The Piano Lesson

by Jared Nigro

I played the piano for about six months. It was a sincerely terrible experience, mostly because the woman who taught me — an otherwise-retired music instructor — wasn’t “mean,” she was just “unwilling to be kind.”

We had a lesson scheduled for September 11, 2001. I called her asking if she was still doing lessons that day, and she responded, “Yes. And I hope you practiced because I can only handle one tragedy in a day.”

She said she didn’t like kids walking through her front yard because the “neighbors might get ideas,” and I’m still not quite sure what ideas they would have had. It was obvious she was a piano teacher because she had a sign in her window saying: “piano teacher, $12/hr lesson.”

The kids had to enter through her backyard. And to get to the backyard, I had to hop the fence. I’ll admit, I struggled to get over the fence a little, and one time I jumped sloppily over the fence because I was running late. As I jumped, the back of my Nike Shocks (they didn’t make the bounce sounds like in the commercial) got caught on the back of the fence, and I hit my head on the ground. It hurt worse than the time I ate tree bark. I looked up at the house: She was watching from the window! She watched the entire time from the window! We made eye contact. She sort of shrugged, and then picked something out of her teeth with her pinky finger.

Naturally I didn’t say anything to her when I finally entered the house. She didn’t offer me a towel to clean the dried blood or a glass of water. We started the lesson. I kept saying things to lead her into asking me if I was okay, like: “Wow, I really got hurt jumping over your fence,” or “Were you surprised to see me fall over your fence?” Nothing.

I continued to play for her — I didn’t practice because my electric keyboard ran out of batteries, and who had the time to go searching for the keyboard plug? Not me. She was not pleased. And I could tell because she’d hit my hands when I was doing it wrong. Not a huge hit, it was anywhere from a tap to swat.

By this point, I had enough badgering from Helen. I pressed on an F# instead of an F, she smacked my hand, so I smacked that 68-year-old right back.

We locked eyes. She didn’t know what to say. I was scared; I felt my penis receding.

“Am I an object to you?” she asked me. By the way, I was 11 at that point.


She stared at me for a long time. I didn’t want to stare into her eyes, so I looked at the bridge of her nose — a trick actors use when they want to keep from laughing.

“How hard did you hit your head?” she asked.

“It hurts still.” I said it like it was a question.

She shook her head. I thought she was going to tell me a probable concussion is no excuse for sucking at the piano.

But that’s not what happened…

She closed her eyes, leaned in, and kissed the bruise on my forehead. It was that kind of reassuring kiss your mom gives you when you’re scared on the first day of second grade.

“Why don’t you practice before you see me next?”

I was speechless.

“Promise me you’ll start taking this seriously. This instrument is my whole life. Imagine building a house with your bare hands, and then watching your kids put holes in the wall.”

I didn’t get the metaphor exactly, but I nodded my head.

She opened the sliding glass door to her backyard. I was so stunned by her kindness that I forgot to open the screen and walked right through it. I looked back, waiting for her to throw one of her decorative table ferns at me. Instead, she pretended like nothing happened.

I walked home in a trance. It was like when you first lose your virginity, and all you can think is: “Huh, so this is what it’s like.” As soon I got home, I found my charger and practiced for three hours.

She continued being mean after that, but I’ll never forget that exchange we had. I have plenty of theories about why she kissed my bruised forehead, although I’ll never be sure what she was really feeling that day.

I stuck with the piano for another couple of months, and then discovered the saxophone. I’ve played the saxophone ever since.

Jared Nigro is a writer and performs at the Upright Citizens Brigade theater. His podcast, Fixer Upper, is a home-improvement show that also looks at your deep-seated psychological issues. He also secretly wants to move to New Orleans and play saxophone with a Rag Time Jazz Band.