My first piano teacher was Mr. Olund, a round, red-faced man squeezed into his suit like a sausage in its casing. He carried a long wooden ruler painted in the black and white stripes of a keyboard. If I made a mistake, the ruler would come down on my hands, smashing them into the keys.
“That was a G, not an A,” Mr. Olund would admonish, clamping his teeth tightly together and reddening like bratwurst in a skillet.
Not surprisingly, this technique did not endear me to piano lessons, and I resisted learning to read music. Instead, I would listen to Mr. Olund play while I watched his fingers moving across the keyboard, and then I would imitate what I heard, pretending to read the notes. This ploy was successful in keeping him off guard. But eventually, the ruler would reappear when I misidentified a note on the sheet music to which his stubby finger was pointing. Before long, I took to fleeing down the street as the time for my weekly lesson approached. My mother realized it might be a good idea to change teachers.
Mrs. Mitchell received students regally in her home on Saturdays. I had to audition before she would agree to accept me as a pupil. She would sit beside me at the piano with calm detachment. There were no outbursts if I played a wrong note; she simply pointed out the correct note with her imperial finger. But sometimes, if I hadn’t practiced during the week, she would get up and go into the kitchen to stack dishes.
“Keep playing, I’m listening,” her muffled voice would call from around the corner.
Mrs. Mitchell methodically monitored my progress through the different levels of material. She taught me how chords are built, the fundamentals of harmony, the circle of fifths. When I was fourteen, however, after seven dutiful years of lessons, I decided to stop. I had never been a particularly devoted pupil. Piano lessons were my mother’s idea. She expected I would become a concert pianist, a stand-in for my father’s failed career as an artist. I was always commanded to perform for guests, and even when I sensed their lack of interest, I obediently complied.
Mrs. Mitchell accepted my decision impassively, but predicted, “One day you’ll study piano again.”
For the next several years, I continued to play piano on my own, reading through songbooks, learning music by ear, creating dozens of songs that I recorded on a cheap cassette tape recorder. I entered college, choosing to study not music but humanities. Yet in the evenings I would leave my dorm to seek out one of the practice rooms in the music department and play late into the night.
At the end of my sophomore year, after confronting my growing dissatisfaction with my studies, I changed my major and entered the music program. Mr. Juda would sit hunched beside me at the piano, a gnome from the Vienna woods with eyebrows sprouting like forest undergrowth and strong, fleshy hands that stormed the keys like lightning. During my lessons, he would start the metronome at a comfortable pace and I would play that week’s scale. After each completed run, Mr. Juda would raise the tempo. Finally, the metronome would be ticking frantically as my fingers stumbled over the keys. He would write down the tempo in a tiny book. “Next week faster.”
During my last year of college, a new piano teacher joined the faculty. Her name was Ms. Scolnik, but she asked us to call her Nina. She pinned up her hair gracefully above her Easter lily neck, and when she played, her tapered fingers would aim for high notes on the keyboard, landing with gymnastic precision.
“Think of the note, then leap,” she suggested, showing me how to rock my wrist gently to provide the momentum. Her playing was a ballet of arabesques and pirouettes. She spoke about Baroque mordents and trills with an impassioned thrill. Her inspired teaching helped me stage a successful senior recital. Mrs. Mitchell attended the concert, and at the reception afterward came up to congratulate me.
“You were right,” I told her. She allowed the hint of a smile to pass across her face.
The energy that was born out of the primordial fireball created myriad wavelengths of light: x-ray, infrared, the visible spectrum’s rainbow, radio wave, ultraviolet. As the universe expanded, the earliest waves of radiation gradually stretched out, becoming the faint glow of microwaves, remnants of the mother of all fire. Hydrogen atoms coalesced into stars whose thermonuclear engines fired up to create more fire, more light. In time, the cores of some of these stars — swollen red giants — collapsed in an explosive release of energy, creating and dispersing the heavier elements into interstellar space: oxygen, for the air we breathe; carbon, present in the earth as the basis of life; and the marriage of hydrogen and oxygen to create water, which constitutes two-thirds of our bodies. We are literally made of stardust. A bit of fire. A bit of earth. A bit of water. And a bit of air.
Song of Fire ebook with 12 free downloadable songs is available from: