Photograph by Eric Reichbaum
by Kimberly Bunker
I wear my sandals with the one-and-a-quarter-inch heels because they’re the prettiest ones I have, and I think Jennifer will compliment me on them when she sees me. “Oh my goodness, those are so pretty!” she might say, “and it turns out that they’re perfect for using the pedal. In fact, I think today we should learn how to use the pedal,” and then I’ll show her how I already know how to use the pedal, all three in fact.
Mom makes sure we have our books before she starts the car like she always does. Actually it’s a van. Once I forgot them and Jennifer had to find some other ones for me to use, but they were old and too babyish for me anyway, and Mom was mad.
“Books, girls?” she says, turning over her right shoulder.
Issue #27 soundtrack: Overlord "Nothing Is Wrong"
I hold mine up for her to see. Tory, who gets the front seat because she’s two years older and always gets the best of everything, says “Right here” and looks out the window. Tory is weird.
I look out the window too, the left one. Mom turns on the car and we start to drive. Jennifer lives a half an hour away and I usually ask Mom to turn on the radio after seven minutes, when there are twenty three minutes left, because she doesn’t like to turn it on right away.
Until then I’m bored so I look down and remember that I’m wearing my prettiest sandals. “Look at those!” Jennifer might say. “How tall are those heels?” and I’ll say “One and a quarter inch,” and she’ll say something like “Wow, you’re getting so old that maybe you can start teaching me lessons soon.”
I don’t know how that would go, me teaching Jennifer lessons, because she knows how to play a lot of things I don’t. And, she uses both hands at the same time. And, she’s engaged.
When I’m a piano teacher I’ll tell all my students that one day they’ll be as good as me so that they won’t think they’re bad at piano or babyish. “Wow, boys and girls,” I’ll say. “You are all really something. Reeeally something!”
And I’ll make sure to tell their parents how good they are too so their parents will know and maybe say “You were very good today, sweethearts. Thank you” when they tuck them in at night.
It’s only been two minutes so I sit on my hands. My feet stick out in front of me. My shoes are prettier than Tory’s. Tory knows how to use the pedal and both hands but she also has bangs. I don’t think Jennifer likes her as much.
“Who’s going first today, girls?” asks Mom.
“Me,” I say right away. Tory went first last week.
“I don’t care,” says Tory. I can see her reflection in the mirror. She’s looking at her braces. And maybe her bangs.
Of course she doesn’t care but I do because I’m going to be the best pianist in the world and maybe someday I’ll write a song and I’ll play along with a singer or something and I can sing along too. And I’ll be engaged and wear a big diamond ring and I won’t have to practice anymore because I’ll already be so good.
Four minutes! “Mom?”
“Can you please turn on the radio?”
She does. She picks a station I like. A song I know is on. I sing loud so they’ll both know what a good singer I am, and that I know all the words.
“Mom, would you tell Kimmy to be quiet?” says Tory after the first verse, which I knew.
“Kimmy, would you mind singing to yourself, please?”
I don’t sing to myself because it isn’t as fun. Instead I flip through my piano books because I want to be able to open them right away when Jennifer says “What page number are we on?”
Sometimes she asks how the week went and sometimes she asks how school’s going. I hope she asks how school’s going so I can tell her about music class today. I knew what the whole note meant and I said so and the teacher said I must be taking lessons somewhere, and I said yes, in fact I am, I’m taking piano lessons, and she said wow that’s really something she can tell she thinks I’m going to be a great musician. And she said I have an ear for music. Which I do even though the stupid recorder doesn’t make a very good sound when I play it, only a weird ugly sound. I have an ear enough to know that I don’t like recorders so it doesn’t matter that I’m not good at them.
When we finally get to Jennifer’s house exactly twenty-six minutes later I jump out of the car and run up the driveway, which is on a big hill like a castle. I’m the first to the doorstep and I ring the doorbell, just once, because it’s polite.
By the time Jennifer comes to the door Mom and Tory are waiting with me so she doesn’t know I was there first. So I tell her “I’m going first today!” just in case Tory changed her mind.
She looks so excited to see us and she lets us in and says “Hello! It is your turn to go first, isn’t it? How are you girls doing?”
Tory says “Fine” and walks past her down the hall into the other living room where we wait when we aren’t getting a lesson. Mom talks to Jennifer for a minute about something boring and I take my shoes off slow so she’ll see. When she doesn’t I put them back on again so I can take them off again even slower this time. She’s still talking so I wait awhile and then when Mom leaves I take off my sandals again, but now Jennifer has already turned around and is laying out papers on the coffee table which is in front of the couch where she sits while I play the piano, which is white and not very soft, like sand. The couch, not the piano.
