A diva for a piano teacher

Jo Anne Worley

Remember Jo Anne Worley from the Laugh-In comedy show in the sixties? If you’re under 50, you probably don’t remember her, unless you have older siblings and you remember them watching the show. Jo Anne Worley was the antithesis of Goldie Hawn’s dumb blonde pixie routine on Laugh-In. Jo Anne Worley was this loud gregarious brunette who laughed uproariously and every once in a while would suddenly emit an eardrum-breaking note in an exaggerated operatic voice. She was hilarious, much more of an actual comedienne than Goldie Hawn ever was.

As hard as I try to picture my piano teacher of 8 years who mentored me from budding 6-year-old, Fur Elise-playin’ amateur to adolescent lover of all rock-n-rollers who played the piano, as much as I appreciate now her constant nagging about my fingernails being too long and her continuous insistence that I play AT LEAST 4 or 5 hymns from our church’s hymnal every friggin’ week, every time I try to picture her face, all I see is Jo Anne Worley.

Actually, I take that back. What I really see when I try to picture Mrs. Sarah Raitch, piano teacher extraordinaire from my early childhood, is a face that’s a cross between Jo Anne Worley and Marlo Thomas in That Girl.

There are good reasons for these correlations. Number one, she wore her hair in a bouffant like Marlo Thomas in That Girl. Okay, it was the sixties, but I don’t think she changed that “do” from 1967 all the way through 1975. Plus, she was always expertly coiffed, not a hair out of place, make-up impeccable–albeit rather heavy–nails long and luxurious. She always looked like she was ready to go out. So that’s why Marlo Thomas.

As soon as I showed Mrs. Sarah Raitch that I could play the piano halfway decently, she assigned me 4 or 5 hymns each week as part of my practice. Then, when I was playing them for her at my weekly lesson, she would break out and start singing along as I played.

And I don’t mean she was quietly singing along beside me as I navigated my way through typically impossible chord inversions more suited for singers than piano players. I don’t mean she occasionally sang a line in between helping me find easier ways to play the bass in one hand and the chords in the other. Oh no, no, no! I mean she BELTED OUT THESE SONGS LIKE JO ANNE WORLEY SINGING THAT EXAGGERATED OPERATIC NOTE ON LAUGH-IN!

Ohhhhh yes! You heard me. She would sing in full operatic splendor while this little 8 or 10 or 12 year-old-girl tried my best to bang out the full repertoire of hymns she assigned to me week after week after week. She’d be smiling and singing along, and if I showed the slightest sign of hesitation, she’d yell “Keep playing!” just in case I didn’t understand exactly who this moment was about.

She really was something, Mrs. Raitch. Truth is, I wouldn’t be the piano player I am without her. For instance, guess how easy it is for me to accompany a soloist. Duh. I started accompanying people at an early age. Besides accompanying her as she belted out hymns right into my left ear, I accompanied my older sister who played the flute at an assembly while we were still in elementary school. Later on I would accompany my younger sister, who played violin. Thanks to Mrs. Raitch, I understand what it is to back somebody up, how you have to follow them no matter what they do, how you have to keep the beat for them but still skip parts if they do and wait for them if they fall behind.

And those friggin’ scales and cadences she made me play over and over and over. Man I hated them . . .

But there again, I didn’t even know what such drills were doing for me at the time. It wasn’t til years later when I realized how easily I picked up pop tunes on the piano by ear that I had to credit Mrs. Raitch for having ingrained into my little brain the I, IV, V progressions for every major key signature and their relative minors. I literally didn’t even know what I was learning at the time. It was all so much by rote. And yet there it all is, this cache of rote learning that is there whenever I need it.

As the years progressed, I used the foundation of music theory Mrs. Raitch helped me acquire to build a better understanding of more complex pieces of classical music, as well as build on my understanding of popular music genres. And being the music teacher without a music degree, I  have had to build my knowledge of music theory all on my own. But I couldn’t have done it without my diva piano teacher, Mrs. Raitch.

