1. PRELUDE, an introductory movement

You always had music in your house. Your father had hundreds of classical and jazz record albums–this was long before anyone had heard of cassette tapes, let alone CDs–and subscribed to High Fidelity magazine. Your parents also had season tickets for the symphony, which was pretty good, considering you lived in Wheeling, W.Va., not Cleveland or Boston. Towns whose entire population would barely fill half a Big Ten football stadium usually don’t have symphony orchestras. Let alone good ones.

The orchestra performed in the Capitol Music Hall, a 1920s movie palace complete with glittery chandeliers and pseudo-Greek statues of naked women. Your father preferred the loge seats, in the front of the balcony, so he could lean back and stretch out his legs. Sometimes he would take you to the concerts. They were on school nights, Thursdays, and you usually dozed off after intermission, lulled by the lush sounds of the orchestra and the lateness of the hour.

Neither of your parents played a musical instrument, though, so you’re not sure whose idea it was for you to take piano lessons. Your parents bought a Wurlitzer spinet for the living room and signed you up to take lessons with the same man who taught Liane, the girl next door.
2. RECITATIVE, a musical work that mimics the patterns of speech in order to advance the story

You remember your piano teacher as being around your parents’ age, but he had no wife or children. He was famous for wearing open-neck shirts with a scarf tied around his throat. And, because he was such a taskmaster, for making his students cry.

Although the scarf might have been a clue, it never occurred to you that he was gay, a fact you learned from another former student years after your last lesson. You grew up in Wheeling, W.Va, not San Francisco or New York. The local gay community, if there even was one in the ’60s and early ’70s, was invisible. You’re not gay, but you could relate to how your teacher might have felt. As a Jew, you, too, were a member of a tiny minority in Wheeling, W.Va.

You were surprised when your piano teacher mentioned one day that he was born and raised in Mississippi. He had not a hint of the South in his voice. When you asked how he had managed to escape picking up an accent, he tapped the side of his head and said “good ear, good ear.” You think he must have really hated growing up in Mississippi. Why else would he have severed that most obvious of ties to his birthplace?

He never told you how he happened to end up teaching at a small liberal arts college in the Northern Panhandle of West Virginia, a little spit of land shoved between Pennsylvania and Ohio. Bethany College is located about 20 miles from Wheeling, at the end of Route 88, which slithers over and around the West Virginia hills like the copperheads that populate the state’s forests. Locals call Route 88 the “cowpath to culture.”
3. LAMENT, a Mournful Piece

You and his other private students took lessons downtown at the studio he rented in the old B&O Railroad building. The only furniture in the unadorned high-ceilinged room was a small wooden table that held his appointment book, a wooden coat tree, a couple of wooden chairs, and an 8-foot Steinway grand. It had been years since the last passenger train ran through Wheeling. As far as you knew, the building’s only other occupant was one of those ballet schools for girls who like to dress up in pink tutus but are as likely to become real ballerinas as you are to play Carnegie Hall. Even if you do practice, practice.

You loved it when your mother dropped you off a few minutes early. As you would walk slowly up the wide, well-worn steps to your teacher’s second-floor studio, you could hear him playing Gershwin or Schumann, Rachmaninoff or Beethoven, the notes bouncing from ceiling to wall to floor and back again, no curtains or carpeting to restrain them. And you would wonder: When did he start thinking that West Virginia was as far away from Mississippi as he could get? 

Rita Rubin is a longtime newspaper and magazine reporter who is working on an MA in creative writing at Johns Hopkins University. She lives with her husband and two daughters in suburban Washington, D.C. 

photo by Dinty W. Moore