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The Music Teacher

by Barbara Hall

Hardcover, 292 pages, Workman Pub Co, List Price: $22.95 |


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The Music Teacher
Barbara Hall

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Book Summary

Accepting the limitations of her musical ability, a violinist seeks fulfillment by instilling her passion for music in others, in which role she encounters Hallie, a young girl of prodigious talent, but in her goal to shape Hallie into the artist she cannot be, she makes a terrible mistake that forces her to reevaluate her entire life.

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Excerpt: The Music Teacher


a Novel

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

Copyright © 2009 Barbara Hall
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-56512-463-9

Chapter One

I am the mean music teacher. I am that cranky woman you remember from your youth, the one whose face you dreaded seeing, whose breath you dreaded smelling as I leaned over you, tugging at your fingers. You made jokes about me, drew caricatures of me in your notebooks, made puns out of my name, swore never to be me.

Well, listen. I swore never to be me, too.

My name is Pearl Swain. It is my real name. I didn't make it up to give you something to laugh about. My mother chose it for noble reasons. I was named after her mother, a woman she alternately revered and despised. My mother's stories changed with her moods. I tried to stay away from both.

I started playing the violin when I was ten. Two years too late, I was eventually told, to become a great violinist. So I became a very good violinist, which is about like being a very good mathematician. It means you cannot actually make your living at your chosen profession. It means you have to teach others how to surpass you.

Here is why your music teacher was so mean: She didn't want to teach. She wanted to be a musician. She wanted to be first chair in some respectable philharmonic, or onstage with some famous rock band or jazz quartet. She wanted to compose her own pieces and have them published and admired. She wanted an audience for her music, not a succession of surly children being forced to memorize folk tunes and watered-down pop and gospel songs so that their parents could sit through endless recitals and brag about these accomplishments as if they were their own.

Like your music teacher, I am not as old as I appear. I am only forty, and I have aspirations still, circling the drain, but there, nagging and growing louder as they fade. I also have a sex life, or did. Something no one likes to imagine. I have been married and divorced and have been rejected countless other times, and I have even done my share of rejecting. I have bought silly lingerie and cooked impossibly difficult meals and lit candles in the bedroom and used chocolate syrup on things other than ice cream. But don't think about that. Just know that it's true.

I work in a precious little music shop on the West Side of Los Angeles called McCoy's, named after a Scottish guitar maker, who opened up the place to sell his own handmade guitars and violins, only to be put out of business by the larger chains. He sold the store, and the new management turned the place into a kind of haven for displaced would-be members of Fairport convention, people who play quaint instruments that no one wants to hear. We sell acoustic guitars, mandolins, violins, cellos, accordions, bongos, recorders, harmonicas, and honest-to-God lutes. The manager, Franklin, tries to pretend that we provide a much-needed service to the area, and he affects an air of disdain for anyone who can't see that, anyone who aspires to play something beyond glorified campfire music.

There is a repair shop, run by Declan McCoy, grandson of the original owner. He rides his bike to work and has a beard down to his diaphragm. There is a back room, where we host small concerts, and there are rooms upstairs where we teach lessons. If you teach, you have to put some hours into working in the shop, selling guitar strings and tuners and sheet music and shakers.

So in between lessons, I hang out in the store and argue with the other clerks and teachers. I argue the most with Franklin, a decent guitar player who dreams of being a session musician (which is not unlike dreaming of being a ghost writer), and who believes that there are only two guitarists on earth who can even rival him - Alvin Lee and Richard Thompson. Jimmy Page, he says, was only complex, and anybody can be complex if it's the only thing that matters to him. Jimi Hendrix, he says (though he refers to him only as Hendrix), simply reinvented the instrument to suit his purposes. Don't even talk to him about Keith Richards. (I don't know why. I don't care enough.) Eric Clapton is a sellout, chuck Berry treated his guitar like a car engine (that's a criticism, he swears), and Segovia turned his guitar into a piano, so why the hell didn't he just play the piano?

This is what I listen to all day long. Him arguing with Ernest and Patrick and Clive. They all have rules like this. His are just the stupidest and most cryptic. Ernest hyperventilates over Stevie Ray Vaughan and can't discuss Lynyrd Skynyrd without crying. Patrick says he'd marry Paul Simon if he weren't straight. (I suppose he means if he, Patrick, weren't straight - another lively topic of debate.) Clive, at twenty-eight, is the youngest member of the group, since Franklin won't hire anyone under twenty-five. Clive is a bass player who says that there is no such thing as a great band without a great rhythm section. He says that out loud, whenever Franklin walks by, and if Franklin is in a pleasant mood, he actually pauses to say, "Well, show me the all-rhythm-section band." "The Police," Clive quips, and Franklin holds a hand to his heart, as if he's been shot.

