“Do wrinkles hurt?”
The eleven-year-old boy asked it suddenly as we sat together on the piano bench. I had asked the student to observe my hands on the keys, showing him the proper position: curved fingers, the wrist forming a level bridge from hand to forearm.
“What?” I was caught off guard, unable to think of a simple reply. With three fingers and a thumb, he stretched the thin skin on top of one of my hands. It obligingly yielded, rising in a pale tent of tissue. He released it, and the tent slowly collapsed. “Old people have such cool skin,” he murmured.
“Okay, buster,” I retorted, gently batting his hand away. “Your turn to try this.”
I was thirty-two years of age at the time. I certainly didn’t accept the notion of myself as old. This was the first occasion a student had even hinted at such a thing. After his lesson was over, I briefly contemplated my hands, then set the moment aside. I was, after all, a young wife and mother, a teacher, a graduate student; I had no time to think about Time.
In my forties, a single parent, I continued to teach piano in addition to my full-time job as a vocal music teacher. My students continued to teach me, too.
One student, in her fifties, studied with me for eight years. She had grown up in a poor rural family, but had always wanted to play the piano. Over the years she mastered the basics, learned to play hymns and popular songs of her youth. Yet she loved the classics and we began to learn the much beloved Adagio Cantabile from Beethoven’s Sonata Pathétique. She learned the notes and rhythms readily, but neither of us could understand why certain passages were so difficult, why it didn’t sing. We labored in some frustration until one day she sighed, “Maybe it’s my hands. You’re still young; you wouldn’t understand. But I’m getting older.”
I tried to brush it off. “Oh, we all have different hands. You’ll be playing in your seventies.”
“No, look at my hands. I think it’s the arthritis.”
I looked—really looked—at her hands, seeing them for the first time. I saw the swelling and redness. I had been so focused on the music and the instrument, I had been looking right past her hands. How could I have been so blind?
I took her hands in mine. She encouraged me to feel the knobs forming at her joints. “It’s probably from the laundry.”
“Yes, that’s what the doctor thinks. I was the oldest of nine kids. My job was to hang wet laundry outside on the line. He thinks it’s a miracle I can play the piano at all, but says it’s good for my hands.”
I closed my eyes, picturing the little girl in the woods near Big Bay, her bare fingers freezing in the winter wind as she pinned up the family washing.
“Shall I play it again?” she asked.
Yes, please. Tears ran down my face this time as she played the timeless melody.
It’s been twenty years since the woman with arthritis suggested I was too young to understand, and 30 years since that boy cast me as an ‘old’ person. I still work full-time: mornings are for writing, afternoons for piano teaching. Over the years, I’ve had hundreds of students of all ages, all with something to teach me.
This fall, a new student began lessons with me, a professional woman in her forties, with a good ear and a ready laugh. She took lessons as a child. As a yoga instructor, her posture is already perfect. Her fingers curve beautifully over the keys. However, when she plays the Arabesque, I hear a brittle, tense tone. I observe how her wrists and arms are locked.
I say, “Watch me play for a moment.”
“Oh,” she exclaims, after a few measures. “You make it look so easy. Your hands move so naturally.”
“Here.” I pat the bench of my piano. “Come sit beside me. Let’s draw some circles with our wrists and elbows.”
It’s true my presbyopia makes me fiddle with myriad sets of glasses, which amuses my young students. But I wouldn’t trade the eyes I have now for anything; I see more clearly, with more openness.
It’s true my ears don’t work as well as they once did, especially that left one. But I hear my students better, for I have finally learned how to listen to them.
And even I will admit I have “old hands.” But these hands are still learning—from my own teacher, now in her mid-seventies, who guides them in making even more beautiful the music I still desire.
Esther Margaret Ayers (known to her students as Esther LaVoy Barrington) lives and writes in Marquette. She has taught piano from her home studio near McCarty’s Cove since 1983.
Reprinted with permission from Health & Happiness U.P. Magazine, Winter 2017 – 2018 Issue, copyright 2017. All rights reserved.