Piano Lesson Perils

If I had it in me as a first grader to hate Sun Yi-Qiang, I would have. But I was much too feeble, much too timid and much too innocent. So I feared him instead.

Every Tuesday afternoon, as the school day wound down, I dreaded that final bell. While other kids gleefully talked about their afternoons swimming, biking and playing Sega Genesis, I trudged on and off the school bus. Staring gloomily out of the half-tinted windows, I wished I were back at school, anything over the inevitable doom that lay ahead: piano lessons.

When I got home, I would frantically try to get in some last-second practicing. But it was all in vain. I unfortunately never quite felt ready enough for my four o’clock piano lesson with Sun Yi-Qiang. Lugging my multiple sheet music binders with me, I would sit in the back seat as my mother made the necessary 40-minute drive to get to Sun Yi-Qiang’s house as I fell asleep, only to wake up to my mom telling me that we were almost there. The absolute worst part of my week had arrived.

Sun Yi-Qiang’s first name was Yi-Qiang, but I could not fathom calling him that. Sun Laoshi was weirdly formal too, so I either never referred to him by name, or just called him “teacher.” Still, his name flowed in a way that meant always calling him Sun Yi-Qiang to everyone else. His name to me literally meant “A Strong Dominator,” which I’m sure was all too literal for the real meaning of his name, but it fit his persona. Even the harsh sound of his name spoken in Chinese was intimidating. Sun Yi-Qiang was an effective teacher because he accepted nothing but the best. He was a middle-aged Chinese man who lived by himself. Piano was his life. In addition to teaching, he performed at local festivals and talent shows, pounding the piano with authority. Tall and skinny, he wore plain clothing. Nothing at first glance distinguished him from any other middle-aged Asian man. His voice was a different story.

“Oh, fuck you!” he once said to a telemarketer who called repeatedly in the middle of one of my lessons. He had ignored the first two calls; those three words were his only response on the third call.

I remember sitting rigidly in shock, my innocent ears not used to the harsh language. Not many kids can say that they heard the “F word” for the first time from one of their teachers. His language had a coarse and snarky tone most of the time. He was a native Chinese speaker, but his English was impeccable as well. Most of the time, our interactions went something like this:

“Hello Meng Meng, how are you today,” Sun Yi-Qiang would say with a broad, Grinch-like smile.

“Fine.”

“Okay, what did you want to play first? Did you practice?”

“Yeah…” I was always too sleepy and out of my element to really attempt to engage him in a conversation. Looking back, I must have shown no emotion during these times.

“You don’t sound so sure!” he would say, followed by booming laughter. I never understood what was so funny.

Almost without fail, my first attempt at a song would verify his doubts. His strict reprimand wiped out any of the sleep I still had in my eyes.

Many times, his harsh tone and slaps at my wrist would drive me to tears. The things that I could easily fix, like my hand posture or the tempo, were okay. When I was berated for not practicing enough, it was all over. My mom, who sat behind us on a folding chair to the side, acted like a circling vulture, sighing and tsk-tsking, lamenting the fact that I hadn’t practiced that week when things went badly, which only added to my dying spirit. My mom made sure that the constant threat of being kicked out of being Sun Yi-Qiang’s student consistently loomed in my head. He was in high demand among the Asian community and was known to not tolerate slacking off.

On the way back home, I usually had a decent grasp on how each lesson had panned out. Sun Yi-Qiang would make that clear. However, if I was still unsure, there was one more way to find out.

“Hey mom, can we go to the baseball card store today?” I would ask on the way back home.

“Do you think your performance deserves it?” my mom would ask in Chinese.

Usually, I didn’t respond. If we turned in, then it did. If we drove past, then it didn’t.

Regardless of how much I was enjoying the lessons or how many times I frequented the baseball card store, it was clear that Sun Yi-Qiang’s master teaching powers were working. At the yearly piano guilds competition, I calmed my nerves enough to earn two “superior” (as opposed to “outstanding,” “good” or “fair”) awards. They praised my note precision and the “feeling” I put into playing. I had never seen Sun Yi-Qiang beam before, but that was probably the closest I ever got. He looked down at me with a smile and a chuckle, and patted me on the back. He was happy that I had achieved the highest marks – just like everyone else in his class.

Halfway through second grade though, I had a rough couple of weeks. Sun Yi-Qiang gave me a harder piece that represented a jump in skill level, a challenge for me to hurdle. After my third week, he abruptly broke the news: I was fired.

I burst into tears, and not because I would miss the lessons. Sun Yi-Qiang explained to my mom that another girl my age had taken the songs he had given me and performed better than me and, thus, he was going to keep her and let go of me. The tears wouldn’t stop. It was the first time I had failed my mom and myself. As a second grader, school was easy and sports were forgiving. The all-too-real sting of being kicked out, being rejected, was a foreign concept to me.

“It’s okay, now. Don’t cry. Here, have a piece of candy.”

Weakly wiping the tears from my eyes, I picked out a piece. I hadn’t even known that this weird metallic container had candy inside. He must have reserved it only for days like this. For some reason, the teardrops continued.

“Stop crying, don’t be sad. Now, now … take some more candy,” Sun Yi-Qiang continued, repeating his words of attempted solace.

Looking back, I shouldn’t have taken anymore. But I did. I was too scared not to do what he commanded. Leaving the downstairs studio, I walked past the ragged backyard, down the side alley to the gate that would let me out, my vision still blurred from the welled-up tears. No more would I have to deal with the strict chastising, the stringent and punishing assignments or the insensitive cursing. But I could not shake the feeling of disappointment and sadness.

I had failed.