Nowadays, when my students obviously haven’t practiced their scales and cadences, I take the time to explain to them the value of scales and cadences. And even though sometimes they don’t immediately get the connection, I just keep talking anyway. My rationale is this: that eventually, they will either hear me and understand, or years from now, when they are playing one of their favorite songs out of a music songbook, it will suddenly dawn on them . . . oh yea, that’s just a I, IV, V progression in the key of E Flat Major. Now I get it! And hopefully, they will think of me fondly. Either that or they’ll picture me as some hilarious caricature of myself that I can’t even imagine right now.

This too shall pass

Of the many gifts I received from my father, this little snippet, “this too shall pass,” has helped me through what I thought were the worst times of my life. There were instances when my dad would say this line and I’d think, geez dad, how callous of you. Can’t you empathize for me in an unhealthy way just once and wallow with me in whatever ridiculous negativity I have dug for myself? Can’t you for once say to me, honey I can’t believe the universe has dealt you such a low blow. You deserve so much better than this and it’s only a matter of time before the entire world understands what riches you deserve.

Nope, my dad was not one for blowin’ smoke. Don’t get me wrong, he was a great dad. He’d help in whatever way he could. He’d give you a place to stay if you needed it, he’d pay your rent if you ran out of money. For cryin’ out loud, he paid college tuition for five kids to go to college, a feat no one on our middle class income could do any more.

But did he tell you you were the most beautiful person in the world and that everything would be perfect for you because you deserve at least that? No way.

See, my dad was a post-WWII, G.I. Bill educated electrical engineer. For those of you out there who were raised by engineers, you understand the significance of this statement. Some of these men are WWII vets, but my dad was a little younger than that. He served in the Navy on the tail end of the Korean War.

But many of the same rules apply. Somewhere between a rough childhood rearing by a strict dad, service in the armed forces, and the school of engineering at Purdue, my dad learned what he knew about being a man and a father. That included learning to do what the post 70s era of self-help refers to as compartmentalizing. To some, he may have done this to a fault, showing little emotion to his kids unless he was getting angry. By today’s standards this seems harsh, particularly in this era of helicopter parents who shepherd their kids as though they are lost sheep up until the moment they cut the umbilical cord as they drop them off at their first year of college (I know, I know, way too many metaphors in that one sentence). Conversely, my dad was the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” generation, confident that if we all keep our noses to the grindstone and work hard, we can do anything. The “sink or swim” type of life coaches. “Get in there kid, you can do it. Quit yer whinin’,” were their mantras.

You may have had one of these fathers. Some of my friends and I who were raised by engineers of that generation joke around that we need a support group we have lovingly dubbed ACOE (Adult Children of Engineers). But all joking aside, even with all his faults—and they all have them—I received many, many gifts from my father. My fearlessness, my ability to compartmentalize (although I gotta thank mom for some of that too), my math skills, my love of female jazz vocalists, my wandering eye (oops, I said I wasn’t gonna kiss and tell in this blog), my understanding that life is not fair, and the mantra “this too shall pass.”

For a man who was basically a devout atheist, who did not subscribe to any religion and did not once even mention the word God in my presence, his continual reference to the idea that “this too shall pass” showed him, in my opinion, to be a man of great faith. And this gift is the one I am most thankful for. This gift has taught me that regardless of how bad things seem today, things will get better. That even though I am incredibly depressed and cannot see my way out of this mess, that something will change and it will not turn out as badly as I think.

Faith in yourself as a person, as a father, as an engineer, as an entrepreneur, as a golfer, faith in the physical world that has some rules and logic guaranteed to continue to be true tomorrow the same way they are true today, faith that the sun will again come up, regardless of how shitty today was, faith that the friends you have today will still be your friends tomorrow, faith that your family loves you. These things are the essence of a life of faith to me, regardless of whether we ever put a label on it, divine or otherwise.

