Piano Man

Late in his brief career as a New York City public school teacher, at the end of the school year, there was a change to the schedule that meant my husband had to collect his sixth grade class from the music room, which was in another building, across the street.

He arrived to find them, not standing on risers, but slumped in their seats, some were reading or drawing, not misbehaving but enduring. The class was like a waiting room of the powerless and resigned. Up at the front of the room, their teacher sat in an equally desultory manner at a piano, playing a popular song from 1890s.

The song he sang, “Sidewalks of New York,” describes the growing up and apart of urban youth of the Victorian era, of days gone by and life in the city as it was then. It could have led to an interesting discussion of how children’s lives in the city had changed, or how music was made popular before radio, or how music can engender nostalgia. My husband was then reading Luc Sante’s Low Life, an engaging piece of research on that era, and knew the song from that book. On weekends we strolled the sidewalks of New York looking for glimpses of its former self along the Bowery and among the tenements by the Manhattan Bridge, to spot the windows of illegal sweatshops leaking steam or the ghosts of old signs that indicated dives, flophouses and bunco parlors.

In the same manner of squinting into the past, one might have sought to find vestiges of an alert and engaged teacher somewhere in this music classroom. The fug of boredom, the obsolescence of the song might inspire a Brutalist reposnse. Tear it all down. There is nothing worth saving here.  What had inspired him to start singing this song to his students? Whatever it was, he had long ago given up.

“What was going on in there?” my husband asked one of the students on their way back to class.

“We’ve been singing that song all year,” was the reply. It was by then May or June. They had survived the worst of it.

And maybe the children had been singing it at one point, but they weren’t anymore. The teacher was on his own. His was the only voice lifted in song, if you could say it was lifted. The children were silent. They were neither participants nor an audience, but fellow prisoners assiduously ignoring him while serving time together in the institution he had created in his classroom. When the student said “we” have been singing he was acknowledging that bond.

However good or bad your teacher or school is there will always be moments of institutional tedium. School is about being with other people. It will involve waiting, listening, not running in the halls, and being on a timetable you didn’t create, being part of a group. Some of us are better suited to that than others. But moments are one thing, a year is another.

I was lucky to have had good music teachers. They became the song, each note, each phrase, and the class flowed. You sang, you mastered songs, new songs were introduced, you filed onto the risers, you performed. Over the years, we sang a lot of show tunes, a lot of Beatles, some traditional, one by e. e. cummings, which if you get a couple of us together, I bet we could sing for you, remembering the way that Mr. Davis enunciated, “A wistful LiTT-Le clowN/whoM SomeBoD-Y burie-D/upsideDowN/in an ash….baR-ELL…” stamping the time in pointy shoes. He was fierce and intense. Each breath mattered.

In the spring, faculty and staff where I have worked are invited to join the choir to sing at commencement. I should do that, I would always think, and finally last spring I did. At school and as parents, we are always encouraging children to step outside of their comfort zones, take risks, try new things. If you don’t ever do it yourself, the words will start to ring hollow.

I had forgotten how hard it is to learn a piece of music. Our piece was “Things that Never Die,” with lyrics by Charles Dickens that do not rhyme and an alto part that is hard and high. The director provides the song in a series of MP3 files that isolate each part. I listen in the car and sing along when I am alone. We have only four rehearsals. What if I forget the lyrics or miss the cue to join or to fade? Fear adds drama to the proceedings.

I have not stretched my voice in a long time, but at the same time I record some readings (from this blog) for the radio. I am a person who shies away from the sound of her own voice, but I am learning to slow down and breathe, to focus on the timing. One page of text becomes a lot of ground to cover.

Singing takes more concentration than I had imagined. This was how the time flew by in chorus. Some days you pick up in the middle of the song or at the end. You seldom work through it start to finish. Not the same way every time, for a year. When you read for the radio, you slow down at the last line to let it sink in. It might be the only thing that people really hear.

Think of a man who sings the same song every day, who used to love to sing. His voice, his fingers on the keys, the ideas that flow, the memories of a time the song describes. How had he settled on this song, of all the songs, not “American Pie,” rich with history and code, which an older boy had explained to us in our Middle School chorus, or a song of his own youth, whenever that had been.

What is the sound of a voice falling on deaf ears? A nostalgia for nothing, not even a desire to escape, just waiting like 30 children trapped in a room or a man trapped in a job.

Writing can be like all of these things: solitary, pointless or giving voice. But as I slow down here at the end what should I leave with you with? A warning against stagnation, the cautionary tale of a burned out hack, a boast that I conquered a fear, or just a note of thanks? Thank you for listening.

Image: Cover from sheet music of “The Sidewalks of New York”, by Charles B. Lawlor and James W. Blake. New York: Richmond-Robbins, Inc., 1914


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