"PINK MAGNOLIA" (A short piano-love story)
Updated: Jun 20
I thought I would share my first-ever fictional short story involving music and performance. Although based loosely on some of my personal experiences as well as those of a few professional and amateur pianist friends, names have been changed to protect the "innocents!" (Pictured is an informal drawing by my remarkable photographer Jeanette Vonier, who unexpectedly gifted it to me this past Valentine's Day).
* * *
by Ann Grogan © 2023
He thought that his grandma was standing at the front door when his mommy dropped him off at preschool on the first day. She had held his hand and walked him up the front steps of Alice-in-Wonderland Preschool until he was right in front of a pink cloud of an old lady, but it wasn’t his grandma after all. As his mom dropped his hand and kissed him on his cheek, the pink cloud leaned down to take up the same hand, and all of a sudden, the sweetest smell engulfed him as she said, “Devon! I’m Ms. Bailey, your new teacher. Welcome--so happy you’re coming to school with us today! You already have so many nice friends here. I know you’ll love it! Come inside…”
A gentle haze of pink dust settled over him just as a certain measure of comfort momentarily replaced the memory of his mom, who, while his attention had been diverted, was hastily retreating down the front steps of the school to her car.
After the pink cloud took him by the hand and led him, eyes down, into the classroom, she pointed to a small chair at the edge of a low table where three other children sat. He felt lost and confused, but he obediently sat down. The teacher moved away, seeming to understand that he needed to just sit there for a while, taking it all in. After a few minutes he cautiously raised his head and started to look around. He first noticed the big blackboard at the front, some bookshelves with lots of books, a desk, and multiple bulletin boards with pretty colored pictures tacked on them.
Somewhere amidst the swirling images, colors, and the verbal buzz going on between some other children, his eyes settled on a big black thing standing to the side against one wall. It seemed like some kind of big monster! He fixated on it, and for a few moments forgot where he was. He vaguely heard the pink cloud saying something in the distance, but his eyes remained riveted on the monster. Actually, there were two black objects, a small one with four legs that was pushed underneath an upper ledge of the monster. He’d never seen such things, and he had no clue what they were.
There were Crayons strewn about his table and a coloring book in front of him and as well, one in front of each child sitting at his table and at three other tables of children. Some of the children were already busy coloring in their books. He hadn’t said a word since sitting down, but understood that this was his book and he could color it in any way he wanted, and so he chose a colored Crayon and began.
It was a little bit later that the pink cloud clapped her hands, called the group to attention, and invited them to gather around the black monster and sit on the blankets that she had just put down on the floor. Despite his hesitancy, curiosity consumed him; he was first to run over and sit as close as he could to the bench that she had by now pulled out from under the ledge. While the other children were slowly taking their places on the blanket, the teacher opened the lid of an ancient upright piano. Looking up and fascinated, Devon noticed the tips of something white going along the ledge above. He wondered what kind of a toy this was? And how was he to play with it when it was so tall?
The teacher turned to the group, looked down at Devon sitting so close to the piano, and asked “Devon would you like to help me play the piano today? ““Yes, Ms. Bailey!” he replied without hesitation, and not having one idea what a “piano” was, he stood up. Ms. Bailey reached underneath his arms, scooped him up, and sat him down on one end of the piano bench. She walked around to the other side of the bench and sat down--but what was this all about? Devon looked up and down the keyboard and noticed there were both black and white stripes running side-to-side of the monster. What could that mean? What was the teacher going to do?
This big thing that at first had seemed like a forbidding monster, now excited his curiosity sufficiently that his initial sense of dread was reduced almost to nil. It seemed that something special was going to happen, and because of it, chills cascaded down his little body as he sat in anticipation, trembling.
And then he heard magical sounds come out of the black monster as his teacher played a few songs, inviting the children to join in singing if they knew the words. It wasn’t even a matter if Devon knew the words or not; he sat silent, starstruck, the more so when Ms. Bailey stopped playing and asked Devon if he would like to touch some keys? Of course, by then he did want to, and so imitating his teacher, he pushed down first on one key, then on a few more in sequence, and then she showed him how to make the loveliest of sounds by using one finger on each hand to push two different notes at once; it was nothing short of magic! Although he was not yet old enough at four years to know what an angel or a visitation was, then and there he felt a presence enter his body and lift him up.
* * *
Some years later when he started to take piano lessons in junior high, he knew that an angel had indeed visited his classroom that day, and touched his heart. He thought about Ms. Bailey often, and he missed her. He missed that special feeling sitting beside her on the bench, as he had done many times that year. He missed her encouragement to play that old piano, missed the times when his mom was late to pick him up after school and Ms. Bailey would sit him down beside her and for a short time they would play together as she taught him a few beginning children’s pieces during his first year.