It's all very sad. They are like chess players, arguing over the most valuable piece on the board rather than the beauty of strategy. They are missing the big picture. Musicians often do that. Sometimes I do it, too. We all defend our instruments as if they were extensions of our personalities, which maybe they are, but should we admit it in public? I don't.

Of all the people employed at McCoy's, I make Franklin the craziest. He does not understand me. Mainly because I am a woman. Franklin's musical politics are not unlike those of the Taliban. He probably thinks we should be arrested for playing instruments in public. We're allowed to sing because singers are the lowest of the low. We're occasionally relegated to the piano ghetto because the piano, as Franklin puts it, is the dime-store novel of popular music. But when we try to make pleasant sounds come from anything else, we're playing with fire, encroaching on sacred territory.

"Why do you want to play that whiny little thing?" Franklin sometimes asks when he wanders past as I'm warming up before a lesson.

"I didn't choose it," I tell him. "It chose me."

"Only a woman could say that," he replies.

"I am a woman. Where's your argument?"

This actually makes the blood drain from his face, and then he says something like, "Your time card is a mess. Make sure you check your hours," and moves on.

I am in love with Franklin, probably. My fantasy is that he falls in love with me, and I tell him that he should get a real job (he has an MBA from Stanford), and we move to Northern California, play our instruments for fun, and raise five children. This, of course, will never happen. And Franklin has just enough disdain for me that it's safe to fantasize about him. He is not handsome. His hair is deserting him and he's put on ten pounds since I started working here three years ago, right after my divorce. I focused my attention on him as the perfect solution to my problems, since he was so different from my ex-husband, Mark Hooper, a charismatic history professor at UCLA, who eventually gave in to the demands of some lost and weepy coed and tried to blame me for his wanderings. He said it was my desire to be a musician and my refusal to match his salary that created so much stress that he had to look elsewhere for relief. I think he never recovered from the fact that I didn't take his last name. Why would I? as bad as Pearl Swain is, Pearl Hooper is even worse. It sounds like a mail-order gadget. Tired of paying department store prices for jewelry? Try the amazing Pearl Hooper! I did that routine for him and he laughed, but ultimately he saw my refusal to take his name as an act of defiance, as if I were holding back.

Toward the end, he had a million examples like that, little ways that I had hedged my bets, shut him out. He claimed that music was my first love and there was no room for him in my heart. I think that was just a high-minded excuse for sleeping with someone else. Someone much younger, who hung on his every word, loved his big ideas, appreciated the gray in his hair, thought the extra weight looked sexy, thought the world did not appreciate his genius. Someone who saw the fictional version of him. Someone who didn't love him enough not to lie.

The truth is that Mark and Franklin are not so different at all. They are both teachers, held back by their own elitist pretensions. Mark hated teaching and believed he should be publishing popular history books. I believed he should be doing that, too. I simply thought it might be good to write those books before he grew embittered over their lack of recognition.

I took the job at McCoy's three months after Mark left me and moved in with Stephanie, the weepy coed, hoping to prove that I could make a living as a musician. It was intended to be the stepping-stone into my actual career as a full-time violinist, but three years later, I am still teaching and pretending it is the same as being a professional musician. Mark didn't get the comeuppance I had hoped for, but every now and then, when I have to call him to discuss money (he's still paying for my car), he says enigmatic and leading things like, "Pearl, you don't know how lucky you are, doing the thing you love."

I say, "aren't you doing the thing you love?"

"Of course not. You know what I want to do."

"You want to write books."

"Yes," he says, sighing.

"So write them."

He says, "Stephanie wants to have children, but we can't afford it."

"What does Stephanie do, again?" I knew, but I never tired of hearing it.

"She's a telemarketer. But she wants to teach."

God help him, he left me for a woman who hasn't even got the courage to teach.

Franklin never gives me a sideways glance, never even acknowledges that I am a woman, except to point out that women make inferior musicians. It's not because I'm ugly. It might be because I have stopped trying to be pretty.

Beauty is work, and expensive work at that. None of the models or actresses in magazines were born with any of that. They might have been born pretty, but nobody is born pretty enough. They've starved themselves, chopped up their faces, sucked the fat out of their butts and put it in their cheeks, and shot botulism into their lips, and after all that, they've still been airbrushed within an inch of their lives. catch them in a candid moment, and you'll find someone who's achy, cranky, hungry, wired, exhausted, and full of contempt for men.

