Mother and Father were mildly musical. Father sang bass in a male quartet that officiated at weddings and funerals, and, privately, “Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep,” to his innermost satisfaction. He also expounded the glories of Dartmouth’s ‘Lone Fishball’ and proudly stated that, when he took his first voice lesson and was asked to sing a scale, he sounded the same note eight times wholly unaware that he was committing a musical crime. The fact that he became a fair critic was nothing short of an egoistic triumph to him.
Both he and Mother held music in high esteem and were delighted to find their last infant susceptible to its lure. Mother’s wish that I might become a second Mozart was father to the thought. That “Una never played discords,” even when as an infant I pounded on the piano, was her story and she stuck to it. Mother possessed a reportorial talent of no mean order and never allowed her loyalty to trip over a fact or two that got in her way. Consequently, as years meandered by and there was no one to refute it, the date of my pianistic debut grew earlier and earlier until finally it must have been sandwiched in between libations of orange juice and cod-liver oil or their antecedents.
Mother played the piano as a child, but by the time I was old enough to evaluate her pianistics, her repertoire was reduced to one piece, ‘Sleigh-bells,’ which she jingle-jangled with more dash than accuracy. I recall the surprise I had when I reached the age to appraise her critically. To think that I could outplay her didn’t somehow seem cricket.
Though my family is too polite to admit it, I am sure I was a comical-looking child, my legs so short and my hair so long. Mother braided the latter in a single braid and tied a large bow on the tip of it, so that it looked like a long-stemmed flower hung upside down, and reached to the hem of my dress.
It was a fat braid of what Stephen Leacock might have called ‘useful hair.’ The entire front of my head was given over to a thatch of straight bangs – a mere fringe in the beginning which increased at each cutting until my head was neatly divided front from back. At Christmas and Easter (angelic services) the braid paid its way. The rest of the time it had only a nuisance value. When I hated it most was when a race was on. Then it pumped up and down like an eager baby’s arms, and the ribbon fell off. Everywhere I went it attracted attention. Even strangers used to remark that it interfered with my growth.
“You tell your mama I said to cut your hair so you can grow,” they would say, and though it proved futile, I sometimes did tell her. To further embellish and animate this Disney-like silhouette, I had a stream-lined tongue. When the throttle was open I could outstrip any one in volume and the number of words per minute. I had a sense of the dramatic too, and at strategic moments the pupils of my eyes would dilate so that their blue was entirely telescoped. If there was a possibility of my becoming vain, it was early nipped in the bud, and personal dissatisfaction with all I did flowered like a thistle.
Against the wall in our front room stood a constant lure of an old-fashioned square piano. It was quaint, only six octaves in range, the rosewood case beautifully inlaid in clear, yellow arabesques. It was an old instrument when it came into our family and had very little tone but its light action made it easy to play. It had a matching stool upholstered in dark red plush, which not only revolved but had a wobbly, teetering motion (commonly found in antiques) that made it unsafe for climbing. After several crash dives I gave up and took my fine arts standing. The keyboard of the piano was low and I learned to pick out simple melodies. Living in close quarters, as we did, deprived us of privacy and I was one of those squirming Totties who didn’t want to be shoved about or even noticed. Mother knew it and she and Father would go outdoors and peep in the window. Finally they took me to call on one of their friends who was a fine pianist and she urged them to take me to a teacher.
Mother was pleased to have a ‘gifted child’ yet she couldn’t allow her fundamental belief that children of the family should share equally to be upset. If I were to learn to play the piano, so must Mary.
After the necessary pre-arrangements had been made, on a bright afternoon Mary and I set out for the studio of Professor Chalfont of Drury College to perch on his high, organ-pedaled bench and learn the rudiments of music. The teaching of children, however, requires a special interest, and celestial patience and tact. To Professor Chalfont we had little appeal. Playing by ear was considered one of the devil’s arts and I was adept at it.
Professor C. would settle himself on his chair at the side of the piano, crisply point to a spot on the page, yawn openly and say, “Play there.”
When I was well started he would pull out his pen-knife and begin to pare his fingernails. Occasionally he would take the knife, point to a passage he wanted repeated, yawn again and continue his manicure. He sliced, dug, and probed through most of the period and in the extra moments attacked a nasal operation with the same thoroughness. Those were the days when no lady had legs and by the same token children were forbidden to have noses. For such a breach of etiquette, we were thumbs down on our teacher. The fact that he hailed from Boston, the Mecca of all musicians, meant nothing in our ‘What’s what,’ and we told Mother on him. Mother was shocked at our effort to debunk one of her intellectuals, but wisely went hunting.
Somewhere on a musical highway she found a young German with a pleasing smile and Mary and I were tethered out to him. I galloped to Mary’s trot and played her pieces faster than she could. I thought it great fun but naturally Mary didn’t. Our debut in Mr. Muhlberger’s studio was an event, though the studio is not the word, for it suggested furnishings and an atmosphere which were absent from the bare hall that he rented. It was a long room over a store, with straight chairs standing untemptingly about.
On this particular day, mamas and aunties were spread over the front row of chairs to encourage the Nellies and Mollies to do their best and keep their dresses clean so they ‘would look pretty.’ Mother never went with us at proud moments, so when it came my turn to play, I was ‘Johnny-on-the-spot.’ I jumped down off my chair and hurried enthusiastically to the piano.
Piano benches had not come into vogue. Revolving stools were the thing. Most of them squeaked and, if they teetered too much, were a hazard. It was the teacher’s custom to greet each newcomer and then hurry back to discharge his stage duties. I required extra effort. I either had to be picked up and set on the stool or to be given time for a scrambling assent. I preferred the latter and was just getting my fingers on the keys when one of the mothers spoke up and said, “What are you going to play, Una?”
