For seven years of my pre-adolescent and adolescent life, my parents would drive me for 30 minutes from our home in rural Minnesota to the house of a family friend for piano and pottery lessons.
I remember the house all too well. It was a century old farm house, the kind that was ordered in a Sear’s Roebuck catalog and built in the middle of the prairie, although it did have all the modern conveniences of the day. It was painted a dusty purple with white trim, and there was a metal sunburst sculpture on the side of the building next to the door. Wind chimes always tinkled in the ever-present breeze. It was a happy home, a serene home, open to new ideas and the too-bright colors of imagination.
My parents would drop me off and I’d walk in the door, smelling a strange (but wonderful) mixture of cinnamon, tea, freshly baked bread, and incense, even as I stood in the entryway of the kitchen.
Then my teacher would appear at the top of the stairs, her white hair billowing around her shoulders in a mass of tight little curls and her smile beaming against her rosy cheeks. She inevitably would be wearing a shade of purple (it was her favorite color), usually in a flowy tunic over comfortable canvas pants in the summer, or an overly big sweater with jeans in the winter. She was one of the original flower children of the ’60s, a true hippie and a vegetarian, and one with a heart and smile big enough to engulf a person with love and happiness.
She would always great me with a booming cry of “Wilber!” before engulfing me in a hug. You could feel the muscles in her arms when she hugged you, the muscles of a practiced potter.
We would chat for a little while, and would slowly end up at the piano in her little living room. Above the piano hung a clay bust of William Shakespeare that my teacher had made herself, complete with ruffled collar and gold hoop earring. (My parents credit this teacher with my own love of the great playwright.) And I would sit there, and play.
I have never been an outstanding musician, but I’ve always found peace and pleasure in sitting at a piano by myself or with a limited audience. It’s relaxing, staring at the notes on the page, hearing the melody in my head, and letting my fingers do the rest. I never performed at a grand recital, never won any awards, never enjoyed playing for groups of people. But playing in that living room with my teacher? She taught me the pure enjoyment of music and melody, of letting the keys flow under your fingers.
In a way, she taught me the same thing with pottery. She taught me an appreciation for working with your hands, for feelings what you’re working with until it seems like an extension of yourself. She taught me that you have to throw a pot 100 times on a pottery wheel before a good one will come out. She taught me to think in different levels and dimensions when creating art, and to think outside the box. It was under her tutelage that I created a sarcophagus for Barbie, the same year that she turned 50 years old. (After all, no one ever talked about what happened to Barbie and her friends when they died, and they were getting up there!) It was through her teaching, that I got a personal feel for jazz and other music that you can feel in your bones.
I learned a lot from playing piano and molding porcelain. I don’t know why I haven’t given that more credit in my life.