Remembering a musical mentor

I recently bought a used piano after almost 15 years piano-free. I managed to dig out several of my old, yellowing piano books, which have followed me from my childhood in Washington state to Arkansas to Florida and finally to California. And when I opened them, my piano teacher’s handwriting transported me back more than 40 years to a two-story blue Victorian house sitting atop a hillside in a small rural town in the late 1970s.

I had begged my parents to take piano lessons, and somehow they found Dorothy Elfin, or Mrs. Elfin, which is how I still think of her today. Mrs. Elfin lived up to her name — a petite woman with her hair in a pixie cut framing a heart-shaped face that often broke into a smile. Her home sported a shiny black baby grand piano in the front of the living room, and tasteful antique furniture finished out the area to the rear of the house. I never spent time there, however; we solely focused our attentions on the black and white keys of the baby grand.   

Once a week I would hike up the steep hill after school and arrive, breathless, on her doorstep. Mrs. Elfin would greet me, get me a glass of milk or water, and sit me down at the piano for my lesson.

For the first few years, I slogged through learning notes and scales and chords, my hands plonking across the notes. Mrs. Elfin seemed to have infinite stores of patience and encouragement at her disposal; never did a sigh escape her lips, nor did she ever even have a hint of an eye roll. Instead, she always found something positive to say, and always seemed to know where to lead me next.

Soon, I began to play pieces with more emotion. Mrs. Elfin would listen and nod, offering suggestions for how to hit the notes. Instead of assigning me new material, she would say, “I think you might enjoy learning this piece…” and she would take over the bench and play to see if it spoke to me. She rarely missed the mark.

I took lessons from Mrs. Elfin from my pre-teens into my teens, and sometimes my hormones got the best of me. I would get frustrated by my inability to learn a piece or burst into tears because of some now-forgotten drama. Mrs. Elfin, who raised three children of her own, never seemed thrown by these moments. Instead, she would gently ask me questions to help me get to the root of whatever it was that was bothering me, and after that my tears or frustration would recede.

Mrs. Elfin encouraged me to stretch and take risks. I was a painfully shy pre-teen who never spoke up in class and blushed if a boy spoke to me. Mrs. Elfin hosted mini piano recitals at her home, a place I found to be comfortable, and so I would play, hands shaking, for a small group of students and families draped over her furniture as the audience. I gradually became more comfortable with playing for an audience, so one day she suggested I perform in the state adjudications, where students play for other piano teachers, students and judges and receive feedback from the judges on their performance. I agreed to do so.

I didn’t know it at the time, but Mrs. Elfin was my first mentor. Not only did she teach me how to play the piano beautifully, but she helped me become the person that I am today. She allowed me to find the characteristics that I needed to come out of my shell without judging me for being in that shell in the first place. Seeing her handwriting in my yellowed books made me grateful that I had the chance to be her student.

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