S. N. Behrman
The New Yorker
 July 17, 1948: 25-29

I awoke one morning in my family's flat on Providence Street, in Worcester, with a passionate urge to learn to play the piano. I must have been about twelve or thirteen years old. Later that day, I communicated the news of this burning desire to the extraordinary friend of my youth whom I shall call Willie. Willie, it seemed to me then, could accomplish anything; perhaps he could make me a pianist. In any case, he was the only person in the world to whom I could confide so bizarre an ambition without being thought completely insane. We had, of course, no piano in our tenement, and I certainly had no money for lessons even if we had had one. I might as well have wished to go abroad to study, or to get a motorcycle, or to fly to the moon. The impulse was grotesque, it was aberrational—but it was also imperious. I could not wait.

My friendship with Willie was in itself as bizarre as my wish to learn about music, for Willie was six or seven years older than I, a contemporary of my older brother's. The gap between our ages was millennial, and it was a constant source of derisive wonder to Willie's friends that he bothered with me. How our intimacy started I cannot precisely remember, but once having begun, it persisted well into my maturity and as long as Willie lived. At the start, it was as fantastic to me as it was to everyone else. When we first made friends, Willie was a brilliant student at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute and I was a ninth-grade pupil in the Providence Street School. Nevertheless, Willie would take walks with me and talk to me, and we had jokes together. His friends would ask him what we could possibly have to talk about together, and he would answer, enigmatically, "Many things, many subjects."

I am sure Willie and I did have many interests in common, although I cannot remember now precisely what all of them were at the moment I gave birth to the impulse to master the piano. I know that later, when I had the urge to become a writer, Willie would help me with my short stories, and type them out for me, and we would spend hours together weighing an adjective or a locution. He would mail them to the magazines for me, hopefully, and mourn with me over the rejection slips. Still later, when I was a sophomore at Clark College, Worcester, Willie one day had the inspiration that I must go to Harvard and study playwriting with Professor Baker. Willie managed it. The next autumn, I found myself out of Clark and in Harvard, where Willie often came to visit me. He had graduated from Tech some years earlier and was working as a chemist for the Worcester Water Works. I used to visit him there. He worked in a concrete hut filled with cisterns of varicolored waters, and he would humorously expound to me the complicated treatment that made these waters fit for consumption by the citizens of Worcester.

By this time, of course, the difference in our ages was less noticeable, but when our friendship began, the gap was, by ordinary standards, unbridgeable. Willie was a visitor from another planet, whose orbit for a long time did not coincide with my own. I remember lying in my bed at night when I was seven or eight years old and hearing him and my brother and their friends exchange the day's gossip in the living room. Assuming that I was asleep, they were uninhibited in their confidences, and I used to wonder drowsily how fellows as intelligent and mature as Willie and his friends could spend so much of their time talking about girls. Certainly the subject preempted a large part of their conversation. Summers, they would tell what had happened in the heady atmosphere generated by the placid waters of Lake Quinsigamond. I knew the lake very well, of course, and had probably trudged there that very day for a swim in the Municipal Pool, but the conversation of Willie and his friends did not center on natatorial prowess. Rather, it focussed on what had happened during canoe trips with various Providence Street girls—what he had said and what she had said, with minute analyses of conversations, involving mood and approach (though I hadn't any idea what the approach was to), and the abashed confessions of the overprecipitate and the triumphal boasts of those whose timing had been more sensitive. To me, it was all boring and essentially irrelevant, and I wondered how Willie, whom I already worshipped, could have so acute an interest in such trivial seminars.

There was a period when the craze for dancing swept over these elderly adolescents like a mania. A waltz was then fashionable in which, at a crucial point, you dipped your knee against your partner's in a kind of violent curtsy. The timing and audacity of this dip, and its possible emoluments in a larger gambit, the exact scope of which I could not fathom, were discussed thoroughly, in a way that was at once tantalizing and irritating. The White City, the pleasure park on the shores of Lake Quinsigamond, had to me many fascinating aspects—the chute-the-chutes, the Ferris wheel, the Oriental exhibit, and so forth—but to these mesmerized youths the only thing that mattered at the lake was the reaction of girls in canoes and on the dance floor. There were debates on conflicting theories. Some said it was more climactic to go canoeing first and then go to the dance hall; the reverse procedure had equally sincere advocates. It all was a nuisance to me, lying there in the dark and listening. Once, after recounting an exploit with perhaps too much vividness, one narrator became suddenly conscious that I was in the next room. I heard him say to my brother, "Is the kid asleep?" My brother looked in on me. I remember watching, through half-shut eyes, his precautionary glance through the door. Reassured by my brother, the cad went on to narrate his triumph.

