Thursday, April 22, 2010

First Lesson With Sarah Scriven (Ch.2. Pt.1)

"Sing a scale for me," Mrs. Scriven insisted at my first lesson. My mouth opened but not a sound came out. "She's shy," my mother interjected, sitting off in a corner, furiously knitting.
"She'll have to get over shyness," said Mrs. Scriven. "Singing is an essential tool for understanding music. Besides, of all instruments, violin is closest to the human voice."
"Do it, Sweetheart. Sing for Mrs. Scriven." My mother set aside her knitting needles, reached into her pocketbook, and shook a box of Vanilla Wafers.
A thin, uncertain scale emanated from my lips.
"Not bad," said Mrs. Scriven. "Definitely not bad. You don't have perfect pitch but a good sense for intonation. Now play the same scale with your violin."
Four or five notes later, "Ouch!" Mrs. Scriven's hands flew to her ears. "That was out of tune. Fix it!"
I tried again.
"Look darling. Don't be so easily satisfied. If you're out of tune—you do have ears, correct yourself. The ears lead the fingers, not the other way around."
Mrs. Scriven heaved a long sigh.
"We have a lot of work to do. You play like a mouse."

Mrs. Scriven's voice was shrill. Her studio smelled of talcum and sweat. She sprinkled Johnson's Baby Powder on her hands to smooth them. She leaned forward at the upright piano and scrutinized every note, as if peering into a microscope. Her eyeglasses rested on the tip of her nose.
During our one-hour lesson we went through an assortment of shifting exercises and Wohlfahrt Studies. By the time we got to the Seitz Concerto and a passage of double-stops, my eyes glazed over.  
"Any questions?" Mrs. Scriven asked.
Dazed, I tucked my long, brown hair behind my ears. 
I stared straight ahead at the music stand. Why did I get stuck with vanilla wafers instead of chocolate ones? At least chocolate-chip cookies would have been better.
"Can you talk?" she hissed.
"She's my baby," my mother said, gently. "I was terribly shy as a child, too. Nobody heard a peep from me when I was growing up. Like mother, like daughter, I suppose."
"Yeah? Is that so?" Mrs. Scriven's voice rose in pitch and dynamic. She whirled around on the mahogany piano stool.
"Tell me, Mrs. Kransberg. Do you always speak for your daughter?"
My mother shook her head. "Of course not."
"Marjorie's mind wanders," snapped Mrs. Scriven.
My mother looked quizzically at me.
"I understand," she said softly, while rolling up the ball of rose and pink yarn. "I assure you, Mrs. Scriven. We'll do better next lesson."

Later, in the car on the way home, my mother reasoned aloud why it was that Sarah Scriven was cranky: number one, being an artist meant that she was entitled to be difficult. Therefore, it was essential to just  accept her "artistic temperament" and not take the outbursts personally. Number two, Sarah never had children of her own. My mother paused, scratched her wig, then continued her analysis. Given that reason, how could Sarah help but become impatient with youngsters? And why hadn't she had children, anyway?
My mother glanced in the rear view mirror to catch my eye. I sat munching in the backseat, and feigned rapt attention. As she talked in circles, I bit into another wafer.

"Not only was Mrs. Scriven's husband too old by the time they were married, an almost thirty year age difference—thirty years, just imagine, Marjorie Jill," she said, clicking her tongue against the roof of her mouth. "But back in those days a woman had to choose between career and family. Not like today. And you know what else?"
I wasn't really sure whether my mother was talking to me or to herself.
"What?" I asked, my nose pressed against the window.
A driver honked, swerved, and sped past our car. "For Christ's sake lady, step on the gas!" he yelled.
 Another driver blared his horn, too, and slammed on the brakes. 
I slid down on the backseat, clutching the box of cookies. My mother drummed her fingers against the steering wheel. 
"I know," my mother said, her forefinger pointing upwards. "I should have brought Mrs. Scriven a snack, a nosh. She was probably hungry after a long day of teaching. My little dolly, why else would she get cranky with us?"
Sarah Scriven in the late 1980s