Chapter 1 

My college professors never said a word about problem students, and my text books never even gave a hint that problem students existed. 

Page after page was filled with pictures of smiling parents, obedient, well-behaved pets and students running to greet their music teacher at the door.

  • I was a fairly good piano student. I was no Mozart, mind you, but I did okay. As I contemplated becoming a piano teacher after college, I just figured that every piano student would be like me when I was a kid; eager to learn, paid attention, learned new material in a reasonable amount of time and never complained or talked back.

I often thought to myself, “how hard could it be to teach someone how to play the piano?” Most kids are good kids and want to please their teachers, right? Really, how hard could it be?

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It was a hot muggy day in the city. I could feel the sweat as it poured down my face.

As I laid there on the floor, dazed and confused, trying to figure out what was sticking out of my forehead, the words of my first college professor began to drift through my semiconscious mind: 

“If you’re going to teach music, then I highly recommend that you do it in a classroom setting. If at all possible, avoid teaching in an uncontrolled environment.”

He really didn’t elaborate, or maybe he did and I just didn’t hear him. In any event, as I sat up and attempted to pull the object off my forehead, I was beginning to understand what he meant. However, I never thought of someone’s living room as an uncontrolled environment. 

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When I started piano lessons at 5-and-a-half-years-old, I was fortunate to have a teacher who came to our home. When I decided to start teaching piano twenty years later, I figured that every home would be like the one I grew up in. I also figured that I’d be treated the way my piano teacher was treated in our home — and I was looking forward to it with great anticipation. 

  • After all, my mom always offered my piano teacher a comfortable chair with padded seat cushions. After he was seated, she’d offer him something to drink — hot coffee in the winter, and home-made iced-tea in the summer…and not some store-bought, powered iced-tea mix.

My dad had his own special recipe for making iced-tea. You couldn’t drink just one glass. It was the perfect refreshment on a hot summer day. 

I grew up in a small family. It was just me, my sister, and my mom and dad — but with the way we went through my dad’s iced-tea, especially in the summer, you’d have thought it was a family of ten.

I would not have been the least bit surprised if we didn’t have some kind of special budget or savings account devoted to our special summer-time brew. Needless to say, anyone outside of my immediate family who got even one glass of my dad’s home-brewed iced-tea was definitely getting VIP treatment.

Every day from early April to the end of October, (baseball season), I’d watch my dad fill a clear, pitcher-sized jar with filtered water, flavored tea bags and just the right amount of honey. A few hours in the sun and then four hours in the ‘fridge and it was ready for human consumption, and boy was it worth the wait! 

  • It was without a doubt the best iced-tea I have ever tasted. My dad would always tell me that he added a special ingredient when I wasn’t looking, like I had forgotten about this little secret from the day before — but it seemed like he really needed to tell me, as if it was an integral part of the process, so I always acted surprised, like it was the first time I had heard this earth-shattering news. Looking back, he needed to tell me about this secret ingredient as much as I needed to be present at the time my dad’s magical formula was being concocted. 

My dad’s iced-tea was normally just for the immediate family, which is why I remember my piano teacher being treated like such royalty. He always got a refill of my dad’s special brew, and he didn’t even have to ask. I couldn’t wait to grow up and start my piano teaching career. What a life!

  • I also remember our house being a comfortable 72 degrees in the winter and an extremely comfortable 72 degrees in the summer. And all distractions coming from other rooms were silenced at least 10 minutes before my piano teacher arrived — just in case he arrived a little early. 

I had to keep a sharp look out for his car pulling up to the house so I’d be ready to answer the door before he had a chance to ring the doorbell. My teacher never had to wait at the door. And there was no such thing as the last-minute search for my lesson books — they had to be out and ready to go long before my teacher arrived at our house.

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I wasn’t bleeding, but I could feel a bump starting to swell where the dart hit me. I kept trying to pull the dart, (or whatever it was), off of my forehead, but there was nothing there. I could have sworn something was protruding from just above my nose. As I started to come around, I realized that what I thought was a dart, were actually just dots of light swimming in front of me. 

But make no mistake, I was shot by a dart from some sort of high-powered air gun that knocked me clean out of my chair. The thud of me hitting the floor brought my student’s mom running into the room. She looked at me as if I’d done something to provoke the attack. 

  • My student’s brother, (the alleged shooter), swaggered out of the room as if he’d already lawyered up and knew he’d be out on bail by dinner. 

“Just wait ‘til your father get’s home, young man!” 

Yeah, little Johnny was shaking now.

Mrs. I-Don’t-Want-To-Be-Bothered-Again quickly returned to her afternoon soap opera, which I’m pretty sure the neighbors down the street could hear. 