To me, my brother and all his friends seemed old, and I used to reflect that the attainment of so great an age must be in some way a degenerative process. I recall, for example, that at one period the group seemed to have gone suddenly demented on the subject of barbers. My mother used to cut my hair when it needed it, and I had never been in a barbershop. But these gentlemen had begun to shave, and before special occasions they used to go to the barbershop in the Hotel Warren for shaves and haircuts. There was even lordly talk of massages, and the merits of each barber were discussed ad nauseam. I remember an argument about one barber, named Toussaint, whose obstinacy was so stylized that he insisted on cutting Willie's hair not according to Willie's ideas but according to his own. One day, Willie had rebelled and switched to another chair. His revolt was discussed passionately, in terms of a major insurrection. Toussaint had ardent defenders, and tempers rose. There was a lot of talk, too, about lotions and pomades. The effects of a too pomaded head on a canoe pillow, and even on a sofa pillow, when in the company of a girl came in for nice adjudication. It was all very disillusioning. I didn't mind about my brother and the rest—they could be as inane or vacuous as they liked—but that Willie should participate so fanatically in the heated evaluation of these trivia caused me pain. Finally I had a revelation that set my disturbed mental life in order: When Willie was with me, talking about books or ideas or poetry or going to college, he was his true self; his discussions with his own crowd were merely the diplomatic adjustments necessary to a man of the world involuntarily caught up in a corrupt and busy social whirl. Everything was all right as far as Willie and I were concerned after that.

It is still something of a miracle to me that when I told Willie about my wish to play the piano, he took it in his stride, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. He had an odd habit of grasping at a subject in its most generalized terms, never in its immediate, specific application, and he also had a habit of reading up exhaustively on each of his interests in turn. This idiosyncrasy of Willie's was recognized by his friends and he was often teased about it. One day, my brother, who had just discovered that some people went fishing, suggested that Willie try fishing in Lake Quinsigamond. Willie seized upon the idea at once with great enthusiasm and held forth on the importance of hobbies as a relaxation for busy men. My brother told me long afterward that Willie never actually went fishing—he'd got too tangled up in the theory of the sport to have time to practice it. He had gone at once to the Worcester Public Library and got out a quantity of books on rods, lines, fly-casting, bait-fishing, salmon and trout fishing—although there were neither trout nor salmon in Lake Quinsigamond—and devoured them all. So when I made known my ambition to master the piano, Willie became instantly dithyrambic. Within a half hour, we were in the Library, on Elm Street, and presently emerged with two books by James Huneker—the one on Chopin, and "Melomaniacs." (Spurred on by Willie, I eventually read everything by Huneker the Worcester Library had, so that by the time I got to New York some years later I knew all about him. My first visit to Luchow's was inspired by the fact that I had read somewhere that Huneker went there. I asked the headwaiter if my hero was around, allowing him to believe that I was an important figure in Huneker's world, and when I was told that he was not, I went out on Fourteenth Street to Walton's for lunch. I have often wondered what would have happened if Huneker had been there.)

In his enthusiasm, Willie imagined me already a virtuoso, walking into a drawing room and captivating the distinguished guests by my art. To play the piano beautifully would be not only a social passport, he said, but also a relaxation for me after the vortex of a fevered day. (Willie was always preparing for a future in which we would both be under mighty strains.) He insisted that a powerful argument could be made for music as the greatest of the arts, and quoted many people who thought so. It was even possible to conjecture that Beethoven was greater than Shakespeare, for whom, Willie knew, I already had a high regard. Did I not know huge portions of "Hamlet" and "Macbeth" by heart, and had he not incited me to repeat them to my brother when the latter asked what the hell Willie was doing hanging around with an embryo like me? Willie was happy that I had had this wonderful idea of learning to play the piano; he rather reproached himself for not having had it for me himself. He did not wish me to decide on the instant whether Beethoven was greater than Shakespeare, he said, but what he did wish was to make it possible for me, after having plumbed both these artists, to decide the question for myself. Pending my ultimate decision, Willie asked for time to give the matter a little thought himself. I permitted him to have it.

