Mrs. Schwarting was my piano teacher. At 12, my parents gave me a choice of lessons: piano or dance. I had two left feet. I chose piano. It did not move. My mother smiled at my choice. She knew what my decision would be before she asked. My mother was like that.
Mrs. Schwarting was my piano teacher. Each Wednesday at 4 P.M. mother dropped me off in the driveway of the cottage-like house, hidden in the cul-de-sac. I waited on the ivy covered portico until the prior student left. I never knocked on Mrs. Schwarting’s door. No one ever knocked on Mrs. Schwarting’s door. No one ever came in with me. Piano was something I learned alone.
Mrs. Schwarting was my piano teacher. Her hair was the gray of a Buffalo winter, a sky promising snow. Her hair was the blue of a sky bleached by the August sun. Her hair, she said, was once blonde, like autumn wheat. Each Wednesday I took off my coat and hung it on the single hook by the door. One hook, she said, one student. One year I played a duet with Larry Feldman. Each March Wednesday Larry’s coat or mine would lie on the floor. One hook, one coat.
Mrs. Schwarting was my piano teacher. Her first name was Mrs. That’s what my mother wrote on the check I always put in the little basket on the top of the piano. Once, my mother forgot her checkbook. She gave me cash. When I put it in the basket, Mrs. Schwarting clucked her disapproval, “no bills, only checks. Please to vait on porch until your mother arrives.” The door closed behind me: “no bills, only checks.”
Mrs. Schwarting was my piano teacher. She was five foot one. She would stand behind me, “keep spine straight, zat is how you must play,” her head hovering on my shoulder like a pet bird. She smelled of lavender, her breath of slivovitz. She was German. Her house was German. Her English was German. Her piano must have been German. It loved Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, tolerated Mozart but despised Satie. “It is the fingers, she said, the piano cares not.” The piano cared.
Mrs. Schwarting was my piano teacher. Czerny was her mentor, she said. “You vill play each piece at least fife times each day. Every day, fife times. You vill write down each day how many times you play each piece.” Each day I sat at the piano in the living room. Each day I played each piece five times. One day I lost count, and played one piece a sixth time. My fingers felt guilty. I played it badly. When the sun was out, the only tempo was presto. I always played fortissimo. Mother listened. Mother counted.
Mrs. Schwarting was my piano teacher. She would hire a hall for a recital each May. We would sit in “just so order, not to move, not to speak, just to sit. You vill never look to your hands. Zay are at ze end of your arms, I am certain. You vill play slowly. If you play fastly, you vill play again.” Mrs. Schwarting was German. Her house was German, her piano was German. Her fingers which always tapped my shoulder to set the tempo were German. I told my mother she was a Nazi. My mother laughed, “she’s just German.” I thought, maybe she was Eichmann’s secret lover. I thought maybe she was Schumann’s love child. I never liked Schumann. Schumann was German.
My sister took lessons from Mrs. Schwarting. She thought Mrs. Schwarting’s piano was German. My sister could reach a full octave easily, I had a span of a seventh. In my last recital I played Für Elise. I played it badly.
Mrs. Schwarting was my piano teacher. In the lobby of the Osaka Hyatt Hotel there is a piano. At three in the morning, fresh from a trans-Pacific flight, I wander the lobby. The desk clerk smiles. I sit at the piano. My back is straight. I play the opening ten measures of Für Elise. I still cannot reach an octave. I play it badly.