No time to waste! I leave the shoes by the door and run over to the piano with my books. I put them up very nicely on the wooden part above the keys, where music goes.
“How was practicing this week, Kimmy?” she asks, writing today’s date at the top of a piece of paper. She has nice handwriting.
“Good,” I say. I sit on my hands again.
“Yeah? Did you have any problems?”
“No,” I say.
“All right. Let’s start with the one from the purple book, then. ‘Upstairs, Downstairs.’”
She didn’t ask about school! When am I going to tell her about music class? I look in the wrong book by accident and she has to say “Page fourteen” like I don’t know while I drop it and have to pick it up first and then find it in the other one.
“I know,” I tell her.
“Okay. Let’s hear it.” She says and sits on the edge of the sand-couch so she can see my fingers from there.
I nod my head and hope I play it right.
But first I have to move my butt so it’s right on the edge, but that doesn’t feel right so I move it back, and then move the book so its middle is right over the word YAMAHA and then I brush my hair away and look at the little gold clock on the piano and then I move to the edge again. And then I put my fingers on the keys and put my foot on the pedal, just in case. I stare at the notes. “Upstairs, Downstairs.” Where do I start? This-does-not-compute. I start to tell her I’m a robot but she’s already saying “Whenever you’re ready” which means start. She’s too serious to pretend right now so I laugh to myself a little before I start to play.
I know this song kind of but for some reason I can’t see the notes and my fingers bend at all the wrong times! I lean forward and squint at the page but I can’t think of what each note means. This-does-not-compute. Ha ha! I cough and wiggle again. She knows it’s just because I can’t get comfortable. Stupid hard bench.
Jennifer stands and comes to stand behind me. She smells pretty. “One note at a time, remember. You know these.” She waits. I stare at the note. “What does this say?” and she points to the first one which has a little white “C” inside it.
“C,” I say.
“Okay,” she says nicely, “Where’s the C?”
I find the C.
“Good. The next one?” She points again.
This is stupid because I practiced. I don’t know why I don’t know the notes and I hate this. Why did I have to wear the pretty sandals today?
“Don’t rush. This isn’t about playing it fast, but playing it right, okay?”
“What’s the matter, sweetie?”
“Noth— there’s something in my eye. Wait a minute.”
She puts her hand on my shoulder. “It’s okay, just take it one note at a time. I know you know this because we did it last week, remember? You played it without my help at all! Were you able to play it okay this week?”
No. I want to tell her I tried but I couldn’t find it or my fingers wouldn’t play it. I did try but it didn’t work.
“Did you ask your sister if she could help you?”
I shake my head again. Tory! Of course not. I didn’t want to anyway. I could only do it when Jennifer was around. I rub my eye like there’s something in it.
“I know this is getting hard, Kimmy, but it’s because you’re learning new things every week. I need you to keep practicing, everyday, if you want to get better, okay? Do you understand?”
I nod yes. But practicing is hard, and a big hot tear comes out of my eye. I hope she can’t see it and then another one comes out after it. I stare at the picture she has of her and her boyfriend on the piano. I bet he could play it if he wanted to, or he doesn’t have to because he’s grown up. I wish I were older so I didn’t have to play “Upstairs, Downstairs.” Everybody would think I could play it if I wanted to, and I just wouldn’t ever play it because I’d never want to.
“Okay. Let’s start over. Let’s pretend you just got here and you’re just sitting down. That was our warm-up, so here’s the real start. Sound good?”
“Yes!” I jump up and run to the tiles that are around the door where I left my shoes under the coat rack. I put my shoes on quickly and turn around like I just walked in. “Oh hello there! Am I late for my lesson?” I say, pretending I just got here.
“What— oh, hi there, Kimmy! Time for your lesson! How are you doing today?”
“Good.” I walk around in my shoes for a minute before I take them off, but she still doesn’t notice them.
“Are you ready to start your lesson?”
“Yes!” I put them by the door and run back to my seat. Now I can play it. I don’t care if she doesn’t see the shoes because they’re just shoes anyway. If she starts to talk about the pedal I’ll put them back on. I’ll say “Oh wait I’d like that very much but I can’t unless I have something tall on my feet like these shoes, oh good thing I wore them today!”