Willie's fantasia left me excited but unsatisfied during our preliminary discussions, but I believed in the omnipotence he had demonstrated on many occasions where my affairs were concerned, and presently he came to me with a fait accompli. He had engaged for me the use of a room with a piano in it, on Pleasant Street, and I could go there to practice for several hours every afternoon. He had telephoned to Mr. Silas Gaynor, one of the best music teachers in Worcester, and had made arrangements for me to study with him. He took me to the room and showed me the piano, and then escorted me to Mr. Gaynor's studio and introduced me to him. Mr. Gaynor gave me pleasant encouragement, some exercise books, and an appointment at his studio for the following week. On our way home to Providence Street, Willie, rather flushed with pleasure at having, singlehanded, transformed a novice into a virtuoso, congratulated me on having become a musician. I was somewhat appalled and asked Willie about the financial implications of these proceedings. He deprecated the intrusion of the money question into the lustral realm of the fine arts. What were the few pennies involved compared to the mastery of so great an art? I was not to think about the cost; he would take care of that. I was to become a nimble executioner, and he would be amply rewarded by the pride he would feel at my first recital. He brushed away the economic aspect with so high a hand that I withdrew the vulgarism. Willie imposed but one condition on me; no one was to know about my secret studies, least of all my brothers. I solemnly promised.

My career began. I had a permanent patron, which is more than Mozart ever had. I was a freshman in the Classical High School by this time, and it was on the same side of town as my piano. Instead of going straight home every afternoon, as had been my custom, I would tell my mother some lie about having to stay after school and go directly from Classical High to Pleasant Street. It was odd to sit down at a piano in a strange room—the instrument itself, by its very presence, connoted a degree of opulence that was faintly illicit—and to begin fumbling over Mr. Gaynor's scales. I had never before had command of a room away from my parents' flat. But it was easier to command the room than the upright. Also, I was conscious, while I was practicing, that this must be costing Willie a lot of money, and although I attacked the exercises fiercely, every time I muffed a bar, I seemed to hear the ominous tolling of invisible cash registers. I soon saw, too, that my entrance into elegant salons aquiver to hear me perform must be indefinitely delayed. Beethoven seemed farther away now than he had in my first excited talks with Willie. Possibly I was drawing nearer to the Master—at least, so Willie assured me when I confided to him my discouragements—but the speed of my approach was too slow and my progress too halting to give me any reassurance.

There were other difficulties. To keep my secret pact with Willie and the piano involved considerable ingenuity. My brother, after a complaint from my mother, began to ask why I was so late getting home from school every day. There were chores that I was relied on to perform after school, and the conflict between my domestic life and my career began to interrupt the normal flow of existence. My lies multiplied and finally wore so thin that I felt certain I would be exposed in the end. But for a month or so Willie's new plan for me seemed pleasingly dangerous, conspiratorial, and altogether wonderful. The only thing really dreary about it was the drudgery of practicing, which, as countless other young people have discovered, is a process that carries in it the germ of hatred for the art it is meant to further.

I adored Mr. Gaynor, and I shall never forget my first lesson with him, nor, indeed, the eight or ten subsequent ones. He was (and still is, I hope) a fair-complexioned man with light hair parted in the middle, and faintly protuberant, mild blue eyes that peered benevolently at you from behind thick glasses. He had a passion for music. At the first lesson, after I had ravished him with the results of my week's labors, he talked to me about music. His enthusiasm was as keen as Willie's, but it had greater intimacy. As I found it more delicious to discuss music than to play it, I spurred him on. He told me that every week he went to Boston to hear the concerts in Symphony Hall, which were then under the direction of Dr. Karl Muck. He described the program he had heard the week before and regaled me with anecdotes about the steely Dr. Muck and his Brahmin audiences. He had a strong sense of humor, and he was gently derisive of the pseudo-music lovers who went to Symphony Hall only because it was the correct thing to do in Boston on Friday afternoons or Saturday evenings. But I really wanted to find out about music, and somehow—I don't know how I had the courage—I found myself asking Mr. Gaynor if he would play something for me. I had never been to a concert. I had never heard a professional pianist. The nearest I had come to it was to stand outside Mechanics' Hall on an evening when Paderewski was playing inside and watch the crowd go in. Sensually, there was something insubstantial about this experience, and perhaps it was the frustration engendered by it that gave me the courage to ask Mr. Gaynor to play for me. Somewhat to my surprise, Mr. Gaynor responded readily. Perhaps I was the first pupil who had ever made such a request of him. He blushed faintly, but he went at once to the piano (his was a grand), sat before it, and played Schumann's "Aufschwung." I shall never forget it. It was thrilling. It was thrilling, but at the same time it made me rather miserable, because I could not help comparing my own performance with his.

