probably heard it a block away.
Little Suzi was so surprised that she just sat there with her mouth open and stared at her teacher’s hands as they played her favorite song.
Then her teacher stopped, took her pupil’s sweet face between her soft lady hands, kissed her gently on the forehead, and said, “That’s fine, dear. Practice with your mommy at home, and we’ll play it as a duet next week!”
How can a little girl
Learn to play piano skillfully
Without ‘heart and soul’?