  • I can’t imagine what I could have done to deserve a dart between the eyes. Maybe Johnny Quick Draw was tired of me telling his sister where middle C was for the umpteenth time. But with only six months of lessons under her belt, little sis was hardly to blame.

If anyone was to blame, then it had to be the guy who decided NOT to put middle C where it belonged; in the middle of the piano keyboard. 

Anyone with blinders on could see that middle C is slightly off-center. In fact, just enough off-center to make my job as a piano teacher harder than it had to be, and way more difficult than I thought it would be. 

“Why do they call it middle C, Mr. Darrow? It doesn’t look like it’s in the middle.”

Ohhh, if I had a nickel for every time…

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My guidance counselor in high school knew I had been taking piano lessons for some time and constantly talked to me about all the rewards of being a full time piano teacher.

  • He filled my head with visions of happy students going on to have successful performing careers at Carnegie Hall. As if I knew what Carnegie Hall was. I pictured this long hallway with a piano and a bunch of chairs crammed in it. I couldn’t imagine why someone would want to play in a hallway.

And I definitely don’t remember him mentioning the stinging, throbbing nodule that I’d have an inch or so above my nose — sustained from a student’s discipline-deprived brother. Well, at least someone in this family could find the middle of something. 

Of course, I had only been teaching for about 6 months at this point, and Mrs. As-The-World-Turns seemed to take great pleasure in reminding me of my inexperience.

After all, her oldest daughter, Molly, did very well with piano — but, of course, her piano teacher had been teaching for well over 15 years when she began lessons 7 years earlier. If they hadn’t had to move, her youngest daughter would be getting the same great piano instruction that Molly had received.

It seems like Molly’s piano teacher was some kind of child prodigy, or maybe a descendant of Mozart or Beethoven. And the degrees on his wall were quite impressive, or so I’m told — juuust about every week. 

  • “I don’t understand why Megan is having such difficulty. Molly knew all of the keys on the piano and all of her notes on the music staff in just a few months. Now there was a teacher who really knew what he was doing. I’m sorry Mr. Darrow, but we’re going to have to make a change if we don’t see some kind of improvement fairly soon.”

I only had about 8 or 9 students and I owned a car that was in desperate need of new brakes, so I couldn’t afford to lose a single student.

My college professor warned me about know-it-all parents and the older sibling who did so much better with the previous instructor. It was like he had the parent playbook for tormenting piano teachers. Oh, if I could have just gotten my hands on that book. There had to be some kind of counter-strategy that I could have used.

  • Johnny’s father finally did come home, but only to add his teaching expertise to the discussion. Apparently, according to the dad, Molly knew all of the keys on the piano and all of her notes on the music staff in a just a few weeks.

The only thing that was more uncomfortable than the three-legged metal, fold-up chair that I sat on each week, was the weekly reprimand from Megan’s mom and dad. To be fair, the chair did have four legs, but only three of them touched the floor at any one time.

I remember Megan’s dad crossing his arms and grilling me on the techniques I was using to address his daughter’s inability to read a single music note after a year of in-home private piano lessons. To be honest, it had felt more like two years, but it had only been six months — but who was counting? 

I’d respectfully reply with a question, asking him how much practice time Megan was getting every day. He’d  place his hands on his hips, demanding, “don’t change the subject!”

After all, the dad used to play the guitar in a weekend bar band, and even though he couldn’t read an ounce of sheet music, he just couldn’t understand why I wasn’t teaching his daughter how to read sheet music the correct way. I was tempted to ask him why he kept me on, but I bit my tongue and repeated to myself, “new brakes, new brakes, new brakes”.

Imagine my surprise, when they signed Johnny up for piano lessons a short while later. Woohoo! A whole hour in the 3-legged chair.

“New brakes, new brakes, new brakes!”

  • I think mom just needed a 30-minute break from Johnny-Dart-Gun.

It took a few more months, but Megan finally learned where middle C was, (with the help of a little sticker), but no one seemed to notice it, so I began to use stickers on all of the keys. Mom and dad know-it-all seemed genuinely impressed, and with someone with so little experience. 

And yes, I finally got to hear Molly play the piano. Now, I don’t want to say that mom and dad exaggerated the truth a bit, but I’m pretty sure they both have promising political careers ahead of them.

  • It wasn’t long before Molly enrolled in piano lessons, too. I had her reading sheet music fluently in less than six months. Her other teacher wasn’t so gifted after all, but I kept that little revelation to myself.

I almost looked forward to ringing their doorbell every week. I may have had to ring it 2 or 3 times before someone actually got around to answering the door, but you’d be amazed at the things you can overlook when you don’t have to pump your brakes 3 or 4 times to get your car to stop. 

But really, how hard could it be to teach piano?



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