I never had piano lessons. Can’t tickle the ivories at all. Which now might very well disqualify me from sitting on the Supreme Court, my lack of law degree notwithstanding.
That was my take away from the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett. For nearly 2 hours Republican senators from the Judiciary Committee practically stopped probing about her judicial philosophy. The judge didn’t offer up anything on how she would rule on abortion rights, the Affordable Care Act, and the 2020 election if confirmed to SCOTUS.
But thanks to Ted Cruz’s hard-hitting grilling we did get answers to those burning questions Americans in the midst of a pandemic needed to know about her piano skills- Did she take piano lessons? Did her children? On those questions Amy answered clearly in the affirmative, her oddly grating little girl voice loud, clear, and proud. Now we know where she stands on Flats and sharps, though her position on Steinway v. YAMAHA as best piano still lingers.
Ted Cruz and Amy Barrett are not alone in thinking piano lessons are an important part of a child’s education.
Or once was.
Learning to play the piano used to be a right of passage for generations of children, especially girls. It was thought to not only give you a step up into a world of culture and refinement but increase your popularity. And for girls, increase your chance of snaring a beau and a ring on your finger.
Of course, that notion dates back to the turn of the last century, a place Barrett might want to return women’s right to.
In 1916 when my Brooklyn born grandmother Sadie was a girl, a piano in the home was a symbol of not only high culture but a sign that a family had “made it.” As the daughter of a successful Jewish immigrant business owner, their Victorian designed Gabler upright made of dark, exotic Honduran Mahogany wood had a place of honor in their Williamsburg parlor and spoke of their standing. Eastern European Jewish immigrant families quickly adopted this American status symbol into their household. A parlor upright became the sign of leisure and assimilation.
Sales of pianos were through the roof. A 1904 Yiddish “Daily Forward” article announced, “As for children pounding on pianos it has become a craze.” Piano production had increased and prices dropped drastically putting inexpensive uprights made of light oak, within reach of everyone.
More importantly, Jewish mothers understood the piano as a way to help their daughters on the road to matrimony. Families invested time money and attention to give their girls lessons. It was said that even a plain Jane who played the piano had an edge in the matrimonial department over those without that skill. In Jewish families, piano playing was noted as an asset in shadchens ( matchmakers) little notebooks.
With piano teachers in hot demand, Sadie practiced diligently mastering Mozart against the audible ticks of a metronome. But being an All American girl her tastes and tempo in music ran more ragtime than Beethoven causing an ever-present eye-roll in her parents at those fast-paced tin pan alley melodies.
Family lore never mentioned that her future husband fell “Yaki, Hacki, Wicki, Wacki, Woo” in love with her because of her piano skills, but there was no doubt Sadie’s snappy rendition of that popular 1916 song made her not only a sought after pianist at school parties but among the most popular girls at Erasmus High.
Baby Grand Piano
By the time she became my Nana Sadie, she had long ditched that ragtime rhythm for more staid hymns, just as she would upgrade to a Steinway baby grand piano. Singing while she played, her dramatic voice reminiscent of Margaret Dumont, the hymns had a decidedly Christian flavor to them. While “Come All Ye Faithful” sounds just about right for Amy Coney Barret, for my Jewish born grandmother they always sounded off tempo.
Though I inherited my grandmother’s baby blue eyes, her piano skills were never passed on to me. Sitting next to her on the piano bench in her elegant Manhattan apartment as she tickled the ivories, I’d watch with wonder at her agile and quick fingers. But there would be no piano lessons for me. In fact, it was never considered.
Piano lessons took time and dedication. In the modern rush about space-age, that was the 1960s, who had time for such a tedious chore. Like millions, my parents wanted the quicker, EZ way that came with an electric organ, precisely a 1960 Magnus electric chord organ. You could play it the moment you removed it from the box. No music experience required. However, for such a modern convenience the accompanying songbooks were woefully outdated with selections more appropriate for a Barbershop Quartet.
You could become a world-class musician in a jiff. No pesky reading music involved. Just match the numbers on the songbook to the numbered keyboard and the skies the limit. No lessons, no practice, and best of all no peculiar staff, or clefs involved. Following the numbers made it as simple as the paint by number masterpieces my mother so enjoyed creating. The no-fuss no muss way to culture.
Unlike earlier home organs like Hammonds that took an excruciating 30 minutes to learn to play ( for 30 years of enjoyment), Magnus ads promised: “ “Now everyone can play their favorite songs without lessons in just 60 seconds. You can play your favorite songs today…right in your own home without taking a single lesson. Minutes after you receive it you’ll be playing real magic as well or better than your friends who have spent countless hours with lessons and practice on other instruments.
Tucked in the corner of our formal dining room, this tabletop electric organ rested on a folding snack table for the next 49 years. Its popularity in my home eventually waned when the impetus to gather around this small setting and sing songs from the Gay 90s had to compete with the top 40 on the radio.
Sounding the Death Knell
Just as the need to know how to play the piano in order for a girl to be “date bait” fell out of favor so did marriage itself, as the women’s movement burst on the scene as I moved into my teens by 1970. Suddenly women’s rights became music to my ears.
