You look at the keyboard, a small sigh escaping your mouth. This will be the third time that you have played your scales this lesson. And more importantly, it is not a private lesson, but one with other pupils present.
Is the purpose of honing musical skills meant to be practice, or humiliation? you wonder hopelessly. I do not wish to make a fool of myself in front of these other students.
“Again,” he urges but not unkindly. Yes, I do not want to make a fool of myself again, you think with impatience. Your nails dig into your palms slightly; he cannot see the crescent scars but he can see the tenseness within your muscles. A stern instructor is Bach; stern but patient and seemingly ever-knowing. The small basement feels smaller, with ten pairs of eyes seated behind you. A fire crackles in the fireplace, startling you for a moment.
You try not to pout but you are tired and overwhelmed. “But why?” you ask, whining like a small child. “These are scales. Finger-exercises which are simple. A master like you must be bored out of your mind, hearing the same notes over and over!”
The ghost of a smile crosses Bach’s face. His black eyes twinkle as he regards you. “If they are simple, my student, then why have you made mistakes three times over?” he inquires. The question, as much as you have been expecting it, still irks you. “Mistakes have been made because I am bored and tired,” you say with heat in your voice. It’s three o’clock in the afternoon, and you have been in this class since after the noonday meal.
“Ah,” he says with sympathy, shifting in his chair slightly. “When the brain is heavy and the eyelids cannot stay open, it is indeed difficult for concentration to remain sharp,” he intones. Rising, he stands behind you to your left. He situates himself so that his pinky rests above the low c on the small, out-of-tune keyboard. “We will begin, but slowly–and more importantly, one hand at a time.”
You try not to let your frustration show. You have been studying your skills diligently for two weeks now. A small part of you does know that these are necessary to know, but you don’t want to learn them! You want to learn the fast music, the thrilling music which you have heard Bach play in taverns, in lessons, and even in church. But you sense that he knows your impatience and unrest.
“Again,” he says. “First I will play; watch my hands, and then you imitate. Then we will play this scale together; once ascending, then descending.” He demonstrates with a slow tempo, and you marvel at the accuracy his short, compact fingers have over this simple instrument. Can this man make any keyboard sing, no matter its temperance and appearance?
You watch carefully, then take in a deep breath. This lesson is, so far, like all the others. Bach would coach you, demonstrate, coach some more, and then demonstrate again. But not just with you, oh no; this was the same process with all the other students. You met here, twice a week, for two or three hours–whatever Bach’s schedule could afford. How you often have longed for it to be winter so he could be more occupied with writing funeral music!
You exhale slowly and begin to play, your left pinky first, then your ring finger, then your middle finger, then your pointer finger–but crossing over from the thumb to middle finger is clunky and awkward. You pause here and there, and your rhythm is unsteady, like a drunk man who is wearing two left shoes.
His voice is slightly sterner this time. “Again,” he emphasizes. “But this time you will choose your tempo and stay with it throughout. And this tempo will be strict until your fingers play with ease,” he instructs. You settle your hand to its proper position. “One…two…three…four,” you count out loud, pausing before playing the final notes. Your hand travels up the octave; on striking the final c, you descend without a hitch. Upon the final resonance of the note, you exhale a breath you didn’t know you held. You had done it!
Bach nods a little in approval. But he is not fully pleased yet. “Now, with you right hand,” he suggests, and the entire process is repeated. You struggle once or twice; all eyes behind you are fixed to your back–you can tell—and the fading sunlight casts streams of illumination on the wall.
Bach shifts from where he is standing. “Good,” he admonishes, the soft tone of his voice making the hairs on your neck stand at attention. “Now, you will repeat the process—“
“Again?” you guess, then mentally chastise yourself for interrupting. Bach hated to be interrupted but you are excited at having done so well. He pauses, and takes a breath. “Again, yes,” he begins. “But you will begin with c major, at the bottom of the keyboard, and ascend in this manner: major, then minor, and a half-step above, and so repeat until you have climbed an octave.” The students behind you seem surprised and startled; not all of you have mastered all twelve scales (not to mention the fact that some are unbearable to even listen to!).
“All right,” you say, settling your left hand to its position—
—“but this will be accomplished with both hands.”
Oh, you think. Recollecting on the previous hour you have spent at this keyboard, your face grows pale. Bach senses your unease; with a comforting tone, he says, “Tempo may be of your choosing, but be strict and diligent,” he commands. “Begin when you are ready,” he says, and settles back into the chair beside you. From his body language, you glean that there is nowhere else Bach would rather be. The man seems so at ease here, attending to his students (as bothersome as the task may be!) that he could not fathom being at home, eating a warm meal provided by his wife, or practicing his own music, or even puffing a pipe on the porch of a nearby tavern while watching the stars at night.
You think of all these things that he could be doing, that he might well rather be doing. But then you realize that he, a master of the keyboard, merely has the wish that all his students may one day reach his level of virtuosity. And in order for students to learn, they must be taught; and who to teach them other than him?
You collect your thoughts and settle your breathing. In, out, in, out, you think slowly; one, two, three, four. Both hands are in position; your left pinky is over the low c while your right thumb settles on the c an octave higher. The tempo is set in your head; all you need to do is connect your mind to your fingers. Ready, and…play! you think.
And sure enough, slowly (but not in a too painstaking nor labored fashion) your fingers connect with the wooden keys, the strings are plucked, and soon the scales of all twenty-four keys have been played. Not once does your mind falter or your fingers slip; while the process has taken five or ten minutes, your concentration has not wavered.
Upon striking the final dual c‘s with your left pinky and right thumb, you lean back and almost fall off the small bench. You sigh, your shoulders going limp as they had been quite tense, and your arms fall dramatically to your legs. “I…I did it!” you say excitedly, childlike joy in your voice. Yes, you have done it; not only for the first time but in front of all the other students too. They nod in approval, and someone claps softly.
“Yes,” Bach says after a few moments, sitting in the chair while regarding you. “You have done well,” he intones, shifting his gaze to the window. The shadows on the wall have become longer and larger; it must be later in the day, you figure. “We are dismissed for today,” he tells the class in a louder voice, and then to you, “Next class we meet, you will begin with that exercise.” You nod, determined to impress your teacher again in a couple days. On your walk home, it feels like your feet hardly touch the ground; you are elated! “So this is how he is such a wonderful player of the keyboard!” you shout out loud, skipping in the streets, startling some geese and pigeons which launch into the sky.
Repetition and diligence, you think to yourself—that’s the proper way! You’ll hardly be able to sleep tonight, or even stomach dinner; you cannot wait to hone your newly-instructed way of practicing. But in your elation, your foot catches on the side of a merchant’s booth. Then you are falling to the ground suddenly, an arm outstretched to ward off the grasp of gravity when a lightening-pain hits your wrist and you hear a dull snap. On the ground you roll, clutching your wounded appendage in agony, with tears of pain replacing tears of joy.