Okay. I sit farther back on the piano bench and take a deep breath. Some people say deep breaths help you relax but they don’t really help me but I sometimes do it anyway. I already know that we start on C because I already played this song but since I’m starting over I get another chance.
“Good,” she says when I play all the first line right.
The second part is slower. “F,” I say out loud so she knows. “E. D. C.”
“All right. And is that a repeat sign I see?”
I nod yes. When she says it like that, duh. I play it again but this time my fingers get all mixed up and I have to start over.
“Okay,” says Jennifer. “Good. I like how you took your time that time, so you knew each note before you played it. That’s very important.”
I nod yes again. I know. She picks up a pencil and starts writing again.
“I think I’ll need to hear that again next week, though.”
I wonder if I’m getting sick. My eyes are hot again.
“But you know what? No matter how well you played that today, Kimmy, and you did fine, I would have asked you to take it another week. Do you know why?”
No. She waits for me to look up at her. She looks all excited and she’s leaning forward on the sandy couch.
“Because that’s your C scale.”
I pretend to look surprised because it looks like that’s what she’s waiting for to start talking again. She smiles because I look surprised.
“What we just played is an extremely important part of almost all piano music. I use the C scale when I play Beethoven. I still practice my C scale, it’s that important. So now that you know it, you’re going to have to play it everyday from now on. Do you see? Even the best pianist in the world still plays their C scale.”
My jaw drops like I’m on a TV show and I tell her that’s really something. I know she’ll like that.
She does because she smiles some more. “See? It’s very important, so let’s aim to have it perfect for next week, okay? Don’t be afraid to ask Tory for help. She learned her C scale when she was your age and I still ask her to play it for me. Sometimes by surprise.” And she winks.
Like I’d ever ask Tory for help. She’d just say no and call me weird.
“Okay. What else do we have?” She tucks her hair behind her ear like I sometimes do. Her hair is straight and prettier than mine though.
I start flipping through my book for a second before I decide to just say it right now: “I had music class today.”
She looks up from writing on the piece of paper. “Oh yeah? How’d it go?”
“Good,” I say. “I mean, really good. We’re learning the recorder. And I knew what a whole note was.” I don’t tell her I forgot the name when Ms. Witzenstein called on me. I did know what it was, though.
“You did! That’s great!”
“Yeah. And I have an ear for music.”
“Well that’s for sure.”
“I mean Ms. W. told me that. In front of the class.”
“Congratulations, Kimmy! What a compliment. Of course it’s true.”
“Yeah.” I was hoping she’d say something about the pedal now. I waited to give her time.
She keeps looking at me but doesn’t say anything. I give her another second.
“Are you ready? What’s the next piece?” she says. “‘Alligator.’ How’s this one coming?”
I turn back to the piano. “Good. I don’t really like this one as much.” I flip through some pages.
“Aw. Well, hopefully we can get rid of it today. Why don’t you warm up while I write instructions for next week, and I’ll ask you to play it for real in just a minute?”
“K.” I look at the clock. There are still fifteen minutes left. I wish I’d practiced more or was better at piano. Or I wish I was an alligator because they don’t take piano lessons and have to learn C scales.
I stare at the picture of the alligator in a pond on page twelve. Whoever drew it can’t draw. It only has three teeth.
“This one’s really hard,” I tell her.
“Do your best,” she says.
I take another deep breath and try to play it. It’s in the left hand. I know the first note but the second one is too far away so I guess.
“Whoops,” she says.
I guess again. “Whoops,” she says again.
I squint at it so she knows I’m thinking hard. This song really is hard.
“What letter name does it say?”
“Good. And we’re in bass clef now, left hand. Where’s the G?” There. “Good. And the next note?”
Finally I play all the notes right and she didn’t even help me through all of them. “Great job, let’s get rid of that one” I hope she’ll say.
“Oh look, another repeat sign!” is what she does say.
I almost start crying again. I wish she wouldn’t give me these hard pieces! How am I supposed to learn a song that jumps around like that? I can feel my eyes again and that makes me feel worse so I lean forward so she won’t see. I have to do it all again.
“Slowly,” she says.
I say them out loud again so maybe she won’t notice how slow it is.
After a minute I can’t even see the notes anymore because now everything is fuzzy and hot. I rub my eyes again so she thinks there’s something in them. My hands get wet.
“It’s okay, sweetie. You can do this.”
Thirteen minutes left but by then I’ll have to stop crying because I don’t want Mom to see me.
“Here, let me play it first,” Jennifer says, and sits next to me on the bench. She thinks she’s being nice and I guess she is but that won’t help me at all. She feels warm and I wish I could snuggle up to her but then I’d feel babyish.
