Mr. Chips Discovers Music

I was a weird kid.  You know the kid you have to drag to the piano bench, plop the sheet music in front of, set the timer on, threaten to ground for all eternity ,and still have to yell at in order to hear sullen plonking on the piano?

That wasn’t me.

The neighbors called.  Would my parents please get me to stop?  No more scales at 1 am?  Could I please not play the piano AT ALL before six in the morning or after 11 at night?

How unreasonable is that?  I was already using the mute pedal half the time.  I did some of my best arpeggios at 3 am.

I was ten.

My parents were so shocked to possess a child that did not despise playing a musical instrument, let alone one that wanted to play classical music, that they told the neighbors they’d get back to them.  For heaven’s sake!  This kid wants to play Chopin and Hayden.  They looked at the ceiling.  My brothers were playing The Doors and Jimmy Hendrix as loudly as possible in their respective bedrooms. No.  They were not going to stop me.

My dad bought a roll of sound-proofing foam (garage bands were big in the 60’s), and sort of bubble wrapped the piano.  And imposed a curfew.  I think I might have been the only child alive to rebel against a homework curfew.

My piano instructor, Mrs. England, only took on students she thought would make her look good (sounds oddly like some trainers in the horse show world, doesn’t it?)  and part of the privilege of paying her exorbitant sums was that her students must participate in a certain number of public performances every year.

Here’s the glitch. I had zero desire to play in front of anybody.  I hated that she was so good, because that meant  dealing with a stage.  But I learned more in one lesson with her than I had in a year’s worth of lessons with another instructor: I was staying.  The children she took on fell into two categories: savants and make-overs.  The savants didn’t exactly make her look good, because they were beyond good before she got them.  But they were nice to have in the performance stable.

I fell into the “make-over” category.  Possible spark of talent, absolutely no technique or training.  She’d give me something far too difficult for me to perform, and send me out on stage.  Then next year, after extensive training and practice, I’d get something I could ace, and she would look like a rock star.  Ta Da.  Kids that couldn’t keep acing harder and harder material got cut.

Fast forward.  Senior year of high school.

The doorbell rang.  Mrs. England stood on the step.  How bizarre was that?  I’d never seen her without a piano within reach.  Her house/studio: two grand pianos in the living room, a studio upright on one wall, two  parlor spinets in the hallway, her personal grand piano in the dining room (instant death if you touched it), and a full on pipe organ in its own room at the back of the house.  Lessons were assembly line.  Waiting student warmed up in the hall, moved to the grand for a lesson, finishing student ran over a couple of things on the other grand afterward, while next lesson warmed up in the hall.  Cacophony is about right.

She handed me an acceptance letter to Julliard.

REALLY?  But I hadn’t applied!  She’d done it for me, sending tapes along with her glowing recommendation.  All those years I thought she hated my guts, that I was hanging onto her rooster by my non-existent fingernails.  I had no illusions of grandeur.  I wasn’t remotely in the same stratosphere as the savants.  Or even the talented.  Honestly, the whole thing mystified me.  Even I knew hard work would not turn me into any kind of performer: I HATED the stage.  Maybe she thought I could teach?

I’d already picked out and been accepted at a small state college that met my strict criteria for a good school: I could bring my horse.

Bonus: the music department had 30 practice rooms, each one containing a baby grand piano (tuned weekly), and serious students could audition for a room key.  I could play the piano all day if I wanted.

Julliard, or podunk party school in the boonies?

You’re all horse people.  Did I really have a choice?  I aced the room key audition before I’d even moved the beer cans out of my dorm room.  Got a job washing dishes at the school to help pay for the dorm room, got a job at a cattle ranch doing morning feeding and weekend fence line riding to pay for my horse board, and got another job working in a movie theater at night, to help pay for my tuition.  I could study in the projection booth while the movie was playing.  Much better than a near full-ride scholarship to Julliard.

That’s the music background Mr. Chips clopped into.  I did not have my piano – yet. I silently played pieces on the kitchen table, the counters, the steering wheel.  (Habit, staying in shape.)  What had turned out to be a not-so-spiffy horse property, was the perfect piano property.  I could get my piano!  No more cops pounding on the door to make the Bach stop.  While waiting for my piano, I played classical music constantly on my record turntable.  I began to notice Mr. Chips would let himself out of the pastures after morning feedings to come nibble the grass near the house.  I thought it was to be near me.  Ah sweet ego.

He was mesmerized by the music.  I swear he closed his eyes and swayed.  He especially loved the romantics: Rachmaninoff, Debussy, Beethoven’s Fur Elise  (deceptively simple, that one.)  Pretty soon he was lifting his head and resting his muzzle on the windowsill, which was much taller than he was.  His eyes would drift, his ears get loose, his lips twitch.  Beethoven’s 9th would get him tossing his mane, bucking, rearing, and in general acting like a miniature stallion in a thunderstorm.

Roz thought he was crazy, and after coming up once or twice to see what the hoopla was about, ambled back to the bottom of the pasture, where she stayed. Hobnobbing with the cows.  They had some class issues, Roz and Chips.

I began leaving the garden gate open for Chips, so he could come closer, into the (now pony-proofed) patio area and listen.  “In the Hall of the Mountain King” completely immobilized him.  I had the feeling he was trying to understand something, as if the notes were words: if he could just break the code, he would understand everything.

In the Hall of the Mountain King is a piece that leads you gently by the note deep into the mountain, guiding you past unseen rocks and plunging drop offs, without you ever being aware of their existence.  Then it explodes all around you: the same trail of notes you followed is now a raging tempest, and you can’t tell where it’s coming from or orient yourself.

