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.