Without hesitance I replied, “A little piece that Mr. Muhlberger gave me.”
Titters came from some of the children and I heard them. My face colored and I looked at my teacher. He gave me a warm smile of encouragement and then turned to the audience and said, “Una is going to play ‘Mignonette’ for you.”
I proceeded to deliver my floral offering. It was short and soon over as I slid down from the stool and scurried for cover. The audience clapped and so did Mr. Muhlberger but it gave me no pleasure. They had laughed at me and I never again had the spontaneous joy of that first occasion. I was always afraid someone would laugh; someone always did.
Mary was discouraged because I could play her pieces as well as my own so our lessons were discontinued. After a vacation I was taken to a more advanced teacher who thought that I should not play ‘in die garten’ so much. I did play in the garden, for although I was the shortest-legged, I could run the fastest, and if occasion demanded I could run away. These escapes nearly always ended at the piano. There were gay and plaintive triads hidden in our keyboard and finding them was a cure for sharp words or disappointment. The piano was my friend and it knew me better than my family.
Artistically, our old piano was enough to discourage the most sanguine student. In the first place it was as undersized as I was, and parts of compositions that strayed beyond the six octaves either had to be altered or fingered on the rosewood. Father knew it was a handicap, but the mere idea of a four-hundred-dollar run on his bank account gave his wallet a stricture. Periodically he staged a shopping expedition, however, and we would embark on a tour of piano ware-rooms in best style, heads up, chins out and my petticoats bobbing behind. I was voluble with hope during the first lap, and walked as if rubber-tired, but by the end my enthusiasm would develop a slow leak. After I had played my showiest pieces on it and endorsed a piano, Father would take over, and he and the salesman would talk terms.
The nearest we ever came to a favorable decision was once when he fell into the clutches of a high-pressure, St. Louis salesman, who, with commercial altruism, had decided to give Springfield the joy of meeting him first hand. He was a dapper, excitable, undersized proponent of the arts, and Father seemed to respond to his skills as he sprayed arpeggios over the keyboard, and ‘Home, Sweet Homed’ familiar airs with suitable poignancy. The piano seemed to be drawing nearer to our house when the lawyer in Father awoke and he shook off the hypnotic spell. He began to barter. We had two pianos for a trade-in and they were both introduced. Next our horse suddenly floated into the picture. At that turn of affairs the salesman’s ardor cooled and he turned back to music and to me. By chance he discovered that I had ‘absolute pitch’ and his delight was kindled afresh. He envisaged me blindfolded on a stage hauling in ducats for him and Father. He abandoned the piano altogether and sought to awaken Father’s enterprise but the image of his youngest offspring exhibited as a freak gave Father’s self-esteem a sharp wound and the expedition ended. I put on my hat and coat and disappointedly returned to my dance-hall piano.
The point on which my parent’s advisors were agreed was that I should hear all the good music possible. The musical atmosphere of the average town is bound by its local talent and Springfield had superior musicians. Occasionally, too, a stellar attraction promoted by the Lyceum bureau shone in the night and I was led forth to observe its brilliance. My family saw to it that I was provided with a front seat (if it happened to be a pianist), believing that the finger pyrotechnics would stimulate my ambition to become a great artist.
I hated front seats. It seemed as if the world was made up of millions of eyes that bored through the back of my head. A rear seat circumvented some of that inspection at least. This aversion probably would never have been discovered had not an unfortunate incident exposed me. One of the soloists advertised for our Y. M. C. A. concert course was a blind pianist, a negro by the name of Boone. The family decided that I should hear him so Father took Mary and me to the hall and left us to be called for later. The night was sultry and the big oil lamps that lighted the hall added to the stifling heat. Mary led the way to the front seats that were in full view of the keyboard and we took off our hats and waited for Blind Boone to appear.
The hall was filled with listeners by the time that the master of ceremonies seated the soloist at the piano. Probably Boone had been taught, as a part of stage decorum, to present a smiling front to his audience. As he turned from the instrument and displayed two rows of shining teeth again the ebony background, I saw him as a fantastic figure in a nightmare and my artistic ambitions withered on their stem. The piano began to reverberate and the figure on the stool moved back and forth with a swaying movement as he hammered on the keys. As he grew more eloquent, the motion was intensified. Waves of fragrance undulated over the audience and me, and my unsettled stomach rose and fell in rhythm with his dynamics. The climax of his virtuosity was achieved in the rendition of an original tone-poem called ‘The Marshfield Cyclone,’ that dreadful tornado which Mary and I had met first hand. The composition was just getting well under way with rumblings to represent the approaching storm when Mary turned to see if I was enjoying it. The color of my cheeks and changed from pink to green so she made a quick decision, grabbed our hats and led me to the door where the fresh air could blow on us. My recovery was instantaneous but I had had enough of the finer arts for that evening.
My parents had no idea of the knockout blows virtuosity received at such times, and when people said, “How wonderful it will be when you can play like that, Una,” I was far from persuaded.
Virtuosity and music were two very different things and I saw a wide hiatus between them.
Father was anxious for me to play well but bills for tuition seemed to him to be rendered far too often. The result was that music, which should have been an integral part of my education, on a par with reading and arithmetic, was treated as an extra-curricular luxury which was dropped at the least provocation. Only the fact that I had more than my share of musical talent prevented its being lost on the academic highway. Music was like ambrosia to me, too rich for a steady diet. When it was exquisitely done I was quickly satisfied. A saturate solution wearied me so that playing in the garden was my salvation. Music for me had to be diluted.