I believe, in some fashion, Mr. Chips would follow the gentle notes, so quiet and whispering, and then wonder what the heck happened when the music began ricocheting from every direction.  I believe he knew it was the same melody.  Just…different somehow.  If he could figure what made it different, the secrets of the universe would be open to him.

I would look at him, listening so intently, concentrating so hard his eyes seemed turned inward, and wonder what it meant to him.

I became concerned that he’d start talking to me, and I would understand him. He was that intense.  I was ready to twirl my own finger in circles around my right ear.

Hellllooooo: nut case…believes pony is:

  1. actually listening to the music, and
  2. he’s convinced the music contains the Meaning of the Universe.

I began idly flipping through the phone book for the number of a good psychiatrist. (Well of course, for me. I couldn’t exactly bring Mr. Chips in for analysis, could I?)

I did a practice run in my head: talk to shrink about music-loving pony…no, that sounds too normal.   An intense pony who was obsessed with In the Hall of the Mountain King.  How did I know this?  Duh, because…uh…because he looked…uh…stood…uh…listened…his eyes…dinner…

Slammed the yellow pages shut.  I value my freedom.

How did I know he was obsessed with that piece?  On weekend evenings, he’d stand outside my door and wait, leaving FOOD untouched in his stall, until he heard at least part of Mountain King come out of the speakers.

A pony.  Leaving food.  Let’s review: A Shetland Pony Waiting to Eat when he is not restrained.  Yup.  Mr. Chips was obsessed.

Then my piano was delivered, and things got even…weirder.

more to come…

Horseypants brought up a good point.  To listen Mr. Chips favorite piece of music, click: In The Hall of The Mountain King.  Or…is there anything one can’t find on YouTube??

21 thoughts on “Mr. Chips Discovers Music

  1. Uh…I want to clear up any idea I was a prodigy or brilliant musician. Not. And that’s not false modesty. I was good, once upon a time, a long long time ago. It took me quite some time to realize that by passing up the offer, someone who wanted to perform publically, and quite likely had actual talent, got that scholarship.

    Occasionally I’ll see people I knew or used to play with headlining somewhere. If you live in the SF bay area, and get a chance to go see Emil Miland in a cello performance: GO. He often has performances around Christmas time. Now HE was a prodigy, talented, and a hard worker. A genius.

  2. This is an amazing story!
    One because it sounds like you can play the piano like a great (mozart etc) and two because of the pony! That’s really cool and fascinating.
    Can’t wait to read the rest!

    1. He liked one out of The Nutcracker too, but not the one we all recognize: The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

      I think it was the Russian candy…I’ll have to listen!

      I owe you and Tucker many thanks for bringing back these wonderful memories of Mr. Chips. I think having him at the same time as Roz, who was “normal” and could care less about any of this, made me really get how different he was.

      LOL, if I can figure it out, and remember (!) maybe I can put together a playlist of Mr. Chips favorite hits. Okay I just cracked myself up here…

      1. I was citing to your blog in my post this evening and I found the Greatest Hits page! I love it! So glad that Tucker and I shook these memories loose for you. . . we are all loving the Mr. Chips stories! You may have to turn this into a book you know. . . .

  3. Chips sounds like a really special pony. I’ve never had a chance to play a musical instrument but you sound like a wonderfully talented musician. I can believe the pony was mesmerized by the music, who wouldn’t be. I was thinking of playing some classical in the barn once in a while to calm some of them down at times. As for the psychiatrist, didn’t some people used to play it to make their plants grown in the past decades? They couldn’t possibly lock you up because of a pony loving music or could they…

    1. I was afraid a non-horsey shrink would listen to me talking about a pony obsessed with Edvard Grieg and throw away the key. 🙂

      An animal liking music? Normal.

      An animal opinionated and demanding about not only which composer, but which PIECE? Whistle for a straight jacket.

      (And no, not talented, just in love with the piano and music.)

    1. It’s good to see you Gin! I know it’s crazy busy for everyone right now. I haven’t been able to keep up either. BTW, I don’t know why, but wordpress is making me re-approve comments from people who have already been on the approved list. Weird. Happy holiday to you and yours. 😉

  4. A shetland pony leaving food? Did you call the pope?

    Can’t wait for the next part.

    My daughters take piano lessons too, from an instructor with the house filled with more than a dozen pianos.

    And they say horse people become obsessed with collecting…

  5. I played the piano as a kid. I even went to a recital. Afterwards, a little old lady came up to me and asked if I’d played the Minuet in G. I said I had, and she nodded, thought for a minute, and said, “That’s nice, dear. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it played quite like that before.”

    I realize I am one of the least musical people on the planet, but I’m a little disconcerted at the thought that I’m even less musically talented than a pony…

    1. You can rest easy! I wouldn’t say Mr. Chips had any musical talent whatsoever, though he might have said that he did. He believed everything he did was brilliant. Inspired.

      Fascination maybe? An music aficionado?

      The recital: what a comment! I had my share of “That was interesting” comments after recitals or performances.

      Bad stage fright. I’d go blank. What followed wasn’t always pretty.

    1. Ahhhhh…it’s not written yet, but will try will try! Our weekend is about to explode with everyone being home!

      Sorry for the long setup on my end but it ties into where Mr. Chips went with this. Okay I’ll shut up now! 😉

      I have GOT to find a picture of him.

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