Inexplicably, Eliana was upset when Susan called to resume her lessons, and when Eliana was upset, she reached for Bach. The two- and three-part inventions soothed her with their crystal order and familiarity. She had thought about Susan often in the past year, but she had been sure she would never see her again.
Susan had persisted in her piano lessons, even through the initial diagnosis, radiation, and surgery. She was one of Eliana’s few adult pupils, more than a decade older than Eliana and not a great musician (no ear), but conscientious. The worse the treatments, the more she practiced. Once or twice her husband called to say she couldn’t make it, but for almost a year, she was there every two weeks, ready to play, to listen, to be corrected, to try new material, and to ignore the malignancy which had otherwise taken over her life.
Teacher and student couldn’t have been more different. Eliana was a transplant from Argentina; a music scholarship had gotten her into the conservatory in Boston and an American husband had kept her in New England. She was dark and dramatic, loud and emotional. She wore multiple scarves and long earrings. Only her fingers were humble – nails unpolished and cut close and square, no rings – not even a wedding band. And, of course, she was musical. Even when she was looking in the opposite direction, she could tell when Susan hit a wrong note and what the note should have been. “That was meant to be a C-sharp!” she would cry in her Latin accent, bringing the music to a stop. Susan would then start over again.
Susan was pale and her hair was a mixture of pure white and pale auburn. She had been a redhead in her youth, but her temperament never matched her hair. She wore no jewelry, except for her gold wedding band, and her clothes were strictly LL Bean. Susan had learned her manners well in her Boston Brahmin youth, had studied art at Vassar, and then went on to get a “useful” degree in library science. Like most girls of her class and generation, she had piano lessons from age eight until she left for college; she always enjoyed it but never had any real promise, and without an ear she was little use even on social occasions. But late in her life – when her own children had stopped their own piano lessons and left home – she decided to try again. Her hairdresser recommended Eliana.
The hairdresser was one of a few things they had in common. They both had an adult child – Eliana had a disappointing daughter and Susan had a son who had disappeared from his parents’ radar during his junior year of college. They both had their original husbands, husbands they were not exceedingly enthusiastic about. Eliana ranted about her husband and cried about her daughter. Susan just didn’t talk about her husband, and only mentioned her son when some confirmation that he was still alive (usually through a request for money) had surfaced. Eliana gave lessons and still had fading hopes of making it as a soloist, or at least a part of a classical trio or quintet. While she taught at home and the music school, Eliana was occasionally asked to play with a chamber group or vocalist for a concert, but those offers were dwindling. It was clear that she had peaked without having reached the summit, even though she would not admit it – internally or externally. Susan had been a librarian at the local community college, and had retired after her diagnosis.
Eliana told Susan everything about her life – from her unsatisfactory sex life to her ungrateful daughter. Susan told Eliana almost nothing. But there was no hiding it when Susan got ill. For a few weeks she oozed tears while she played her assigned pieces, prompting Eliana to drag the truth out of her. And then she started to lose weight, develop dark circles around her eyes, and shake when she tried to hold a chord. Finally she told Eliana she couldn’t go on.
“It’s too hard to practice. I can’t concentrate. I’m so sorry.”
Eliana thought of the handsome hourly rate she got for adult pupils and was sorry about that. Eliana did not have much experience with empathy, but she did feel for with this poor woman who tried so hard and seemed to love the music even though Eliana sometimes doubted whether she could really hear it.
“That is too bad. I’m sure you will feel better soon – just play when you have a chance and call me when you are feeling up to it.”
“No, I’m sorry.” Susan was calm. She had gotten used to giving this news. “It’s terminal. I am not going to get better. I am just going to finish this course of chemo and then there’s nothing they can do.” Susan sat quietly on the black piano bench with her hands in her lap. Eliana moved to give her a hug, but couldn’t manage more than a pat on the shoulder and a few suggestions about what kind of music might make her feel better – Bach, of course.
There was one more feeble attempt at a hug at the door, and Eliana thought she had seen the last of Susan. She kept thinking about her though. Although Eliana never much considered death, she did worry that she would die without ever making her mark as a musician. It had seemed so clear when she was young. In the small town of Marica where she grew up, she had been a phenomenon; when she left for her education in the United States, the whole town had come to a fund-raising recital she gave in the town hall. Even at the conservatory, she was considered a marvel, a tiny bird that could make the piano sound like a lark.
When there was no immediate interest in Eliana as a soloist upon her graduation, she went on to graduate school, meanwhile working with an agent and expanding her repertoire. She got a doctorate, but – other than a gig as an emergency fill-in for a Beethoven piano concerto with a small regional orchestra – nothing happened. Other pianists took up the organ to get full-time church positions or worked with other student musicians to form trios or quartets; Eliana was not ready to compromise. And so she ended up giving piano lessons, taking whatever performance opportunities that became available, and nursing her bitterness.