We can’t let Amy Coney Barrett change the tune.
© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
Learning piano has many benefits besides helping you find a marriage partner.
If you study piano, you get an excellent grounding in musical theory that can be applied to other instruments.
Studying piano also helps develop a particular set of brain skills; eg. concentration, application to the discipline of regular practice, a kind of mathematical model of seeing things, a sense of humble willingness to accept one needs time and patience to develop perfection, a willingness to take instruction until one is proficient oneself (and even then being open minded enough to realize we can always learn things from others). It’s more challenging to be good at anything much in this life unless one has developed those kinds of skills early on, because most things worth doing require a degree of perseverance and dedication. Most children tend to take the path of least resistance, whatever comes easiest to them with least effort. One reason many parents sign their kids up to lessons of one kind or other is to help them overcome this flaw, so they develop the kind of backbone and staying power they will need in later life in many different ways.
All of these skills in turn are transferable to other areas in life, and mastery of them demonstrates a certain type of formation, much as obtaining a university degree demonstrates a certain type of formation, even if you end up not using you actual degree later on in professional life.
Maybe those piano skills helped very much in marriages too, which require quiet dedication, perseverance, patience, a willingness to make the effort (on both sides, of course). I think you even allude to as much in your article towards the end, the fall off in both piano lessons and successful marriages. How many marriages stand the test of time these days, and isn’t that a sad thing? These days people expect to sit down and play Fur Elise note perfect the day they get their first piano, without ever subjecting themselves to bothersome discipline, and if they can’t, they’re disappointed, it’s obviously the piano’s fault; so buy a new one, and then another new one when that fails to deliver too, until eventually we give up on piano playing altogether and conclude piano is a waste of time. Obviously the common denominator here are the untrustworthy pianos. I’m not denying of course that some pianos are very out of tune and would vex even the best player!
Naturally, not everyone is musical and people can learn some of the above skills through sport, art etc. But then not everyone is sporty or artistic either, but music might be in their blood!
I’m sure you have fond memories of your Gran’s piano playing, and even if you didn’t learn the instrument, it was part of your formation.
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Of course you are absolutely correct and bring up excellent points/. My piece was somewhat tongue in cheek as to the value of piano lessons never meaning to discount the lessons of studying music theory bring to enhancing one’s life.
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I know, I fully enjoy the humour with which you wrote, I like your style! Of course my connections between marriage and piano lessons were also tongue-in-cheek, borrowing themes from your piece.
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The ‘out of tune pianos’ for example, were a reference to men who don’t bother to pull their weight in marriage… the rest should be clear from that example.
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I enjoyed all your references. Perseverance and discipline are sorely lacking in this quick fix age. Though I didn’t study piano, I was extremely disciplined in my art which requires all the skills you site.
Sally, I do not doubt she is a good person. It is just we should hear a little more about what she thinks. Yet, I will say one saving grace is judges will not act like the person appointing them. So, it does remain to be seen how she will rule in the future.
The case against the ACA is not a good one, so it would not surprise me if the judges uphold the law or the part being challenged. Yet, stranger things have happened. The White House not defending the law is what should be highlighted – he would rather screw people by taking their health care insurance away as he did when he stopped the funding of the co-pays/ deductibles for people making less than 2 1/2 times the poverty rate reneging on a written contract with insurers. They honored their commitment, the president did not. Keith
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I am very troubled by her lack of forthrightness in answering questions that really were very black or white. The health rights of women and the civil rights of the LGBTQ community are very concerning to me. I am disturbed about the right-wing dark money machine associated with her nomination. I am sure she is a fine mother, excellent professor, and pillar of her community, but I don’t want her on our Supreme Court.
oops! well, there go my SCOTUS dreams!!
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You and me both!
Learning the trombone did nothing for my marital prospects, and I always had to march in the first rank behind the horses in parades. I think I would be attracted to a pianist, though I can’t say I know any one who played one except my music major sister. Her first instrument was a clarinet, though.
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If one is so inclined, there is nothing lovelier than having skill in playing a musical instrument. The dated notion of piano playing adding to a woman’s femininity is just that, dated.
I agree! Failing to be a trombonist of any particular skill, I settled for playing CDs. LOL! It amazes me that music only the elite of its time could hear can be played in the comfort of my living room. That I sit in that room in the Panhandle of Nebraska, scarcely a place where a Barbara Hendricks might be expected to have a fan, for example, is equally amazing. In some respects, this is a good time to be alive when the best of the best are available on recordings for those who love music but haven’t a clue how to make it. LOL!
I wished I had learned to play the piano. My grandmother had a violin, which I had no interest in learning, but there was a piano which she didn’t teach. I guess she had her heart on the violin, but I would go out to play. But I enjoy learning a little history on the subject. Regarding how they wanted to know how she would rule on public policies, she explained that’s not her to provide, for a justice is supposed to rule on cases AS They Come Up, deciding on the Constitutional Legality of each one. **I would not trust her if she told people how she would decide ahead of time. I always remember that justice is blind, which means the same fairness for all. Constitutionally.
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