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Monthly Wrap: Killing the Piano

by Susan Henderson on August 7, 2009

This month, we talked about the instruments we played when we were kids. Mostly I played imaginary instruments, playing as fast and impressively as the masters. In real life, I was impatient with the learning curve, but I do have a story for you about me and the piano.

The high point of my piano playing was Humpty Dumpty, a humiliating song to lay on a girl who’d rather play Rachmaninoff. But even Humpty Dumpty didn’t come easily. I didn’t like to practice. And sometimes I walked up the street to my piano teacher’s house and never even rang the bell. I just stood there, considering, and then walked back home the long way.

I don’t know what upset me so much about her sitting beside me on the bench, her gnarled fingers on the keys, singing the correct notes as I played the wrong ones. Maybe I have issues with inadequacy. Failure. People telling me what to do. People sitting too close.

I’ve never been the kind of person to fly into a rage. I’m quieter than that. So one day, I sat at the piano with my father’s wrench and quietly snipped a piece of ivory off of every key. In order: low notes to high notes. Every one. And then, without a word, I swept the pieces into my hand and closed the lid. Never told a soul.

I’m not sure what that says about the kind of child I was, but I suspect it says something.

Shortly after Mr. Henderson and I got married, my parents surprised me by sending us the piano. It was an expensive shipment, very generous, but it came into the house like a ghost and made me avoid the room we’d put it in.

This is how much my husband loves me. That year for my birthday, I came home and found that he’d magically removed the piano from the house, even while wearing a sling for a dislocated shoulder, and replaced the piano with a tank filled with frogs.

Best birthday present ever!

*

What did I read this month? Alan Cheuse and Lisa Alvarez (editors), WRITER’S WORKSHOP IN A BOOK: THE SQUAW VALLEY COMMUNITY OF WRITERS ON THE ART OF FICTION (Gave me new writing heroes like Anne Lamott, Mark Childress, and Lynn Freed); Jennifer McMahon, PROMISE NOT TO TELL (The wickedness and heartbreak of young girls; LOVED it!); and the book for next month’s interview.

Thanks to my August guest, Naseem Rakha, and to all of you who played here. And thanks to those who linked to LitPark: Simply Wait, In Her Own Write, Confessions of a Hermit Crab, Publishers Weekly, The Writer’s (Inner) Journey, BackspaceMarilyn Peake, Yearning 4d Sky, Jim Hanas, Blanquis26, Recommended ReadingBook Bird Dog, Kirk Farber Fiction, Laurel Snyder, Ashlyn Harper, Dynamic Josh, kmwss2c, Charles Palmer, AS King, Joanne Levy, Robin Slick, Maureen McGowan, ktsetsi, Backword Books, Emrson Creighton, David Habbinphalpern, i follow the night, lancerey, Brigita09, Eileen Rita, sarzee, TNB Tweets, Carmelo Valone, Laura Benedict, Despi Doodle, Georgia McBride, Maria Schneider, Jason Boog, HarperPerennial, Lori Oliva, Spaced Lawyer, Kimberly Wetherell, Jamie Ford, KayinCatEyes, BukowskiD, Laura Benedict, Regina Marler, Mike Gackler, My Feng Shui Life, Emrson Creighton, Rumbly in my Tumbly, Upstate Girl, Editor Unleased, and Lee Crase’s Vagabond Lit. I appreciate those links!

{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

Anonymous August 7, 2009 at 11:38 am

At least your piano teacher only sang the right notes when you hit the wrong ones. My first piano teacher cracked me on the knuckles with a ruler! I would have skipped out on lessons, but EVERYONE went to her, and she lived 8 doors down. Fortunately, she retired before I suffered irreparable emotional trauma or broken fingers, and my next piano teacher was a delightful woman.

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Nathalie August 7, 2009 at 12:31 pm

That chipping off the keys reminds me a little of the scene in Marathon Man (?), where a sadist dentist takes off Dustin Hoffman teeth. It speaks of a deliberate coolness which is chilling. You really must have HATED the poor thing.
Good thing you have frogs instead now.

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SusanHenderson August 7, 2009 at 8:26 pm

Good thing I don’t have the piano OR the frogs anymore!

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SusanHenderson August 7, 2009 at 8:27 pm

That’s awful. Did your parents know?

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Lee August 7, 2009 at 10:34 pm

Thank you Susan!
I appreciate the link.
I remember playing air guitar with a tennis racket, but that act was insignificant compared to my percussive tendencies on anything I could touch, slap, pop, smack or thump.
My parents either had no appreciation for my percussive aspirations or couldn’t tolerate my lack of rhythm.
I finally developed rhythm, but only after beating objects to the sound of silence throughout the house.

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SusanHenderson August 9, 2009 at 9:54 am

I love people who can’t stop themselves from playing music. I’m imagining little dents all over your furniture.

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jessicaK August 10, 2009 at 8:44 pm

Sue–what an amazing story about snipping the piano keys!For me that would have been unheard of, horrifying and yet I’m also wide-eyed and admiring of your gumption to do what you did. A lot of power in your silent action–a way of silencing those keys, too. The universe has a way of blowing it right back in your face, doesn’t it? Wise husband!
Jessica

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SusanHenderson August 10, 2009 at 9:59 pm

“Snipping” sounds so much nicer. And more normal!

Are you still on the road?

