You'd be surprised how easy it is to exaggerate even the most basic piano skills. The trick is to rely on the sustain pedal, to let the notes accumulate and crash and even clash. If you hit a wrong note, hit it again. Incorporate it. Play a chord down low and add a high melodic flourish, a triplet maybe. Dampen the sound, suddenly, for a dramatic pause. Then begin again.
"I didn't know you could play," someone will eventually say, wandering into the room with a drink, away from the party.
"Oh, I used to," you'll reply airily, chasing the scale up and down the keyboard. "A long time ago. I just wish I could remember more."
"Well, it's lovely, whatever it is you're playing. Did you take lessons?"
And here you'll lift your hands from the keys—because playing for too long will give you away—and announce, proudly, that you were self-taught. Or you'll say that you took a few lessons before giving up music for soccer or science experiments or a girl. You'll tell a story, in other words, because what was the song if not an invitation? If not a way of luring this other person into the web of your past?
As for me, I took lessons for almost four years until my teacher unceremoniously dropped me. What I remember most about the moment are my black high-tops, the piano's heavy brass pedals, the faded-blue-flower design of her Oriental rug. Meaning, what I remember is looking anywhere but up at my teacher's face.
"Just be honest," she said. "It's not a tough question. How many hours a week? How many are you practicing?"
I wasn't sure what to tell her. Sometimes I pretended to be Ray Charles, tapping a melody on the dashboard to make my father laugh. Was that practice? Sometimes, rather than attempting her assignments, I tried to figure out songs from the radio. Sometimes I dreamed my scales, though in the dreams they were bloated and never-ending, each containing an impossible number of flats and sharps—and how to measure time in a dream?
"Just give me a number," she said. "I promise I won't be mad."
"Two," I said. A safe answer, I hoped.
"OK," she said, nodding her head. Like always, she was sitting in a high-back chair beside me, her hands on her knees. She was an older woman with white-blonde hair and a freckled tennis tan. ("Imagine holding tennis balls," she'd say to inspire the proper curve in my fingers.) The best thing about her was she usually offered dessert. The worst thing was she stretched her neck while I played, bending and turning it until her ear touched her shoulder and the bones inside popped with a crunch that brought a smile to her face.
"I'm afraid today will be our final lesson," she said, and offered me a slip of paper. "Your parents' last check. Please return it to them with my apologies. I'm mailing out letters soon, but I've decided to start teaching less. I'll be keeping only a few students going forward."
Unsure how to respond, I slid back the bench and stood, slinging my backpack over my shoulder.
"Don't look so sad," she said. "This is your get-out-of-jail-free card. We both know your heart isn't in this."
(Inside the belly of her shiny black Steinway, across the sharp metal strings: my heart.)
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