“Listen. G, E, F, F, E, F, C. C, C, D, D, E, F, G. And, repeat.” She plays it again. It sounds good when she plays it.
“Okay? Now let’s do it together. I’ll play it up here. Ready?”
I nod yes and put my hand in the right place, I hope.
“One, two, three, go. G…G…there you go. E—no, we’re in bass clef, remember? Good. E, ef—what’s that note? F, whoops.”
“It’s okay. Where’s the F? …There. G. You know G. Good. Okay, let’s do that line again. This time you say the notes.”
“Mm-hm…mm-hm…see, you can do it. That was good. Second line.”
I say the notes out loud and only mess up once. She has to let this one go now so we can move onto “Starry Starry Night” on page thirteen, which is halfway through the book.
She gets up and moves back to the couch saying “All right, let’s hear that one again next week too, okay? I want to hear every note right the first time.”
Not listening! I turn on the bench and stretch my back by leaning really far over one side, like a cat. Cats don’t have to take piano lessons.
“Are you feeling okay, Kimmy?”
I don’t look at her but I keep stretching and nod yes. I would’ve played them all right the first time but I’m too tired. I hope we’re done soon.
“Are you sure?”
I nod yes again. I wish she’d stop asking. I stretch to the other side like a cat again.
“Okay…okay, well let’s pick one more song for next week, okay? And then we’ll do our quiz and we’ll be all done. How’s that sound?”
I nod yes again.
She plays “Starry Starry Night” for me and says the same thing she always says, to play it slow, but I’m not excited because I’m still on stupid “Alligator” so I’m not really halfway through the book yet.
“Okay. I want you to practice every day, got it?”
I nod yes again. I can’t say anything because I might start crying.
“All right, five more minutes. Here’s a pencil and paper for you, so come sit by me.” I do. “Ready?...K, number one. Draw a treble clef.”
I stick my tongue out like an artist while I draw.
“Two, draw a quarter note.”
Easy. I do it really fast.
“Three, how many beats does a whole note get?” Duh.
“Four, what is my middle name?”
I giggle. She always does a funny one at the end and this time I know it because it’s my middle name too which means that we’re a lot alike like sisters.
“All right, are you all done? Are you sure? Are you posolutely, absotively sure?”
I can’t stop giggling because she knows I’m sure and I keep telling her I am but she won’t take my paper.
“Okay, I guess you’re sure. Oh, hi, Tory! One more second, sweetie. Beautiful treble clef. Remember to keep the curly-Q on the G-line. Quarter note, very nice, whole note gets…uh-oh. How many beats does a whole note get?”
“Four,” says Tory the Snob from the door.
“Tory, that was for Kimmy. Kimmy, do you remember how we talked about the whole note being the heaviest, because it has the most beats?”
“So how many beats is a whole note?”
“Good. And, Lynn. Bonus points. Nice drawing, sweetie! Okay, thanks for all your hard work today. See you after my next victim…” And she makes a cackling sound like a witch. Tory and I laugh.
I take my books and walk past my shoes down the hallway and into the second living room where we wait. Mom is reading a book on the couch.
“Hi, hon. I heard you playing—that sounded great! Did you play the whole song at the end there?”
I sit down next to her. “No, that was Jennifer.”
“Oh. Well, how’d the rest of the lesson go?”
“Good.” I don’t tell her how I got in trouble for not practicing.
“Very good. Let’s make sure we practice a lot this week, okay?” She goes back to her book. She keeps reading but she lets me snuggle next to her and doesn’t notice when her shirt gets wet where my face is.
Kimberly Bunker recently graduated from the University of Notre Dame with a degree in Music and English. She currently lives and works in Rochester, NY, at a nonprofit that seeks to empower women who are incarcerated. She is also working on a novel and plays keyboards in the Brooklyn-based band Highways, whose first LP will be released in June 2011. Visit Kimberly online at feathercircles.blogspot.com.
Eric Reichbaum is a self-taught photographer originally from Pittsburgh. He now splits his time between New York City and Seoul, South Korea. His photos have been featured on many websites and in many magazines including The Waster, Groove, Busan Haps, Eloquence, and Ultimate Athlete magazines. View more of his work at ericreichbaum.com.
Overlord is a Brooklyn-based indie-pop band headed by George Pasles. Their new album In Soviet Russia, My Heart Breaks You released on April 1st from Storm Tower Records. Visit the band online at overlordusa.com.