Sunday, July 30, 2006

Speaking of missed opportunities...

My old piano teacher died earlier this month. The memorial service was planned for the 29th. I had every intention of could I not go to a memorial service for someone who I saw once a week every week for eight years? For some reason, however, I got it in my head that the service was SUNDAY, July 29th, which as we all know, doesn't exist in 2006. So you can imagine my surprise when I'm asleep on the couch yesterday and I'm awakened by the alarm on my phone which is reminding me to go to said ten minutes.

I seriously felt like crying. I know that Mr. Somerville probably won't know if I was there or not, but I felt like I needed to honor the man that gave me a gift that today serves as a source of creativity, emotional release and even sometimes income. And not to be crass, but you don't usually get a raincheck on these type of things. They won't hold another one just because you're an idiot and don't know how to read a calendar.

So, in penance, I'd like to post a short eulogy here.

James Somerville scared me, but in a good way. He was a tough man, an instructor who tolerated little deviance from constant rehearsal and practice. He was the type of teacher that made you afraid of less than your personal best, and who made you tremble when you knew that you'd chosen to watch TV...or God forbid, play sports...rather than spend an extra hour or two at the keyboard, and now, you were walking into your lesson unprepared.

His small apartment on Summit Street routinely smelled like hotdogs, had little natural light, and was stuffed to the gills with antiques, old papers, music and three pianos. I remember sitting on a threadbare blue chair that was old and sinking, and perfect for a tired child to fall asleep in, except I rarely nodded off because I was either a) partaking of the candy he kept stocked in a crystal bowl between the chair and a tired old couch, b) gazing around at the mysterious paintings and artifacts tucked here and there about the room or c) scrambling to review my music or fill in my music theory homework that I had neglected to do once again.

Mr. Somerville was not an overly verbose man. His responses to your playing more often fell on the side of "gruff", and it was not uncommon to be sent to the porch to clip your nails, or have him bang on the lower keys in frustration over your pitiful attempts at Bach, or for him to snatch your music, tap you on the shoulder to move, sit in your spot and show you how your piece was supposed to sound. And oh, the sounds he could work from those keys. Always emotional, never rushed, the music would pour out of the dusty, dilapidated old instrument and make you wish, not for the first time, that you had practiced harder that week.

There were times, though, that you had put in the work required of you and when you finished your piece, perfectly or nearly perfectly, you were met with silence. And when you turned your head to face your instructor, a small smile played around the corner of his lips, as if he wanted to laugh for joy, but wouldn't, lest you take his joviality as license to slack off for a week. Then he'd tilt his head, pat you brusquely on the shoulder, and dispense his highest compliment, "That was very nice."

And you knew then, you'd really rocked that score.

It's funny to look back now and see how proud he really was of us, when my duet partner Anna and I played our thirty-two page two-piano duet to perfection, or when we performed in front of nearly eight hundred people and received thunderous applause, or the greatest individual honor of all: being scheduled as the last musician to play in one of his private recitals. He taught us much about performance that I still carry with me never show a mistake on your face or in your body language, to play like you were the greatest musician alive, whether you were playing Haydn or Rachmaninoff, and how to add power through subtle drama in tone, phrasing...even through your appearance for a recital or concert.

He was a quiet man on all levels, never revealing much about his past or present...not that we thought to ask once during our elementary, Jr. High or High School years. He put up with our childish tantrums, our teenage surliness, our wanting to play pop music or poorly arranged hymns for church competitions...he helped us with it all, maybe not necessarily patiently, but perhaps "enduringly" because we were his kids, and we were helping him live his dream as he was helping us live ours.

So, thank you, Mr. Somerville, for instilling in me a permanent love for music and meter, a true appreciation for practice and hard work, and for exposing me to performance and even now, nearly ten years after my last lesson with you, helping me to be the person I am today.


kim said...

Sarah, I appreciated your comment on Jim.....we too missed his memorial service, as we were out of town. We miss him as our 3 older boys' piano teacher. And from reading what you wrote, we will miss him for the lessons they will never receive. We are just at the beginning of their piano "careers", so didn't get a lot of what you wrote about, but will remain thankful for what we DID receive. Jim will be greatly missed!

Commodore said...

No matter what we do in life, I hope that someone someday will think enough of me to remember me with that much insight.

Thanks for sharing that, Sarah.

Ryan said...

Sarah, that was such a lovely eulogy. What a tribute. I had my piano lessons with a man named Mr. Mason, who sounds remarkably similar - the dimly lit house, the gruffness, and even the candy bowl. It is interesting to think about how someone like that can completely change your life. Maybe the reason you missed the funeral is so you'd be motivated enough to write such an inspiring piece.

sgg said...

WOW!! What a beautiful tribute. I feel like I know a man I have never even met. I too will honor him. Thank you.