Steinway in the Stairway


The four of us could never quite understand why mother was willing to put so much emotional energy into keeping us sitting at the piano bench or in front of a music stand. She never seemed to give up; whether it was cajoling, complimenting, castigating, or just counting, she seemed always to be there with the right support for the right moment.

I remember one day in the sixth grade when I left for school in a huff. I had spent my ritual hour at the piano, and mother was bugging me for more. “Going through the pieces” for an hour a day was just not satisfactory to her. She was determined to get at least some moderate form of concentration and occasionally some improvement. I was through! I grabbed my coat, shouted, “I will never touch the piano again!” and slammed the door with finality.

My family had moved recently from a comfortable, modest home in Idaho to a tiny, garden apartment in Morristown, New Jersey. My father was on a two-year training assignment with his company in New York City, and the family budget was pretty thin. All four of us children lived in one bedroom, with just room enough for the beds. Dixie, a junior in high school and by this time a rather resigned violinist, and Shawna, a third-grader and beginning piano student, slept in a double bed which dominated the room. I slept on a collapsible army cot, and the rest of the space was taken up with Theron’s crib. Our clothing was relegated to one small drawer per child in the dressing table squeezed into mom and dad’s bedroom.

Mother had made one major demand when the company asked dad to take on this new assignment. Our second-hand furniture—mainly the ancient, heavy, upright piano—would have to be transferred to New York with us. Dad’s company consented, and the piano made it as far as the first landing of our second-story apartment. There, standing on end, it could proceed only if we took the wall out—and could exit the building only over mother’s dead body. She got quite a ribbing from us: “Are you going to pay for levitation lessons, too, or are we to study ‘sideways’ piano from an accordion teacher?” “I get to lie on top when we practice duets!” We all insisted that her major concern was how she could possibly assume her accustomed position on the piano bench next to us.

Parents’ council was held in the bedroom one night, and a decision came down: mom and dad would be going into New York the following Saturday to select a smaller piano that would fit up the stairs. How they ever swung it financially, we have never found out; but soon the most prominent piece of furniture in our tiny living room was a little Steinway spinet with beautiful action and blessedly in tune.

For a few days, there were battles over who would get to practice first. Mom’s triumph was short-lived, however, and soon she was back at the piano bench, crocheting and cajoling. She was never really an artist’s artist, but she knew what right notes were, and she could tell when the tempo would begin to switch to automatic rather than from the heart. “Now, Claynie,” she would say, “it sounds to me as if the horse is running away with the cart a little bit. Slo-o-ow it down, slo-o-ow it down …”

It was a moment of glory for her when I was finally able to play well enough to accompany Dixie in church. We always thought it was just because she loved to show us off; but I suspect now that she sensed a musicality in us which she knew she did not possess, and she had to wait patiently until our fingers caught up with our hearts.

We were permitted some time (after practicing, of course) with radio’s Roy Rogers and the Green Hornet. But when the neighbors began to get television sets, our afternoons began to be spent across the court at the neighbors’ and mom knew she would have to lure us with another tactic. Emerging from another parents’ council, mom and dad announced that they would spend another Saturday in New York City, this time to buy one of those new console record players with a good fidelity radio. Somehow the Longinnes Symphonette and the Whittnaur Choraliers on Sunday and the Firestone hour on Monday evening were not bringing enough musical inspiration into our home. The old crank-up, army surplus record player had long since worn out all of its replaceable steel needles, and the often-played recordings of “Golden Earrings” and “Little Brown Jug” were scratched almost beyond recognition.

This time, after much pleading by us two older children, it was finally agreed that we would all make the Saturday excursion, as long as we would promise to stay in the car while mom and dad picked out the right model. As I remember, Dixie and I were finally called in to give our artistic approval to the model selected. We came home with two recordings—a 78 rpm album of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, a 9-inch, 33 rpm of short Chopin piano pieces, and a Fritz Kreissler record. The Hansel and Gretel was meant to lure us into the opera, and the Chopin and Kreissler were performance models. I had already begun to learn one or two of the Chopin waltzes, and for the next several days I rushed home after school every day to see whether the record player had been delivered yet.

Mom’s strategy worked again, this time for several solid months. We quickly wore that long-play record out, along with the fancy sapphire needle. Dad insisted on also buying a half dozen Stan Kenton 45 rpm’s, but if he wasn’t around, there was never any doubt in our minds what mom’s reaction would be if we played anything but classical: “Come on, children, you really don’t like that stuff. You are just trying to tease me.” She was probably right, but that flashy plastic 45 rpm turntable was an attractive toy.

