Piano lessons don’t just mean sore hands

By Joanna Jones

I started piano around the age of seven and have to say after a couple of years wondering why my parents had forced me to do it I then gradually started to enjoy it. The idea that I could play music that I really enjoyed, as well as appearing to have a bit of a talent for it, spurred me on and I passed all the various exams that were available.

It was just after my fifteenth birthday that my piano teacher told me that she could do little more to help me. She told me that I had real potential but to realise that I needed a more skilled pianist to develop it. She recommended a Mrs Wright who lived on the other side of town and who had been a concert pianist in her youth, playing somewhere in London before marrying, settling down and raising a family. She was now in her late fifties and her children were grown. She taught for pleasure, as her husband was a successful businessman, and, consequently, was very choosy with her pupils. I was also warned that she was a hard taskmaster, passionate about her music and expected the same from those she taught.

I remember the interview well. She asked me to play a few of my favourite pieces and then gave me a couple of items I had not seen before to try. One in particular was very difficult. Throughout she advised me on tempo, emphasis, hand and finger positioning to make it easier to get certain chords in a row. Up until then I had wondered what Mrs Wright could do that my previous teacher could not. By the end I understood. To cut a long story short she agreed to take me on and I started a week later, with lessons more or less straight after school on a Monday and Thursday. My father gulped when she declared that once a week was insufficient to learn at this level in her view (his only comment in the car home was I’d better work hard to justify the cost). I remember clearly the final thing my new teacher said as we left.

“Rebecca, I am looking forward to working with you. If you practise hard then we shall have great fun I think. But if you don’t practise, well it is better not to turn up!”

For the three years or so it was fantastic. I learnt a huge amount and I found myself playing in a way I could not have imagined before. We both seemed to get on well perhaps due to our shared enthusiasm of the music, and I soon came to think of her as a friend, or perhaps friendly Aunt, rather that the rather severe teacher I had been led to expect. After the lesson, waiting for my father, who picked me up on his way home from work, we would often chat about school, or some of her stories from her life. Some she told me from the war made me realise how lucky I was to have been brought up in peacetime.

During that time I remember one piece that was particularly difficult for me to pace to her satisfaction. Finally I suggested that I try the old metronome that sat on a sideboard next to her baby grand that was her pride and joy. I was startled by her reaction. No! The music has to be felt, to be breathed; I must try to get inside the mind on the composer et cetera. I was startled by her passion and stared for a couple of minutes at the metronome taking in what she had said, and if truth be told wondering why she kept it if it was of so little merit.

I guess she sensed my thoughts as she then commented: “Oh, the metronome has its uses, but just not for music.” A rather enigmatic answer to my unvoiced question I thought.

It was around the third anniversary of starting piano that I started with my first serious boyfriend, Bill. He was in the same year at school although, with me being one of the oldest in the year, some months younger. I have to confess to being very smitten with him. He was both handsome and athletic (School Captain of the Boy’s Hockey team) and I soon was spending far more time that was good for me with him. He did like music, but it was more “Stones” than “Chopin”. I had a number of stand-up rows with my parents on my school studies (the importance of A-levels etc.) and I could sense that Mrs Wright was less happy with my progress. She was often irritated and our previous banter was much reduced.

Things came to a head after about six weeks or so, when an essay left to the last minute meant I did not practice whatsoever one weekend. As I arrived on Monday I was confident I could work my way out of it, but Mrs Wright challenged me after about ten minutes of mashing the piece I was supposed to be working on. I found it impossible to lie to her. She stopped the lesson and suggested I have a cup of tea with her, while we had a chat. She was pleasant but firm in probing the root of the problem. Pleasingly she did not make any judgmental remarks about Bill, keeping herself to comments on the importance of getting the right balance and to think for the long term. Finally, though, she made it clear that she was serious that if I could not keep my practice up then I would be wasting her time.

I did want to keep up my piano, so I resolved to take her advice, and indeed stuck with it for a couple of months. Then December parties, with Bill, conspired to lead to another practice-free weekend. This time Mrs Wright was more annoyed. She stopped the lesson and basically told me to sit on the stool and think about whether I wanted to continue with her. She in the meantime wrote a letter to my father, which she gave him when I was picked up. My parents were highly unimpressed and basically I was sent to my room to consider the priorities in my life. As I lay on my bed I heard my father talking on the phone to Mrs Wright. Words like “Difficult Phase”, “Hard to get through”, “Maybe an adult, but behaving as a child” seemed to be of the order of the day.