In Los Angeles, these women are everywhere. You can see how miserable they all are. If you don't believe it, try cutting one of their SUVs off in traffic. They don't want to let you in. Pretty people never let you in.

I abandoned all efforts to be pretty after my marriage failed. I used to color my hair; now I just accept what God gave me, something like dull mahogany with no visible gray in a blunt shoulder-length cut. Franklin calls it lesbian hair. Most days I swoop it up in a ponytail or tuck it under a hat. I don't conceal the lines on my forehead (I've earned them) and I don't cover up broken blood vessels on my nose (my ancestors brought them over from Scotland). Sometimes I wear lipstick, but when I do, Franklin calls attention to it. He announces to everyone in the store, "Pearl has feminine aspirations today!"

The only man in the store who seems to appreciate me as I am is young Clive, who occasionally whispers to me, "You know, Joni Mitchell never wore makeup." I say to him, "If I could sing like her, I would tell you all to fuck off."

Clive grins. He likes it when I swear. I don't know why young men find foulmouthed women so appealing, but they do.

Then Clive says, still speaking of Joni Mitchell, "She could play the guitar, too. Great rhythm guitar. She was her own rhythm section."

"Don't tell anyone," I caution. "They might confiscate her guitar."

Clive thinks I am supercool because I use words like "confiscate" and I'm not afraid to say "fuck." He really likes the incongruity of my doing all that and playing the violin, which is considered an uptight person's instrument. He likes that I'm not afraid of Franklin and I actually enjoy bands with a rhythm section. I once said to him, "Music is all about timing. If you don't understand that, you don't understand the sport."

Which I believe, but it wasn't really fair to rope him in that way. Ever since then, I think he has made a solemn vow to take a bullet for me.

Clive teaches bass lessons next door to me, and sometimes I hear him yelling at his students. Sometimes I even have to tap on the door and ask him to keep it down. I do this gently, with a forefinger to my lip.

Once, as we were closing up shop, he said to me, "Why don't you ever yell at your students?"

"There's no point," I said.

"But they're so lazy."

"No, they're just frustrated. They're either doing this for their parents, which makes them miserable, or they are doing it for themselves, which makes them even more miserable."

Clive considered that for a moment, rubbing his fingers over his nascent goatee.

"You say smart things," he told me.

"No, I just say stuff out loud. It's why I can't stay married or keep a boyfriend."

"Hey," Clive said, with a degree of adolescent swagger, "if I were a few years older, you wouldn't have a problem."

He thought that was a compliment.

I wasn't always a patient teacher. This is the thing I did not say to Clive because he is too young to understand it. I was too young to understand it before it happened to me. I used to berate my students and raise my voice, and sometimes I would sigh and put my instrument away and say, "I don't see the point of this anymore."

But that was all before Hallie.

If you choose teaching as a profession, or even if you just fall into it as I did, the job is intolerable until you figure out the secret. The secret is this: your student is there to teach you, too. Before Hallie, there were things I believed that were just wrong. Notions of teaching left over from excessive viewing of The Miracle Worker. I thought I would reshape their lives. I thought I could teach them all to hear things they had never heard before.

But who can say what occurs between the vibrations of a chord, between the note's leaving the string and the wood and finding a home elsewhere? The child is thinking of other things. The child does not hear these sounds the same way.

I never knew that before. I didn't even bother to think about it.

It was Halloween, a Wednesday, when I first met Hallie. I still mark it on my calendar, and it bothers me that I do that. I wonder what I'm preserving. I wonder if I am making her or myself a martyr.

I had just dismissed my best student, a budding prodigy named Rosamund. She was ten years old and had been playing since she was six, and her parents were certain she was destined for greatness. She was, but only if she wanted it. Rosamund (and you can tell a great deal about parents from the name they choose for their only child) didn't want it. Rosamund wanted to play soccer and climb trees and do math equations. The only reason she understood anything about the violin was that she was a math whiz. Musical notation is all math, and that is why many great artists learn to play by ear. Whenever I am called upon to explain that phenomenon, I use this quote: "Some say metaphysics is for people who can't do the math. Others say that metaphysics is for people who don't need to do the math."

That is how I phrase it when I'm sober. When I've got a couple of drinks under my belt, I say, "Music is the closest you will ever get to God. Some people need to have God explained to them through scripture and ritual. Others just go right to the source."

That's why I cut down on drinking.

I had had a difficult session with Rosamund that day because I saw her enthusiasm waning, and instead of letting the whole thing play its course, and because I was convinced I needed her business, I had actually raised my voice to her a little. I said, "Rosamund, you are toiling under the illusion that music is easy. It simply isn't. You have to put in the work. If you don't practice, we are both wasting our time."