I am thinking of my niece today. She has just lost her father. She is 10 years old. Our family are gathered around her to hold her up emotionally and physically in the same way we did for one another just 9 years ago when my father passed. We shed a lot of tears in the days after my dad died. And we did what we could to honor his memory and give him a good sending off. We told stories about times we shared, looked at lots of pictures, wrote down our memories, held each other, laughed and cried. We will join my niece to honor her dad in the same way.

And we will continue to help her hold her father dearly in her heart and be mindful of all the gifts she received from him. And they are many.

As time goes by, the sadness will begin to fade. And even though she will become suddenly overwhelmed with grief when she least expects it, this too shall pass. And the love and understanding of the gifts she has received will take the place of the sadness, giving way to gratitude, and, hopefully, a life of great faith.

I love you Dad.

I love you Syd.

I will offer thanks for what has been and what’s to come

I’ve had a rougher time in the last year than I’ve had in a long time. Life brings unexpected changes and often when we are not prepared for them. I was not prepared for my relationship of ten years to disintegrate, but it did. I was not prepared to lose my job and spend two months in a sheer panic until I found another one, but it happened. I was not prepared to be overwhelmed with feelings for someone new at the ripe ole age of fifty, but I was.

Now, a full year after I set out to write 50 blogs in 50 weeks in my 50th year, I have lost the new job I thought was so great, and I am questioning the romantic feelings I have because I rushed into something out of habit and did not let it blossom naturally.

I see in retrospect that I should have stuck to what my instincts told me to do one year ago—to take time to reflect on my life thus far, reflect on how I have become the person I am in an effort to mindfully move toward my future with purpose and intent rather than fumbling in panic for the next adventure, the next job, the next lover.

If I was one of those people that believes in “destiny” or the idea that the universe is trying to tell me something, I’d say that the universe tried to tell me something and when it found I wasn’t listening, it stuck its big foot out while I was running down the steps just to watch me trip and fall so it could laugh at me.

But I am not so easily discouraged. I will begin again. This time not making any promises, not setting myself up for failure. Just declaring that I will take the time I need to reflect. That is, until I become distracted by the next shiny object.

Work is love made visible –Khalil Gibran

 I spent last night visiting with an old friend from Block Island, RI. She and her mate are friends and former bosses, two of the best bosses I’ve ever had, in fact. When the person I’m working for works hard and doesn’t ask me to do anything she wouldn’t do herself, it makes me want to work as hard as I can for her. Some people might call that a work ethic. I think it ends up being more about human relationships than it is about the work. I hate to disappoint people I like or admire, so in an employment situation, that makes me want to work hard. And it doesn’t matter so much what I am doing. For the right person, I will scrub toilets and floors and enjoy it.

I wasn’t always a hard worker. My first job was at a Thom McCann shoe store. I have no clue why I thought that, at the age of 16, working at a retail shoe store was a good idea. I had no particular interest in shoes at that time (she said as she looked down at her new blue suede cowboy boots; I guess I grew into that girlie fetish). Nor did I have any particular interest in retail sales. I had turned 16 and in my house, when you turned 16, you got a job so you could have your own money to spend on undoubtedly nefarious activities you were unable to spend your parents’ money on.

I was not employed at the shoe store for long. I wasn’t particularly fond of helping people try on shoes, nor did I take the time to learn the convoluted numbering and storage system in the crowded back hallways where the shoes were stored. In fact, I found myself avoiding the back hallways of the shoe store altogether. The manager and assistant manager were snorting black beauties in the back office all the time and I simply could not keep up with that sort of lifestyle at the age of 16.

Then my sister and her boyfriend, Steve, devised a plan to get me a job at the local record store where Steve worked. This seemed like the perfect job for me. As a child of the seventies, I loved music. We were driving to concerts in Columbus and Cleveland all the time, the Rolling Stones, Queen, Todd Rundgren, Genesis, Emerson Lake & Palmer, David Bowie. So working at a record store seemed like it would be a great fit. We’d stand around, smoke cigarettes and listen to records, right?

To my surprise, they actually wanted me to work. Sort records, file new records, re-order records, re-sort records when customers didn’t put them back where they were supposed to go. But such great demands were cutting into my smoke time and my ability to hang out with my friends. I didn’t last long at the record store either.