Later my parents forced me to a chat. It was made clear to me that Mrs Wright liked teaching me, but was not going to accept any more “shoddy work” as my father put it. He said he’d done his best in the discussions, but expected that the lessons would stop if there was any repeat, then he said: “At best, don’t expect to get off scot-free next time.”

Again I resolved to improve, and indeed made it my New Year’s resolution. Bill and I were still an item, but we both had exams in January, which meant we saw much less of each other for a few weeks. It was the first Monday in March that finally Mrs Wright had had enough. After an excellent January, February had being going slowly downhill practice-wise and a Saturday party and school essay deadline meant that once again I had not worked much on the piece she’d given me.

I remember her clearly, after only about five minutes, stopping me and saying: “Rebecca this isn’t working, is it?”

Thinking she was only talking about my approach to the piece I agreed, so it was a bit of a bombshell when she said: “You know, of all the pupils I have had in the past ten years, you are perhaps the most talented, and the way you can approach the music when you try is really special. Normally I would have stopped our lessons last year, but because of your talent, hard work in the previous three years, your father making a case on your behalf, and maybe to be honest that I enjoy your company I have tried to be patient with you. However, I think enough is enough, perhaps you should find a different teacher, who is able to work with the time you are able to put into your music, or perhaps you should just play for enjoyment and stop pretending you want to go further.”

I was shocked and asked, well pleaded with her to reconsider, promising to work harder. She sat there waiting for me to talk myself out. “So you will promise to keep up with your music properly from now on? You’ve told me that twice before, why should it be different this time?”

I had no reply to that and found myself sitting there looking miserable. She waited a long time looking at me, as if to work out whether I was serious or not. Now that she was threatening to take them away I realized just how much I would miss them, especially the stimulation and passion she gave. I was sure there was no other teacher like her, not in our town, or county even. In any case, and I was certain I wanted to push myself further; also, although it was not cool to mention it, if I was honest I enjoyed her company as much as she claimed to enjoy mine.

Finally she spoke. “Your father thought this would happen you know. He asked if it did that I find a way to give you one last chance, to consider what you think the priorities in your life are.”

My hopes rose.

She continued: “When I was about your age, I also got distracted shall we say. My teacher at the time, who was a friend of my parents, she got quite angry the second time I failed to practice properly and she gave me a thrashing that I have not, even now, forgotten. I told your father that I would give you the choice of being punished the exact same way as I was if you wanted to continue. He said that you were an adult and entitled to make your own choice, but he personally would not object in any case.”

If I was shocked before, I was astounded now; both that my father never mentioned this explicitly, and at the prospect of corporal punishment. I had not been spanked since I was about nine, either at home or school. My mouth went somewhat dry, and I stammered: “Wh… what is the… the punishment exactly?”

Another of Mrs Wright’s pauses. “I was given ten of her best with a cane, bare-bottom.”

I just sat there taking it in, not responding. I suspect to give me a chance to consider, she eventually continued. “Would it help you to see my cane?”

I nodded and she left me to my thoughts. A caning! At the school I went to such punishments were not uncommon (in 1970), but only for the boys, and never “trousers down” let along bare bottom. Girls could be sent for the slipper on their school knickers by one of the gym teachers, which my friend said stung badly, but the cane was reputed to be far worse. I had seen some of the toughest boys in my class give a defiant smile after a slippering, but return in tears, escorted by a school secretary, after a visit to the headmaster’s office for a classic “six of the best”. I could not imagine what ten would be like.

Yet if I wanted to keep my piano lessons, that was the price and no matter if I thought it too high it was clearly the only offer I would get. Part of me wanted to leave, but in my heart I knew I would not forgive myself if I didn’t accept the punishment. I also knew my parents would be very disappointed if I was to have the lessons stopped, and I was already planning to study music at University, and had applied, amongst others, to one locally with the hope of being able to continue her lessons during my studies. I began to steel myself up to take the caning, after all if Mrs Wright took it at my age, then so could I!

When I saw the cane, I certainly had second thoughts. She put it on the table in front of me and I picked it up. It was a little heavier than I expected and was a darkish colour and probably just about three foot long. It flexed easily as I bent it. I could not imagine it whistling through the air towards my bared bottom. Finally I put it back on the table and stared at it.

After what seemed an age, but was probably less than a minute, I took a deep breath and stammered: “I… I’m sorry for my tardiness, I would like to continue if you’ll let me. Can… can I take the caning please?”

“Very well,” she said. “I’ll give you a few minutes to get ready. Strip from the waist down and stand in the corner over there with your hands on your head. If the tails of your blouse cover your bottom then you might as well take that off too. I need to phone your father; there is no point for him to come to collect you until we are quite finished.” She pulled the curtains to, checking the windows were shut before leaving.