Eliana was married to an oboe student who gave up early, got an MBA, and worked a regular job with an investment firm. They had built a house with an attached studio for Eliana, but Eliana seemed to have little appreciation of her family. Susan thought that Eliana blamed her daughter and husband for the deterioration of her career.
“I had a chance to go to Paris,” she told Susan at one of their early lessons. “But I was pregnant and Gus wouldn’t let me.”
“If we lived nearer New York, there would be more opportunities,” Eliana complained at another time. “Boston just doesn’t have the volume of concerts that New York does.”
Susan would nod and go back to her music, asking questions about the notation and otherwise trying to get Eliana off the subject.
When Susan resumed her lessons, Eliana was still unhappy. She did not know quite what to say to her dying pupil, but was amazed that Susan worked harder than ever at her scales, her moderately difficult pieces of Chopin or Beethoven, and at not feeling sorry for herself.
One day Eliana interrupted Susan’s halting rendition of a Chopin waltz. “You are doing amazing.”
Susan looked up in astonishment. “I’ve only had the piece for two weeks and I don’t think I’ve gotten through any two bars without a wrong note. Amazingly bad, maybe.” She smiled.
“No, no. Not the piano. You are doing well to keep smiling. Keep playing the piano. Even with your… sickness.” Eliana often stumbled for the right English word when speaking, but this time she stumbled because she knew the right word and just could not bring herself to say it. And because Susan’s determination regarding the piano completely puzzled her.
“I’m doing OK. Once you realize you don’t have to fight anymore it’s easier. Even the piano is easier – it really doesn’t really matter but I like playing and I like lessons.” Susan stared at the keyboard as you spoke, making Eliana wonder how easy it really was.
“Anyway, I’m so glad you decided to come back.” Eliana was sincere; she felt somehow deeply honored that the lessons meant so much to Susan in the face of her limited time. Eliana always felt that she didn’t have enough time – time to practice, give lessons, network for performance opportunities, be a wife, be a mother. The latter made Eliana think of Susan’s son.
“Does Joey know that you are ill?”
“He knows.” Susan stopped staring at the keyboard and fumbled for the right page in the book of Czerny exercises.
And so it went. Eliana got an opportunity to play with a trio whose pianist was on maternity leave; Susan came to the concert. Susan started to have her husband drive her to her lessons – Eliana invited him in, but he was happy to read in the car or on the front porch. Susan got smaller and paler. Eliana noticed the trio got a different sub for their next concert. Normally, that would have sent her into a passionate Latin rage, but a few minutes after she had found out, Susan was there for her lesson and that calmed her down.
For Susan was very calm and this manifested itself in a number of ways. For one, her playing got better but it slowed way down. Even marches started to sound like ballads. Eliana had always advocated slow practice; Rubinstein was famous for saying you couldn’t practice too slowly. But it was supposed to be progressive – slowness as an antecedent to speed. Susan seemed to have no interest in speed. When Eliana suggested speeding up Mozart’s Turkish March, Susan said she liked it better slow. And, Eliana had to admit, it was an entirely different piece slow.
Susan – as in the case of tempo – also stood up to Eliana more than she had in the past. Eliana was used to selecting her students’ pieces, but Susan began to come armed with music she wanted to tackle. Even here, though, there was no urgency. She worked on one or two of these pieces at a time and often came back prepared only to play one for her teacher – and to play it at a meditative pace.
Susan was clearly fading though. She had been working on the second movement of Beethoven’s Pathétique sonata – something that she and Eliana agreed was one of the most beautiful pieces of music in the world. It was slow anyway – adagio cantabile– but there was no musical notation for the glacial pace at which Susan played it. Eliana was at first irritated, but then found herself balancing on each long note as she leaned forward for the next one… which would finally be released and the entire process would start again.
Then, at the end and without warning, Susan paged back to the beginning of the piece, to the thunderous first movement with its minor key and huge dissonant chords – all the more dissonant because Susan was hitting so hard so many wrong notes. Eliana was perplexed by hearing the movements in reverse order; the whole effect of the Pathétique came from the peace of the second movement which helped you recover from the first. Here the peace was shattered; there was no reconciliation. Susan got through the first theme and then took her hands off the piano and started to pack up the old blue leather portfolio she always used for her sheet music.
“I have to go,” Susan said with a finality. Eliana just nodded. By the time Eliana’s husband came home, she was playing the second invention, which happened to be in the same key as the opening movement of the Beethoven sonata. And she was playing it very slowly.