Don't shoot me, I'm only the piano student

No matter how many times I played it, the "Cheers Theme" just didn't sound right. The first few notes were beautiful – so beautiful, in fact, that I wanted to swill a beer and yell 'Norm!" at no one in particular.

Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

Mark LaFlamme takes a piano lesson from Martha Feeley in Auburn.

Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

Martha Feeley marks keys with Garfield to assist her students.

Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

Piano teacher Martha Feeley follows the notes as Mark LaFlamme plays. 

Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

Mark LaFlamme, right, takes a piano lesson from Martha Feeley in Auburn.

Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

Mark LaFlamme takes a piano lesson from Martha Feeley in Auburn.

Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

Mark LaFlamme talks with Rachel Feeley, lower left, and Feeley's daughter Martha following a Studio 88 piano recital recently at High Street Congregational Church in Auburn. Martha Feeley has been teaching LaFlamme how to play the piano. 

Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

Mark LaFlamme and his wife, Corey, watch the Studio 88 piano recital at the High Street Congregational Church in Auburn recently. 

The rest of it? Tinny garbage that sounded more like something out of Romper Room than from the finest sitcom theme of the 1990s.

Enter Martha Feeley, the sole reason I was sitting before the ivories to begin with.

"Look where your thumb is after you play the C and E notes. Your thumb drops down out of sight. Now, if you could train that thumb to move over to the G . . ."

She gently nudges my hand due east on the keyboard.

"See? Now your hand is ready to play a G chord. Why don't you give it a try?"

I gave it a try. The theme sounded so good, Ted Danson appeared out of nowhere, thinking it was time to film that night's episode.

Playing the "Cheers Theme" was about five miles north of where I expected to be after just my third lesson with Martha, whom I have come to know affectionately as Teach. In the beginning, I figured if I could manage half of "Mary Had a Little Lamb" within a month, I'd be doing better than I had ever dared to hope. Instead, just one lesson in, I was playing the "Love Theme From Romeo and Juliet" and playing it well. How well? William Shakespeare himself rose from the grave, thinking this was the moonlit balcony in Verona all over again.

Well, maybe not. But ask me what I think of Martha Feeley as a piano instructor and I won't hesitate to compare our working relationship to that of Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller. When it comes to musical instruments, I've always been blind and deaf and dumb. But the music is in me, Martha tells me. It just needed a way to get out.

Yup. She's a miracle worker, all right.

I've worked with batting coaches, hockey coaches, English teachers, karate instructors and countless others who have tried to teach me the finer points of whatever it was I was trying to master. I've worked with some fine people, but I don't believe I've ever been coached by someone who so effectively brought me to the Promised Land. Martha didn't strap me to a chair and try to teach me a lot of math and frightening symbols. Martha taught me how to play.

Suzuki: Great motorcycle, great method

These are not your mother's piano lessons. What Martha (and her mother, Rachel) teach is called the Suzuki Talent Education Method. Conceived by Japanese violinist Shin'ichi Suzuki, the method is based on the belief that all people are capable of learning from their environment.

In the beginning, Suzuki instructors dispense with complex things like scales and keys, measures and clefs. Those things will come. For now, they want to familiarize you with the piano keyboard and the notes hiding therein. A-B-C-D-E-F-G. If you can find your way around those notes, my brother, you can play the piano.

Learning to play through the Suzuki Method, says Rachel Feeley, is like learning to speak as a child. If you can hear music, you can play it. That's why it's sometimes called the Mother Tongue Method.

"You learn to play piano just like you learn how to speak," Rachel says. "You learn words and repeat them over and over. You keep adding words and, after you've learned how to speak, you learn how to read. Likewise, after you learn how to play piano, then you learn how to read music."

Suzuki has its opponents. If you're not learning the old way – suffering through the math and learning to read what looks to me like extraterrestrial text – than you're not doing it right.

With due respect, I couldn't disagree more.

I've had a couple different people attempt to teach me piano. One of them was a girlfriend, a very talented pianist (hee!) and instructor. She sat me down and started showing me those alien symbols. She talked about things like half notes, quarter notes and what sounded to be like pure gibberish.

"But I want to play a song," I said all plaintively.