I heard a tinkle as she picked up the receiver but could not hear anything of the conversation. I took off my skirt and wondered where to put it, finally settling on the arm of one of the chairs of the three-piece suite than was placed around the piano. I then sat on the edge of the chair as I got the tights off my ankles and then looked at my blouse. The tails were indeed rather long, so glumly I took off my tie, unbuttoned the blouse and placed it, folded, on my skirt and tights. There was a state of disbelief in my mind as I took off my clothes as if I knew what was coming, but that it wasn’t really happening. It was very peculiar to be standing in the room in only my bra and knickers.

I was lost in my thoughts when the tinkle of the receiver being replaced brought me back to reality. In a panic I yanked my white cotton knickers down, and got into the corner with my hands on my head, now dressed in only a white bra, just in time, I thought.

However, instead of returning immediately, Mrs Wright went to the kitchen. I heard her moving about doing something. It seemed to take an age. I found myself lost in my thoughts as to why I was now in this position, which I suppose was the point. I was also acutely aware of my body; it seemed to be almost tingling as if it was asking me why I was going to put myself through this.

Finally I heard the door open and I glanced around to see her coming into the room, carrying what seemed to be a glass of brandy. “Nose facing the wall!” She said. “Unless you think ten isn’t going to be enough.”

I turned back quickly (I was sure ten was more than enough) and there was another chance for me to consider my predicament as she sat with her drink.

Finally she called: “Rebecca, come here!”

Unsure what to do, I walked across the room keeping my hands on my head and stood in front of her. As she was still seated I was acutely aware that her eyeline was straight into my crotch, although she was apparently unaware, gazing down at her half drunk brandy cradled in her hands.

She looked quite disconcerted when she looked up and immediately said: “Sit down,” pointing at the armchair next to the sofa she was on, and more kindly: “And you can take your hands down.”

I sat, hands on lap, relieved that I had a few minutes more reprieve, although it was strange to be seated in this state of undress.

Glancing between me and her brandy she started talking in a much quieter, serious voice. “That cane is one I was given by the school I taught at for a few years after the war. I only used it a few times, as I found I disliked it. In fact I hated using it. I don’t think it did those boys much good either. I think it only works well if the person concerned does not treat it as an occupational hazard, but really can learn from it, which I believe you, like me, can.”

I think I now understood why she had got herself a brandy. I found it rather odd at the time that she was needing Dutch courage to whip me, as it was my bottom that was going to get the pain, but it was clear she, like me, needed to steel herself up for this. It was also becoming more and more clear that she really did see in me something of herself at the same age, and that was the only reason I was getting this ‘preferable?’ option at all.

While this thought was going through my mind she continued. “I haven’t used it since then, about twenty years ago.” Then she paused. “Look Rebecca, this is going to hurt, really hurt. I want you to think why you have requested to take this alternative, it is a chance for you to clear the mind and reset your priorities. That’s how it worked for me all those years ago. Please try to keep hold of that. I won’t do this again you know.”

Not knowing what else to do I nodded. Meanwhile, she took a deep gulp of her brandy, draining the glass and then, more firmly, said: “Ready?”

“As I’ll ever be I suppose.” Was my reply. My heart was doing palpitations now.

I stood as she got up, looking blankly at what was now expected of me. She pulled the piano stool away from the baby grand, and then said: “Right, bend over the stool, one foot next to each of the back legs, and grab the bottom of the front legs. I did so. I can’t say it was very comfortable, and I also knew that the pose must be highly indelicate. Madly, I briefly considered what Bill would think; he’d been trying to persuade me to “go further” for some time, but I had not felt ready and kept postponing him.

Out of the corner of my eye I could see Mrs Wright winding up her Metronome a little, which even at that moment I could not think why, unless it was to help take her mind off what she was about to do to me. “Try to think of why you’ve been letting yourself down,” I heard her say as I waited. Then she slid the weight right up to the top of the pendulum rod and set the metronome going.

TICK…………….

TOCK……………

TICK…………….

The weight was beyond the normal range, the beat was about once every two seconds, I thought. Mrs Wright had placed it on the piano keyboard cover, so it was loud in my ear. I still had not worked out what she was doing, although in retro-respect it was obvious.

Mrs Wright spoke again as she picked up her cane. “I want you to stay exactly as you are throughout. If you get up then you’ll get the stroke again, and an extra one for failure to control yourself. At the end you will stay exactly as you are until I say you can get up. Is that clear?”

