I have a piano. And I have an old bench—came with my husband—works fine for playing, works even better for piling papers and books (this morning I sat down on the tax returns to play). I have the sheet music chest from my parents’ old house, and what a sad piece of furniture it is: scuffed, scratched, the top drawer missing a knob, the one on the very bottom losing its facing, eight drawers in between—and it sits against the wall over there, not quite centered so as to hide an awful water stain. But no metronome.
Who has the metronome? This is not the first time I’ve wondered: Didn’t I ask about it when Eliza started taking lessons? Didn’t I look for one just like it? I did. But so expensive. So instead we got a plastic mechanical ticker, threw it away the minute she quit. It was no work of art after all, not like my mother’s. Hers, the one I grew up with, was a solid wooden pyramid with a coded brass strip—not a matter of flicking a switch, no. You wound it first, then released the wand from its clip, moved the tiny trapezoid up or down depending, and the pendulum swung of its own accord, as pendulums do.
Back then? I hated that metronome. I hated the notation in my composition book: Bach—p. 23—Use Metronome! Or Haydn Sonata: Metronome!! Beside the word, most terrifying, a sixteenth note, say (black with two flags)—an indication of how the piece should be played. How the piece was not being played. The metronome was punishment. The metronome was supposed to slow me down or speed me up—so rigid, so unbending and unemotional—inured to my moods and my defenses, as insensible as a parade of piano teachers, mostly unmemorable except for Mrs. Zucker, who colored outside the lines with her lipstick (orange hued so as to emphasize the yellow of her teeth), her breath sour and noxious in time for my lesson at the end of the day. Next, WASPy Mrs. Cahill: I walked to her house, just a few doors down on the other side of the Manor Club. Her living room was cool and dark, the carpet always just vacuumed, and little china figurines graced every surface. But convenience aside, Mrs. Cahill was terse and disapproving, and our arrangement didn’t last.
Finally, Natalie Czerny, a widow who lived all the way over in Pelham Heights, in a house way up off the street, like all the others on Highland Avenue. I rode my bike to Mrs. Czerny’s when the weather was good, bumped it up one long flight to the front door and left it leaning against the wrought iron bannister that bordered the stoop. Just inside, two grand pianos faced off from opposite corners of the room; there were Persian rugs laid over the carpet and paisley shawls flung against the backs of the furniture; black-and-white photos of Mrs. Czerny, with full lips and hair, looked out from the wall and from silver frames strategically placed on the mantel. She, herself, in living color, would open the door and embrace me, then sit me down beside her on a giant pin cushion of a chaise—gold thread running through the weave—where she’d serve me black tea from a glass carafe and sip her own with a sugar cube between her teeth. Mrs. Czerny, red haired and captivating, managed to keep me at the keyboard for several years more. Did she dispense altogether with tempo? I think not. But she played for me before and after my lessons, to keep me hungry, to keep me wanting—music that spoke to my brimming adolescent heart: Debussy, Ravel, Bartk, Schumann, and one afternoon, a piece by Grieg called “The Poet’s Heart,” extravagantly romantic and not to be metronomically contained.
“I want that one,” I said.
She shook her head. “Darling,” she told me. “You cannot possibly understand it, not yet. Later. . . . You will play it later, I promise.”
“I do understand it,” I said. “I want it now.”
And she relented. And “The Poet’s Heart” kept me coming (and going) for another six months. Seems to me I took it home to practice in autumn, when the swirling of the chords and the arpeggios—the seasonal ache of that minor key—expressed a yearning I felt but couldn’t have named. I was one of those kids full of inchoate longing, motivated by the notion—largely unsubstantiated—that I was somehow different and destined. Destined to quit the piano, in fact, but before I did, I performed the Grieg in the winter recital in Natalie Czerny’s living room. Not that I planned to become a classical musician, not for a minute (by that time I’d found my calling, I thought)—on the other hand, anything was possible. I mistook my own sense of drama for depth, my passion and intensity for sizable talent. I was a teenager—therefore I imagined I could be anything I wanted and any number of things all at once. Never mind Mrs. Czerny’s assessment of my emotional range, I judged my interpretation of “The Poet’s Heart” at least as worthy as my fingering, which I’d mastered, after all. Moreover, having triumphed on Highland Avenue I wasn’t about to go back to playing scales. The dogwood and the forsythia were in full bloom on the Esplanade when I gave up lessons for good, in exchange for rehearsals—a role in a school production of The Diary of Anne Frank. Not Anne—whose tragedy I was also certain I fully appreciated—but rather Mrs. Van Daan, her querulous attic-mate, whose middle-aged suffering gave me a pain: if I knew I had the heart of a poet, I was equally convinced I wasn’t old enough to play a bitchy old lady. At fifteen, I went for volume as opposed to emotional veracity, pitching my voice loud and high, with vibrato to boot.
I still dream about Mrs. Czerny, who, in the dreams, is patient, at first, and glad to see me. I’ve signed up for lessons, but I forget to show, and when I do, the stairs up to the house are crumbling and nearly insurmountable—especially in bare feet. If I make it inside, if I manage to sit down at the piano, I can’t read the music. On top of that, I’m desperately concerned and embarrassed about having mislaid my shoes. It’s hard to face Mrs. Czerny then—I can’t meet her eyes, which have, in the dream, gone dark with disappointment. I tell her I’ll be back, I’ll be better, but we both know I won’t. As with other dreams of this ilk—in which I have to take an exam in a language I don’t speak, or perform a leading role without rehearsal, or scribble orders in a crowded restaurant—I am absolutely aware of myself as I am, a grown woman back in the dorms, or in the chorus, or working for tips. And it’s bewildering: Is this supposed to be a shot at redemption? A second chance?
On waking, I’m mostly relieved—it was only a dream! I’ve escaped humiliation, at least for now. But why torture myself this way? And if I must revisit the scenes of my youthful failures, real and anticipated, why can’t I turn the dreams around? Now, when even Mrs. Czerny would have to agree that I’m emotionally up to the challenge of “The Poet’s Heart,” why can’t I, in the dream at least, play the piece with everything I know? And why on earth would I need a metronome? Why dutifully wait with fingers poised over the keys, as Mrs. Czerny slides the weight to the tip of the narrow rod, which bends too far and threatens to snap, startling me out of the dream and back to real life—and I guess that’s the reason.
Dinah Lenney is the author of Bigger than Life: A Murder, a Memoir and co-authored Acting for Young Actors. Her prose has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Los Angeles Review of Books, AGNI, Creative Nonfiction, and elsewhere. She serves as core faculty in the Bennington Writing Seminars and the Rainier Writing Workshop, as well as in the Master of Professional Writing Program at USC. Her new book, The Object Parade, will be published by Counterpoint Press in April. (updated 3/2014)