I did not yet know how to work. Sure I had worked in my mother’s home, as a housemaid, chambermaid, bathroom scrubber, dishwasher, and occasional gardener. And I did those things, slightly grudgingly, because my mother cared about them more than I did. I don’t think I really learned to work until I went to work in my father’s factory.

You might think that working for my father would be a cakewalk. Ahhh, she’s the boss’s daughter, she’ll get away with anything. With my dad, the opposite was true. He made sure you understood that his expectations of you were higher than for those of his other employees. You weren’t going to embarrass him by being the spoiled rotten boss’s kid.

My father owned a small manufacturing plant that made a variety of non-metallic parts, mainly for the then thriving Ohio automotive and appliance industries. I first went to work there the summer after my junior year, at age 17. Since I was not yet 18, I could not operate the punch presses, so I worked on various assembly jobs. My father’s employees were mostly women doing assembly and operating punch presses, with a couple men to cut and move material around and fix the equipment.

One particular job I had to do was putting a small bit of metal screen around a fibrous white donut-shaped piece that would eventually go into a catalytic converter. This job was piece work for the women in the shop. The more you could produce, the more you were paid. The job was done in pairs and your work was measured with that of your other team member to record your final numbers and determine your pay at the end of the day. All the other women in the shop had been doing this for years, and had certain expectations and a healthy competition about how much they could produce in a day. Two things weighed heavy on me: first, I’m the boss’s daughter and if I didn’t work my ass off, he’d be pissed. Second, these women needed to make money and I’d be mortified if my teammate made less money because I couldn’t produce. I worked my butt off to get up to speed, and it had absolutely nothing to do with how much money I would make at the end of the day.

More than a year later, I headed to college, and the second job I found—the first one was in a fast food joint and I was obviously not fast food material—was in a family owned coffee shop where the father, mother and son prepared and served breakfast and coffee to hundreds of college students. They were close-knit, hard-working, and anal retentive about how to do every little task in the place and I was determined not to be embarrassed so I hustled and learned how to get along. Again, it was more about relationships than about the money I was making, which was only enough to keep me in tea, cigarettes and an occasional beer.

Then after my second year of college, I headed to Block Island for the summer. And in my second summer on Block Island, I worked for Diane. Diane was running the airport diner and she had this bright idea that I could learn to be a short order cook. So I did that, and I lived in the little apartment above her garage for the summer. What I learned from Diane is immeasurable and I am proud to still call her friend after all these years. In those days, when her son Nathaniel was 4 years old and she was raising him by herself, she was running the airport restaurant, tending a huge vegetable garden, making soup every day for the restaurant, caring for her aging mother, and still finding time to go to the beach and teach me what eating fresh fish is really about.

Maybe it was the fact that I was slinging hash in the mornings and laying on the beach in the afternoon. Maybe it was the fact that I lived in this enchanting garage apartment where I had to carry in bottled water and shower down the street at the marina. Maybe it was the fact that I discovered that a piece of swordfish caught wild in the morning and broiled that afternoon could melt in your mouth like a good piece of prime rib. But I felt like Diane had been the shepherd of one of the most magical summers of my life. She was giving and tireless and I’d have done anything for her.

Diane

I’m thinking a lot about those days because I am sitting at Diane’s kitchen table looking out on a sunny day on Block Island, taking a brief vacation before I begin a new job in a week. Likewise, Diane and Donn are getting ready to start yet another new restaurant venture. I told them, if I hadn’t already found a job, I would have been happy to stay and help them open the new place. In fact, I believe I said “I would love nothing more than to let you guys work me like a dog.” I’ve always said that it’s important to me that I work for someone who shares my core values, someone who values the people who work for her, someone who wouldn’t ask you to do something she wouldn’t do herself. Someone with a generous spirit who is motivated to work is someone I will always want to work tirelessly for. If that’s what you wanna call a work ethic, I guess I acquired that somewhere along the way.