“Yes Miss,” I replied. I never normally used ‘Miss’ to her but in my present predicament it seemed quite natural.

“If it helps, listen to the metronome. I will allow ten double beats (back and forth) between strokes, starting now.”

So now I understood the use, as she said, nothing to do with music, unless it was facing it. Forty seconds or so between strokes; each swish was going to be as regular as the metronome clock.

I felt her cane touch my bottom, and start tapping it.

TICK……… TOCK……… TICK………

I wondered what was keeping her, then I suddenly realized that when she’d said ‘starting now’ that applied to the time to the first stroke, as well as the remainder. I started to panic. How many beats had passed? TICK………. I guessed that must have been about ten.

TOCK…… eleven,

TICK….. twelve,

This was awful. She was still gently lining up the first stroke tapping my bottom, when I got to eighteen the tapping stopped and I knew why. Oh Gosh! It really was going to happen. I gripped the chair legs as tight as I could and closed my eyes. TOCK……. (nineteen I thought). TICK……. (twenty, but nothing. I’d miscounted at the beginning) TOCK…. CRACK!

I heard the hum and then the gunshot as the stick collided with my rear. I shouted, more with shock, and then the pain hit, truly dreadful. I could not believe that one stoke could do that. I desperately wanted to stand up, and it took a huge amount of self-will not to put a hand back. Through the pain I remembered that there were plenty of schools where girls were caned. I tried to hold on to that thought as I listened to the metronome slowly counting down to my next stroke.

With the shock of the first strike, again I was not sure of the count as I waited for the next stoke, but as before my nerves started to panic as my estimate of the metronome count approached twenty. This time I was one short as with another CRACK the cane landed on my backside. The pain was much, much worse than the first one and I realized what Bill (who had told me of the caning he had got for playing truant in the fourth year) meant when he said the pain builds each time. I could not imagine what that meant for the next eight strokes.

TICK…. TOCK…….. TICK……. TOCK. The metronome continued. Again the tension built in me as my mental count reached the high tens. TICK……. CRACK! Right on the twenty. I gasped and desperately tried think of something that would take my mind off the agony in my rear. Nothing works though.

Still the metronome was counting its way on in my ear. Another CRACK! On twenty again. Not that I felt any satisfaction and getting better at the estimate. I could not believe the pain increase in my rear end.

I was sure that the count down to each stroke made it worse; waiting knowing that there was three beats to go, then two… one…. CRACK! Mrs Wright may not have liked caning, but she certainly had not forgotten how to do it. My entire existence seemed to revolve around what was happening in my rear end.

CRACK! The sixth stroke. The pain was such than I miscounted again, by two, getting it on what I thought was eighteen. The surprise coupled with the shock of what seemed a harder stroke led me to scream out loud. I could not take much more of this.

TICK… CRACK! Number seven was on nineteen and it was the last I even tried to count. I burst into tears screaming: “I’m sorry,” and blubbering: “please… please…. Stop.”

Mrs Wright’s only response was: “Hold tight, I was serious about giving you extra if you dare stand up!”

TICK……. TOCK…. TICK…… TOCK…… I could hear that relentless metronome in the background as I cried, but had no idea any longer how close it meant I was to the eighth stroke. TICK….. CRACK! I nearly stood up. The stroke had seemed to set my whole bottom on fire. I suspect it was the one diagonal stroke I saw when I examined my bottom in the mirror later. Whatever, it made me scream and I am sure my bottom was wiggling like mad, as my tears fell on the leather cover of her stool.

Clearly I did not settle as quickly as before as I heard her telling me to keep my legs straight and still, even threatening an extra if I did not do so. Somehow this sank in just about in time for the ninth. CRACK! Again another agonizing stroke, low on my bottom.

Vaguely I was aware that there was only one to go, and the metronome was still marking the time till its arrival. Another instruction from Mrs Wright. A reminder to stay down until she said so. I gripped at tightly as I could, as I waited for the final countdown not knowing myself how many beats there were to go. TICK….. TOCK….. TICK….. CRAAACK! The last stroke was the worst, utterly excruciating, again at the lowest point of my bottom. I screamed and cried, wiggled my legs as I held onto the stool. I desperately wanted to stand up.

However, Mrs Wright was in no hurry. She stopped the metronome and put it back on the sideboard, then left me crying into the stool as she went out of the room.

Finally she came back. I was still crying in my inverted position. “Right Rebecca. Stand up and put your hands on your head,” she said.

I eased myself slowly from the stool and, despite desperately wanting to cradle my bottom, or least explore it, put my hands to my head again.

