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The Death of Steve

Obituary: Steve the Piano Teacher

Died circa 2006

But that's an estimate, no one seems to remember for sure.

Steve gave my brothers and I weekly piano lessons in 30 minute increments and died very young due to complications from lung cancer. Here is how I remember our short time together.

I am not entirely sure how my mother landed on Steve in the first place, but I will say he was a fairly good fit in terms of my family’s musical enthusiasm. A family from church, the Castalanos had suggested him to us. The Castalanos were one of those families who were always dressed for church. It is entirely possible I only feel that way because I actually only ever saw them at mass, but since I have no proof to the contrary, I’ll stand by my statement. The Castalanos were very tall and bony and well-groomed and Mrs. Castalano wore pencil skirts and pearls. Their three children were slightly older than my brothers and I, and were exact replicas of the Pevensie children. They were tall and pale and proper and quiet and maybe even British, although I can’t tell you that for certain because I never heard them speak. Even though we folded our hands and crossed ourselves after communion, thanks to my mother’s nagging, my brothers and I weren’t exactly what you’d call proper or quiet. What I’m saying is, Steve made more sense as my family’s piano teacher than as the Castalanos.

Steve was about 50 years old when he gave us lessons, possibly way younger, possibly way older. Similar to the way Kevin Bacon could either tell you he’s 30 or 70 and you’d kind of believe him either way. Once a week Steve would drive his rusty, light-blue sedan over to our house. Frequently, this blue sedan would get too rusty even for itself and it would break down. So every other week or so, after our lessons, my mom would have to leave us alone to fend for ourselves while she drove Steve over to the Castalanos because the bus didn’t go that way and it was just too far to walk. This is where I would like to ask my mother why she put up with this, but then I remember this whole charade was her idea...and she was paying him for it.

On the rare day his car was working, Steve rolled up and parked out on the street. He’d sit with the windows up, smoking one last cigarette before lightly pushing his way through our back door and sliding through the kitchen into the living room. Somehow my brother Jake got away with skipping piano lessons for a while because he claimed the cigarette smoke made his stomach hurt. He was either a liar or very sensitive, and as much as we hated to admit it, we were all very jealous of this scheme. Once we landed on who would go first and get this misery over with, we would follow Steve out of the kitchen, dragging our feet, and position ourselves on the bench in front of the grand piano which seemed to glare down at us and to know we hadn’t practiced very much, and was about to call us out on it, hard.

We worked primarily out of lesson books called “Discovery A,” and once we finished that “Discover B.” My family never made it past “B” and, thinking about it now, I am frightened to imagine how far down the alphabet those books went.

Each section or chapter of these books, which we moved through at snail's pace due to lack of competence, included a few little musical assignments and a sight-reading section. For those unfamiliar with this term, sight-reading refers to a small portion of music which you were not supposed to practice because it was meant to test your ability at reading and playing sheet music on the fly. Sight-reading was my nightmare. I never adequately, or even remotely, learned how to read sheet music for the piano. Luckily, the sight-reading section was right there in Discovery A all week for me to peruse and decode at my leisure. So I memorized it each week - like a dyslexic kid who memorizes large swaths of Lord of the Flies in the fear that they’ll get called on in class and make a fool out of themselves - rendering the sight-reading assignment utterly counterproductive.

Like all shortcuts in life, it was instantly-gratifying enough that I ignored the fact that it would likely come and bite me in the ass.

These books had a nice and convenient habit of going missing every so often, only to be found weeks later by the cleaning ladies, having been shoved under one of the couches, and to our dismay, returned to their home in the piano bench. We never had enough nerve to throw the books in the garbage which would’ve filed these disappearances under “sabotage” instead of “convenient accident.” Not to mention my mother would’ve found them immediately as we only had one small garbage and these books were pretty big and bright red. By shoving the book under the couch, we could feign surprise when the book disappeared and then later re-emerged like it had simply been misplaced. Four kids was just enough kids to spread the blame somewhere vaguely over all of us instead of being pinpointed on a single culprit. This is probably why we never made it past Discovery B.

Though I struggled through sight-reading and most assignments, through scales I thrived! They were pure muscle memory. They made sense. Each scale starting from Middle C had an additional black note added somewhere in the middle. C scale had no black keys and thus the easiest. D had one, E had two and so on. I had no clue what this pattern of black and white notes meant in terms of key signatures or the continuity and relationship of nature and music and Pythagorean philosophy, but I memorized them because they required no understanding of underlying theory. I can only assume I engaged the same tactics while learning my times tables which coincidentally was around the same time.

We put so much effort and time into learning scales because of NYSSMA. NYSSMA stands for New York State Something Musical Assessment, or something along those lines, who cares. We pronounced it “nizma” in my household. It was like the state test of piano playing. I can only assume we participated in NYSSMA because my mom thought we needed some sort of external motivation for our “practicing.” Internal motivation was simply not doing the trick.