My first séance with Mr. Gaynor was a model of our later ones, except that as I became more and more conscious of the immense discrepancy between our respective talents, I began to reduce to a minimum my performances to him and to induce him gradually to increase his performances to me. Also, we used to escape from such dull minutiae as scales and exercises by discussing the larger aspects of music. As I look back on it, it was not a bad use of our time, since it was unlikely that my secret life in art could continue for long. And I like to think that Mr. Gaynor, too, enjoyed our lessons. They gave him a chance to talk freely about the art he loved, and also to play for me many works that he must have been too tired to run through at night, after his long day at his studio. He was a very popular teacher—"the best in Worcester," it was often said—and I got the same odd thrill of creative patronage from hearing him that Willie must have got from hearing me. On the first day, when he played the "Aufschwung," Mr. Gaynor seemed to me to play it wonderfully. As he got into his swing during subsequent lessons, he began to play longer and more complicated works, and I felt—was it really so or was it merely the wish fulfillment of an eager patron ?—that his technique was improving sensibly. By the time I left him, I think I may say that he was playing in really masterful style. I had every reason to be proud.

Leave Mr. Gaynor I did. Things began to happen thick and fast. The incessant questionings at home about my late-afternoon disappearances had given way to an ominous silence. Then, one afternoon, when I was blindly practicing on Pleasant Street, there was a knock on the door. I rushed to open it, sure that it must be Willie, who often used to drop into my atelier to tell me, when I was depressed about my work, that Brahms had never been a very good pianist, either. Gradually, Willie had modified his ambition for me; he had adjusted himself to the compromise that I need not become a dazzling virtuoso, and had settled for my evolving merely into a great composer, a career that while I was stumbling over Mr. Gaynor's exercise books seemed much the easier of the two. But the knock on the door was not Willie. It was my brother. He had followed me to my lair. When Mr. Gaynor told me, at my next lesson, that the opening bars of Beethoven's Fifth symbolized the knocking of Fate, it was my brother's knock on the door of my secret music room that I heard, and even now, when I hear those measures played, I hear that knock again.

I told my brother all, and he was much nicer about it than I could have hoped. He simply explained to me that music might be all right enough for those who could afford it, but that as I could not, I should not indulge myself with thoughts above my station. He caused me considerable pain by pointing out to me that although Willie was better off than we were—as, indeed, who was not?—he still had to work Saturdays and Sundays and holidays and evenings in order to put himself through Worcester Tech, and that to launch me on a musical career involved considerable extra expense for him. I was overcome suddenly by the enormity of my own selfishness. Later, I discovered that my lessons had cost Willie three dollars a week —two dollars for the room and the piano, and one dollar for Mr. Gaynor. Three dollars a week was no mean sum in Worcester then, and to enjoy the luxury of patronage Willie must have had to make many sacrifices. I also found out later that my brother and Willie had a big fight about this. Willie contended stoutly that three dollars a week was nothing at all compared to the magnificence of the vista opened up by my entry into the music world. Willie lost out. I gave up Pleasant Street.

There followed an odd postlude. I gave up my room and my piano, but I could not bear to give up Mr. Gaynor. I had grown very fond of him. Possibly I felt, obscurely, that a few more weeks with me would give his playing that reserve and polish that so often differentiate the routine pianist from the really exceptional one. Willie encouraged me to continue my sessions with Mr. Gaynor—for a while, at any rate. After all, it was only a dollar a week, and I could manage this one hour without complications at home. I used to report to Willie in detail on my meetings with Mr. Gaynor, and from these reports Willie derived a glow of satisfaction. On one occasion, he telephoned to Mr. Gaynor to find out how I was getting on, and Mr. Gaynor reported that I was extremely musical. There was the problem, of course, since I was no longer able to practice at all, of how to get by the mortifying introductory interval when I played for Mr. Gaynor and into the halcyon one in which he played for me. I managed this for a while by simply repeating exercises that I had already learned and, thus, for a brief spell, I was in the rather gratifying position of the eighteenth-century German princes who had their own virtuosos to console them. I think I may say with confidence that I was the only resident of Providence Street at that time who had a private pianist.

The day came when Mr. Gaynor gave me a fresh exercise book, and then I had to break down and tell him I had no piano. He had never known that I practiced on a rented piano in a rented room; he had, naturally, assumed that, like his other pupils, I had an instrument at home. I did not give my secret away. Instead, I invented the lie that my family had sold our piano, because we were moving out of town. I think there was genuine regret on Mr. Gaynor's part when we said goodbye. I promised that should there be a change in the family plans, in which case we would, of course, repurchase our piano, I would resume his auditions at once. I don't know whether Mr. Gaynor, in the long roster of his pupils, remembers me, but I remember him with affection and with joy.

This, then, was my brief encounter with that tantalizing art in which, more than in any other, I should have loved to become accomplished. But it was not to be. The little I learned on Pleasant Street I have long since forgotten. To this day, music remains a black art to me. I sit before it, but I have no actual notion of it. I do not understand it at all. I cannot read the language in which it is written; I am, and always shall be, an outsider.

Copyright © 2009