Mom’s best friend was music director in the East Orange Branch, so the Robison children ended up playing everything that was appropriate for church as often as mom’s friend could fit us in. And if it wasn’t acceptable for sacrament meeting, we played it in MIA. She was smart enough to know that approval would keep us going.

Nor was dad against the enterprise. After all, his slim budget was covering the payments on those major purchases and the music lessons. He struck a subtle but effective bargin with us: “You can take regular music lessons from the best teacher we can find as long as you will promise to practice an hour a day (we knew mother wouldn’t let us out of it, anyway) and perform for company without complaining whenever we ask you.” Somehow he made taking lessons enough of a “privilege” to make us willing to suffer the “burden” of stringing out a parade of “Humoresques” and Chopin waltzes for every stray visitor who entered the house.

And there were many stray visitors. I hardly remember a Sunday dinner when somebody wasn’t sharing the table with us—either a new family in the branch or a soldier from the local army base; and there was always a young playmate from the ward for each of us. We would trade off Sunday dinners so that we could enjoy good Mormon companionship for those few precious hours between thirty-mile rides home from Sunday School and back to sacrament meeting. Mom knew that those visits were more important than practicing.

We had a hard time figuring out why our parents were so anxious for us to learn to perform good music that they would assume the financial and emotional pressures involved. And except for the fact that mom probably would have stopped speaking to him, we never could figure out how dad put up with three novices learning to play the violin. He never really loved classical music, and I think if the truth were out, amateur violin playing was particularly distasteful to him. But they both somehow endured the hardships.

There were of course some dangers in their program. What if one of us had really decided to become a professional musician? They were willing to take that risk, although there was never any doubt in our minds that they would feel safer for us if we would pursue a nonmusical career. The concern for music in our home was not for the music itself, but for what it would do for our broader character.

It is only today that I, as a parent, begin to appreciate the vision of those two good people. We always joked about their caring more that we be good musicians than that we be good people; but for Mom at least, those two attainments were inextricably connected. Playing an instrument well led to that kind of discipline which would make a good missionary, a good provider, a good parent. Playing an instrument well would lead you into companionships with children who had also developed discipline, children who had a constructive place to spend their leisure hours. Playing an instrument well would lead you to appreciate the beauty of the rest of God’s creations. Playing an instrument well would give you self-respect and confidence in the midst of people. If you could stand up to the roughnecks calling you a “Fauntleroy” because you played the piano and had to practice every afternoon, you could stand up to teenage friends who would tempt you by social pressure into smoking and drinking and throwing around casual caresses. It was a worthy testing ground for all of those preliminary Mosaic virtues of discipline, obedience, and sacrifice.

To be sure, we haven’t been perfect. Some of the struggles of living the higher laws of love and charity we have had to discover in other fiery furnaces, and often later in life. We also had to struggle like everyone else for our testimonies of the restored gospel—but we found ourselves in the right place at the right time to receive those testimonies because we had learned to do what we were supposed to do even when we really didn’t want to do it. That I have never been able to miss a priesthood meeting, I must attribute in part to the fact that I was taught the discipline of practicing my piano at least an hour a day. I practiced even when I hated the piano teacher, dreaded the lesson, despised my mother’s tenacity, wanted to scream at the grating of violin squeaks in my ear, and yearned desperately to sneak across the court and watch “Howdy Doody” on that exciting new television set.

How can one possibly weigh that parental gift to us against the emotional and financial hardship it caused them? Although I honestly feel that there will be many in the celestial kingdom who have no appreciation for a Chopin waltz beautifully played, or who cannot differentiate between an organ prelude played to bring tears and one which merely covers the noise until the opening prayer, I am nonetheless convinced that my own chances of living close to the Spirit have been tangibly increased because of my mother’s vision.

It was a vision that never faltered. And as I bounded up the stairs for lunch that day so many years ago, having almost forgotten my promise never to touch the piano again, I noticed an envelope on the piano bench with my name on it. Mom had spent a good part of her morning writing a loving, encouraging letter to me. It must have been ten pages long. I read it carefully and sat down to practice. She didn’t have to join me on the piano bench for several days.

[illustration] Illustrated by G. Allen Garns

Clayne Robison, associate professor of music at Brigham Young University and father of six, works with the young men in his Provo, Utah, ward.