"You can't. You can't play until you learn these things."

Bzzzz! Wrong! Fast forward 20 years. When Martha gets to teaching, she's like Mr. Miyagi teaching Daniel San by making him wash cars and paint fences. She shows you where the notes are. She tells you what order to play them in and – gasp! – let's you play even before you know the proper terminology.

"Play 'Mary Had a Little Lamb,'" she said, and by God, I did.

E-D-C-D-E-E-E D-D-D E-G-G.

There. Was that so hard?

Nobody in the world of music has ever been as shocked as I was that very first day. Martha put tiny plastic Garfields on the black keys to help me learn the topography of the keyboard. Other than that, I could have been Billy Joel playing for cash at a corner bar. After "Mary Had a Little Lamb," Martha declared that I was going to learn the "Romeo and Juliet" love theme (also known as "A Time For Us"), in my view the most beautiful piece of music in the world.

I looked at her skeptically. Here was where she was going to try and fail. Try again and fail. She would surely give up on me and I'd walk out of her house with my clef hanging low.

Martha started writing out the notes. A-C-B-E. E-G-E-A.

I timidly pressed my fingers onto the proper keys. One, then another, then the next. Like magic, Nino Rota's beautiful music rose out of the piano and that was it. For me, it was a life-changing moment, comparable to Daniel San's mystification when he finally starts to realize what it was all about.

"See?" said Martha, not surprised in the least. "The music is in you. It's just been waiting to get out."

I may have wept a little bit, but there's no way you can prove that.

The bottom line is, through the Suzuki Method, I was playing right away.

When the students gets the reward of making music, it's a natural motivator. "It makes the child feel so good about himself," says Rachel, "that he wants to learn more."

A theory I support wholeheartedly. Sooner or later, I'll have to learn to read music. A month ago, I would have quit before even getting started. Now that I'm banging out music at all hours? It's not so scary.

"Reading music in and of itself is non-musical," Martha says. "It's like learning math tables. But once you do learn, you can go as far as you want to go."

John at the bar is a friend of mine . . .

By the end of the first day, I could play the "Romeo and Juliet" love theme without referring to my notes. I could play "Fur Elise" with a little more effort and I had the beginnings of the theme from "A Summer Place." Martha loaned me a keyboard and suggested I put it in the space I most frequently occupy at home. Brilliant advice. With that piano there, every time I turned around, I found a few minutes to practice. Midnight came and went. At 3 in the morning, I was still playing, getting better by the minute.

"You learned all that in one day?" Corey asked me.

"Yup," I said, absolutely not needing to knuckle away another solitary tear. Not that you can prove anyway.

As a boy and a young man, I skipped out on all kinds of things. Little League practice, karate class, therapy sessions for young hooligans, you name it. I don't like scheduled meetings of any kind. But when the following Tuesday came around, I couldn't wait to get to Martha's house. She had promised to teach me "Unchained Melody" AND "The Pink Panther Theme." All of a sudden, I believed she could do it.

Soon the plastic Garfields were gone. We talked a little bit about scales and chords. It's still scary business, but by now I have at least a rudimentary understanding of how the piano works. The heavy stuff isn't so intimidating once you've discovered that you can actually make music out of it. Part of the genius of the Suzuki method.

Martha and her mother have taught more than 700 people to play piano. Their students have ranged in age from 2 to 90-something. If they were teaching the traditional style, you might as well forget about it, in my opinion. Can you make a 2-year-old – or someone who's 5 or 7 – understand things like 8ths and 16ths when they haven't studied fractions in school yet? Hell, some of their students have yet to learn cursive or how to tie their shoes. Without Suzuki, you might as well try teaching a dog how to type.

So, I'm a couple lessons in now. I can play the"Romeo and Juliet" theme, "Unchained Melody," "A Summer Place" and part of "Fur Elise" without looking at my notes at all. Lou Reed isn't calling me for tips just yet, but he's thinking about it. But the music is no longer thrilling. It sounds incomplete and one-dimensional.

"We'll start bringing in your left hand," Martha responds when I said her a whiny, late-night email.

Wait, I'm supposed to play with both hands?