“Now go stand in the corner and have a good think about how you are going to change your lifestyle,” was her next order. I reluctantly complied, noticing through the veil of tears as I went past she had another brandy in her hand.

I don’t know how long I stood in that corner, and it was difficult to think of anything but the pain in my rear end and my shame that it had happened at all, but eventually I heard her say, more kindly: “Okay I think that’s long enough. Your clothes are up in my bathroom, and you can have a shower if you want. I have laid out a towel for you.” She gave me a bathrobe to put on as I went past. I remember even the touch of the towelling fabric brushing my rear was painful.

Slowly, gasping with each step, I staggered out the room. Climbing the stairs to the half landing where the bathroom was, was agony. But eventually I had locked myself in. The tears that had almost stopped, started to flow again in the privacy of the room as I touched and cradled my bottom, looking at the mess of lines, mostly merged together, in the full length wall mirror. It took quite a while before I pulled myself together enough to have a shower, much cooler than I normally did, which calmed me down further. Finally I dried off and got dressed. Although I managed to ease my knickers on, my tights went into my skirt pocket. The prospect of somehow levering the fabric up my legs and over my rear end was too horrible to contemplate.

When I went downstairs, I already know that I was going to change my ways. I both apologized and, strangely perhaps, thanked Mrs Wright for what she had done promising not to let her down. This time it was a promise I would keep. She suggested that a week off lessons might help sort things out, apart from which sitting to play the piano in that time was going to be difficult.

My father picked me up not long after. He of course knew what had happened and put a pillow on the front passenger seat to help ease the pain on the way home.

So did it work? The answer was yes. I continued to get lessons, and never again had any problem working for them, and the enjoyment in playing increased again as it had not done for sometime. My attitude towards the rest of my school work, and even with my parents also seemed to improve.

This might have been helped by me breaking up with Bill very soon after. I had got my mother to call the school saying I was unwell for the day after, and on the Wednesday was able to manage to sit down without drawing attention to myself as long as I was careful. PE being optional in the sixth form meant that I should have had no problems in keeping what had happened secret. However a boyfriend is an entirely different matter and on Wednesday evening he pretty quickly noticed how I jumped when he touched me and soon had the story out of me, having promised not to tell a soul. With some reluctance on my part he managed to persuade me to give him a look at my rear. He was shocked, saying it was much worse than he had got or seen on any boy who’d got ‘it’. However, his sympathy gradually changed as clearly my caning had excited him somewhat. It led to us having a row and me storming home. Apparently his little brother, one year below us, heard the argument and somehow under an oath of secrecy wheedled the story out of him. I suspect Bill was as appalled as I was when the whole school seemed to know by lunch the following day and I never really forgave him, despite both he and his bother earning stripy bottoms of their own as a result of a fight between them in the corridor that same day.

I continued piano with Mrs Wright, or Maria, as she later asked me to call her, right the way through University, eventually getting a first for Music. During that time she never had to warn me about my practice again, even though I had more than one boyfriend in my undergraduate years. I did, however, get the cane from her again. In my second year a number of problems occurred at the same time, and I for a while felt very miserable and moody, getting short tempered with most around me. Maria was like a confidant to me and one Friday afternoon, when I now had a lesson, I let out all my feelings while she listened and comforted me. At the end I asked her if she would cane me.

She was shocked, and it took some time before she agreed. I brought out a bottle from my bag and found a couple of brandy glasses from her kitchen before explaining how and why I felt my life needed the same ‘reset’ as I had had two years before. Gradually she accepted what I was asking, and why I couldn’t ask anyone else to ‘help’ me. Eventually I found myself with my bare bottom in the air waiting for my second caning. The metronome counted out slowly as she gave me the ten strokes I had suggested. I can never explain why, but it had the desired effect.

There were two other occasions I took a brandy bottle round to her house as a young woman, and we kept in touch long after my career took me round the country and beyond. I always visited when I was back in town seeing my parents. Even when she became frail and moved into a home I tried to make the time to see her when I could. Although there was no room for her piano in the home, the old metronome, which she’d got from her own piano teacher, still sat on her sideboard as a reminder of her life’s passion.

The metronome now?

Now it sits on my own sideboard. Her son gave it to me at her funeral after she recently passed away, in her late eighties. It was a specific bequest he said, although clearly he had no understanding of what it meant. He did see, however, how much it meant to me. It sits there quietly, and although it never will call out a punishment again, it still helps me. If I am working on a particular piece and having problems on how to best address it, if I look at it I can imagine Maria Wright there giving me her usual thoughts and tips on the best way forward.

The End