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JamieFord August 12, 2009 at 12:36 pm

Ah, nothing like a pair of pliers to vet a little passive aggressive tension. 🙂

I played the violin, because I had a crush on Pam Turner, who played the Cello. I think I probably wanted to BE that cello. Painfully Freudian, I’m sure. Later I played the guitar for a few years, though eventually I stopped practicing and the song selections from my instructor got simpler and simpler. When he finally threw up his hands and said, “Okay, let’s try Louie Louie,” I knew I was done.

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SusanHenderson August 12, 2009 at 8:25 pm

Jamie! So great to see you and Leesha last week. Your story: adorable.

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Aurelio August 13, 2009 at 8:56 am

For some reason, Susan, your tale made me visualize chipped teeth. When I see people with chipped teeth I wonder about their stories, as each chip evidences they have one. The result of some sort of life event is there, grinning at you: possibly a dramatic one, like a bar room brawl, or maybe as inconsequential as biting down on an olive pit, but far more intriguing to a writer than a Pepsodent smile.

Anyway, I like to think you punched your piano in the mouth.

I only briefly took up the clarinet. I love playing it, my head vibrating with pleasure whenever I’d create an actual, on-key note, like the music and my brain were one in the same, and the music was coming out of my brain and into the instrument rather than the other way around. After only a month or so, my parents made me quit. (Most parents beg their kids to take up music but, sadly, mine were not most parents.)

Chuck has an old sax. It was his father’s, and sits in our closet, waiting patiently. One day I’ll buy a reed for it and pick up where I left off.

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Aurelio August 13, 2009 at 9:00 am

Hah – we had similar mental images reading this! (My post is above.)

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Nathalie August 13, 2009 at 9:16 am

What was wrong with the frogs?

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SusanHenderson August 13, 2009 at 4:35 pm

The frogs were wonderful and we had them for a few years. But feeding them was work because they either have to eat live mealworms (no way) or live crickets. So every week, I had to go to the pet store and buy crickets, which, in large quantities, actually smell really awful. And then you have to feed the live crickets rotten oranges. And then the frogs learned how to open the top of the tank if they slammed into it hard enough. And we found one, months later, in the basement, but it had been in the dark so long that it became something of an albino frog. In the end, we released them into a frog pond full of cat tails and little fish. Now, we only have cats and dogs, though I’m open to ducks and otters…

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SusanHenderson August 13, 2009 at 4:39 pm

That is so awesome – punching the piano in the mouth!

I was such a quiet, simmering handful growing up, and the funny thing was I was constantly mistaken for that girl in the Exorcist.

What a great thing, how your head vibrated with the sound of the clarinet! Next time you and Chuck visit, bring the sax.

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SusanHenderson August 17, 2009 at 3:54 pm

FYI, Clifford Garstang ‘s linked short story collection, IN AN UNCHARTED COUNTRY, is available for pre-order: http://www.press53.com/BioCliffordGarstang.html

Yay, Cliff!

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Shanti Rose August 18, 2009 at 2:19 am

Great post, so whimsical yet also profound, as only “from the mouths (or minds) of babes” can be. Thanks for sharing.

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SusanHenderson August 18, 2009 at 5:34 am

Thanks for being here!

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robertwestfield August 19, 2009 at 8:49 am

Wow! A great post, Susan. What a beautiful thematic progression…I hope it turns up in a novel one day.

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SusanHenderson August 19, 2009 at 9:59 am

Anyone see this from Barney Frank? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nYlZiWK2Iy8 I love it when someone finds just the right words to capture what I’m thinking!

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SusanHenderson August 19, 2009 at 10:02 am

The novel I sold to HP is narrated by the kind of kid who could chip every key on the piano. 🙂

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robertwestfield August 19, 2009 at 10:46 am

I’m so looking forward to reading it. 🙂

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billybones August 20, 2009 at 3:47 pm

Mmmmm. Secrets are very heavy things to carry around. Perhaps even heavier than pianos.

I’m guessing you’d snip pieces off your computer keyboard if there was someone sitting next to you telling you what words to type, too.

Have you been keeping up your practice on those imaginary instruments, by the way?

Best,
Billy

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SusanHenderson August 23, 2009 at 9:35 am

Tell us a secret, Bones.

(And yes, I’m on fire with all of my imaginary talents!)

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billybones August 23, 2009 at 9:56 am

I don’t have very many, because I’m terribly bad at keeping them and because I grew up with parents who collect secrets. They have a very sharp eye for that sort of thing, so it’s hard to keep things from them. But I will tell you one about the man who types up my stories. He was molested by one of his parents’ friends a very long time ago. Now, that may sound like a very heavy thing to carry around, but he was smart enough share the information with his parents while he was still a young man.

I am very glad that you haven’t abandoned your imaginary talents. I find it is VERY important to practice them every day. If I didn’t, I’d cease to exist.

Best,
Billy

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SusanHenderson August 23, 2009 at 11:09 am

I hope his parents were so proud of his courage and then got rid of any friends who have no business being around children. xo

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maryannestahl August 24, 2009 at 10:24 am

oh I love this story! the tank full of frogs! Mr. Henderson is the best!

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SusanHenderson August 24, 2009 at 2:25 pm

Yes, he is.

(Hi MAS!)

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Juliet September 29, 2009 at 4:59 pm

Susan Henderson, you rock.

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SusanHenderson September 30, 2009 at 8:47 am

xox

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