The first time I got down to it, Billy Joel's "Piano Man" was the music in question. I could play it pretty well by tapping out the notes – G-G-G-G-F-E-F-E-C. You at least recognize the song, although you probably won't get up and dance to it.

Martha had written down the left-hand notes in the big, blue binder we'd been adding to each week. I gave it a try, trying to play one thing with my left hand while my right hand was off doing something else.

Fast forward a few hours. It's 2 a.m. and I've had another breakthrough. My hands have entered into some easy alliance, agreeing to work together rather than fighting each other all the time. And suddenly, as I played "Piano Man," it sounded like a real song, something you WOULD get up and dance to. Suddenly, three or four lessons in, I was playing something that would garner at least a quarter or two in the tip jar if I set one up.

I dashed off another letter to Martha ("Wow! I am awesome!" or words to that effect) and played "Piano Man" roughly a thousand times over the next couple days. I'm feeling pretty good about myself at this point. I'm still only toddling into the land of music reading, but hey. I can play, and who in their right mind thought THAT was possible. Other than Martha, that is.

'Romeo and Juliet' and life skills too?

So, for my latest lesson, I join Martha and a couple of crazy kids, Jayce and Caroline. Jayce is a second-grader; Caroline is in kindergarten. We're down on the floor, playing a board game called Musicopoly, which teaches various components of music. These are typical kids, doing handstands, fighting over game pieces and generally picking on me. Ah, youth.

But then it's Jayce's turn to play something at the piano and he bangs out "We Three Kings" so naturally and so flawlessly, my jaw drops. When Caroline stomps to the piano to play "Big Dog Boogie," my mouth goes a little wider. This kid who probably still believes in the Tooth Fairy is already becoming proficient at something it took me 40 years to even try.

At the Feeleys' Studio 88 recital one recent weekend, my blown-away-ness only became more profound. Children barely old enough to walk to the piano on their own were nonetheless banging out music. Some of them, including a 14-year-old named Zane, played so well, you'd pay money to go see them perform.

But apparently there's even more to this whole music thing than just banging out a few notes to impress your friends and annoy your neighbors. Learning to play the piano, the Feeleys insist, also instills patience, commitment, eye-hand coordination, concentration and the ability to listen and analyze.

"When you learn to play the piano," says Martha, "you're learning life skills."

I have no doubt that this is true. I certainly feel enriched. I spent 40-something years in a non-musical state because the complexity of scales and chords and icky math was too daunting to be tackled. Without Martha Feeley, aka Teach, aka Mrs. Miyagi, I would have remained musically dark for the remainder of my life.

Next week maybe she'll have me paint a fence and wax her car. And if so, I'll do those things without question because I'm aware of what her teachings can do now.

I've seen Martha perform miracles.

Editor's note: The Suzuki method of learning an instrument is just one of a number of methods. While the method — and teacher — resonated with this writer, the Sun Journal acknowledges that there are other learning methods and many good music teachers in the area who can help you find your inner Billy Joel.

Mark's playlist so far (most songs have only been learned in part)

"Love Theme from Romeo and Juliet" ("A Time for Us")

"Unchained Melody"

"Theme from A Summer Place"

"Theme from the Pink Panther"

"Theme from Cheers"

"Piano Man"

"The Stranger"

"Theme from Love Story"

"Theme from Halloween"

"Arabesque"

"Mary Had a Little Lamb"

"Fur Elise"

Shinichi Suzuki, from his book "Nurtured by Love"

"If Einstein, Goethe and Beethoven had been born in the Stone Age, wouldn't they likewise have had only the cultural ability and education of men of the Stone Age? The converse is also true; if I were to receive a suckling babe of the Stone Age and educate him, before long he would be able to play a violin sonata by Beethoven as well as any young person of today."

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Betty Davies's picture

This is inspiring!

I studied piano as a child and teen. My poor mother (trained as a piano teacher before marriage) soon despaired and handed me to a series of private teachers. I tried--I really did! But the methods of 50 years ago didn't work for me. One teacher even refused to play new pieces himself though I begged him... I needed to know how they were supposed to sound! His theory was that I should "simply" play the notes and then I'd find out. Finally gave up, but still have my mother's piano. Maybe I'll take up lessons again in old age...

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