Here I need to make a slight digression as I’ve brought up “practicing” a couple times now. The rule in our house was we each had to practice piano for 30 minutes every night. Another thing that happened every night was, after dinner my mom would leave us to do our homework to take our cute yellow lab for a 30 minute walk. 30 minute dog walk, 30 minutes expected practicing. We weren’t idiots. As my mom put on her coat and shoes and fetched the leash from the pantry - all the tell tale signs a walk was about to commence - one of the geniuses she produced would pick up on the scent and scamper over the piano to start banging out our scales. Whoever it was that night would sit at the piano until my mom was out the door and about 10 seconds down the street before they’d stroll back into the kitchen with a smug grin and an elevated sense of self-importance smeared across their face. Upon my mother’s return, she’d ask if so-and-so had finished practicing and since she could have absolutely no way of knowing whether we were lying, we lied and said “yes we had just finished practicing right before you got home.” My mom claims she knew this was going on but didn’t care, which seems to me to go against everything she stood for, but seeing as only one child could get away with this each night, there’s a chance she decided that having to listen to one less idiot smash away at the keys every night was not the worst thing in the world.

Ok, back to NYSSMA, but only for a second. For NYSSMA, we got dressed up and drove to some random classroom at some random community college to play the piano for some random old person who graded us on it. I don’t know what or even if there was a prize for testing high in NYSSMA, but I have a sneaky suspicion my brothers and I weren’t quite in the running. The grading system was out of 30 and as long as you crushed your scales and played your selected piece straight through without having to start over, you got at least a 26. Those four unaccounted for points were the sight reading section, so as you can imagine it is safe to say my score was just about capped at a 26. There’s also a chance the scoring system went way higher than 30 and that’s just where I fell on the spectrum.

Even weirder than NYSSMA were Steve’s recitals. Steve came to our house for the lessons, but every so often, about once a year, each child Steve gave lessons to would get semi-dressed up the way you do for picture day at school and drive out to his house. Every kid, their parents and little siblings would cram into Steve’s living room, ignoring the smell of stale cigarettes, and watch the recital. My mom would squeeze on the same little floral couch as Mr. and Mrs. Castalano, and my dad would just stand in the back probably searching for escape routes. It was not fancy nor exciting, but who doesn’t like showing off. In turn, we would sit at Steve’s piano with our sheet music - which, as you now know, was there entirely for show - and play a piece we had prepared, which usually doubled as our NYSSMA piece because god forbid we stretch our capacity for growth.

For years, Steve gave my brothers and I weekly piano lessons in 30 minute increments, taking a five minute cigarette break between each child. Sometime in and around 2006, Steve died. We never replaced him. Our piano careers died with Steve.

I am sorry to Steve who probably didn’t deserve the complete lack of enthusiasm I applied to our time together. For instance, I would strategically go to the bathroom during my 30 minute time slot, similar to how I strategically went to the bathroom during the homily at church. I guess I should apologize to Father Ralph while I’m at it.

I am sorry to my mother who tried to instill culture in me and my brothers at a young age and failed. Unless you like Heart and Soul, Mom, in that case you succeeded.

And I am sorry to my brain which would’ve appreciated the extra brain cells that learning the piano certainly would have provided.

But in my sorrow I am able to give Steve one last gift. That of his legacy as it pertains to me and my piano career: My Repertoire

  1. Scales (all the majors, I think, and possibly some harder ones): I hate to brag, but I could play them all with both hands simultaneously using proper cross-over and cross-under technique. Steve harped on about that.

  2. Chopsticks: Let’s go ahead and count that as a song.

  3. The Rugrats Theme Song: Self-taught

  4. Minuet in G: My first and only Bach, dumbed down for my tiny robot fingers. This pleasant little classic was likely Steve’s gift to my mother for all her potentially, and inevitably, wasted money. I never quite cared to learn the middle part, and so I never did!

  5. Polka: To me, a song not a genre.

  6. Doe a Deer: Familiar and fun! Steve made up the version I learned on the fly! His talents were absolutely wasted on us.

  7. Fur Elise: The ultimate goal. I could play just about the first 15-20 bars and since that’s all anyone recognizes, I probably stopped there.

  8. Heart and Soul: Obviously.

  9. Spinning Song: The only song I remember to this day...although I can produce something that resembles Doe a Deer if you give me 10 minutes.

While Steve deserves a more powerful obituary than this one, I like to assume he received that upon his death 16ish years ago and thus everything thereafter is only an added bonus.

Anyway, I can only provide details on how I knew him as he pertained to my life. He never made a fuss that we didn’t practice all that much. When choosing NYSSMA songs Steve would play each song multiple times from start to finish from memory so we could carefully choose the song we liked and wanted to learn. He told cool stories and asked us about school and life off the piano bench. He took smoke breaks which cut down our lesson time to 27 minutes instead of the allotted 30. He never cared when Discovery A or B went missing. Steve was a great piano teacher and I like to believe he appreciated my brothers and I as students of life more than students of the piano.

Maybe I’ll relearn the beginning of Minuet in G in his honor, I dare not attempt the middle, nor do I really want to.

Rest In Peace, Steve the Piano Teacher

- Emily Menges


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