The Danger of a Metronome

When I was little, I had to take piano lessons with Sister Margaret. Sister Margaret was our music teacher at Our Lady of Perpetual Help on West 10th avenue in Point Grey. Sister Margaret was terribly old. I used to go to lessons in the convent where she lived, just a few blocks up from our house on Crown and 11th. I remember I would be incapable of studying the hard Conservatory lessons and would divert her attention by making up elaborate stories and punctuating them with dramatic notes on the piano.

At first she tried to reel me in by putting the metronome on. As soon as the sharp, precise, demanding tone of the metronome began I sat listlessly on the bench, slumped over, but checked out. To Sister Margaret’s credit, she noticed the effect and stopped the metronome at once. Instead, she embraced my stories and even ignored the Conservatory lessons entirely. (My poor mom, she’d hoped I would follow in her footsteps and be a great pianist.) Most of my stories began with a deep rumbling of bass notes. Usually paired with a storm, a boat, a maiden followed by a heartless family and then a hero would enter. Standard 6-year-old drama stuff.

Sister Margaret delighted in my hour-long story sessions but as the day of the big recital got closer we both guiltily realized that I had little prepared for a performance. She chose an easy one for me which was Bach’s ‘Air’. I had to work hard to memorize it and it was my first experience of  ‘cramming’ for something. It would, of course, become something familiar to me as I got older.

On the day of the recital, I played my little piece but twice forgot where I was to go next and the air around me was devoid of Bach’s light, lilting notes, as I remembered words instead of musical notes and the lines between the bars and the plot made for a fumbled and awkward performance.

Yet, at the end of the year Sister Margaret threw a party at the convent for all her students and she gave me a beautiful Beethoven sculpture, finely wrought in wood, that had always and forever been on her piano. I could feel the sharp stares of her good students furrowing their brows at my fraudulent profile as I accepted her gift in front of everyone. We had an understanding. I think it was that, out of all the students, I was the only who came with the specific purpose to entertain her. And that purity of purpose meant something to her. I think anyway. I was always deeply grateful for her understanding I wasn’t the metronome type. It gave rise to a life of storytelling.

To this day, I can see a metronome type coming towards me at a hundred paces. I used to always think those types were right and I was wrong but as I get older, I am standing up for myself a little more and telling them to put their metronomes away and just listen. Listen to the story for a moment. It really does have its own, fabulous, transformative rhythm.

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