It wasn’t too long after he graduated from preschool and entered first grade that he was shopping with his mom downtown, when they passed a huge glass window in a department store. Inside the display case he saw his first grand piano--and he was stunned! Just like the time he was drawn to the black monster, he was drawn to the window. Pulling his hand out of his mom’s, he ran to the window, pressed his nose against the glass, and just stared. He was certain it was a piano, but such a strange looking one!
In that one act the writing was clearly on the keyboard, so to speak, but his mom had not yet realized it although both his dad and mom eventually did, and they allowed him to start weekly piano lessons in junior high and continue all the way through high school. It was an easy road for him and he came to feel at home behind the small spinet piano his parents had bought for home lessons, especially when he set about composing a few simple compositions in the classical style. They were mystified at the talent he evidenced because neither one of them played the piano!
* * *
Now he was graduating from music conservatory. After so many months of preparation, the night for his required senior recital was finally here! He stood on a darkened backstage, handsome in a black dinner suit and white dress shirt and tie, trying not to listen to the ending of the preceding fellow graduate’s piano concerto. Soon it would be his time to walk on stage and take a seat on the bench in front of a gorgeous nine-foot Steinway concert grand, and play the piano concerto he had chosen to learn. He had tested it the day before in an hour he reserved on stage so he could run through his piece. The preceding week he had also played the piece through three other “dress rehearsal” times, but not on this piano. It was in a practice room with two uprights, and while he played on one, a recent conservatory graduate played the part of the orchestra as a type of "duet" on the other. Tonight the graduate would play on a second concert Steinway positioned toward the back of the stage, while he performed the piano part on his favorite piano in the front. By yesterday after his solo practice on stage with this Steinway, he felt ready.
Just as he had learned in his Performance Psychology and Readiness class, he implemented his pre-stage ritual. He stood a short distance from a few workers and the stage manager; in the darkness he closed his eyes, squared his shoulders and felt them drop, relaxed his arms and hands, and balanced evenly on his feet. He took a steady inhale, stopped, then added another quick small inhale to fill his lungs almost to bursting. He then pursed his lips slightly, and exhaled very slowly through both his nose and his mouth. He did this two more times and then slowly opened his eyes. He felt relaxed, refreshed. Standing in the darkness he allowed his gaze to blur, then began to think about the sound of the beginning chord and the next few notes in the composition, audiating them over and over slowly in his mind’s ear.
By the time he walked on stage he knew exactly where and how to position his hands on the keyboard when it was time, and exactly what weight of touch and quality of sound he would produce. He approached the piano quickly, walking with an air and posture of confidence (his accompanist had remained on stage sitting at the second Steinway after the prior student had played). Once seated, he noticed that the bench needed no adjustment up or down, and he relaxed; gratefully, no awkward jumping up, bending over, and cranking would be needed. He slightly bowed his head, narrowed his eyes, and imagined the opening chord once more.
Backstage he felt excited, perhaps anxious, but also a bit wistful because it was his final performance as a student at the conservatory. He had wanted to play a piece composed during his senior year, but his advisor suggested it would be safer to choose one that was in the standard concert pianist’s repertoire and thus, familiar to the judges on his panel. Reluctantly, he had agreed although he knew he would have had far fewer nerves had he played one of his own compositions.
It wasn’t the easiest thing in the world for him to be on any stage, even this relatively small one in the conservatory’s only auditorium; a “stage” of any kind was where he felt neither comfortable nor at home. “At home” was literally in his present home, an off-campus, cozy, one-bedroom apartment whose modest living room barely contained his small Steinway. Truth be told on this or any evening, he preferred to be sitting at his piano working out on score paper the melodies that came to him rather easily, practicing his own pieces, or on occasion playing for a few friends he invited over for a casual dinner. Sometimes melodies arrived in his imagination with the smallest provocation, like the sound of the wind whipping around outside, or the occasional dripping sprees of his kitchen faucet. Once he had gone to visit a student friend who had rented a small cottage that was surrounded by a white picket fence, and he had been inspired to compose a children’s piece by a squeak that he heard when he pushed open the gate. The sounds and images of nature were his favorite inspirational motivations to compose, as he did after seeing some amazing photographs that another friend had taken during her recent spring camping trip to Death Valley.
* * *
Sitting on the dimly lit stage at the piano flooded with a soft amber stage light, he focused on the glowing ivory keys of the old Steinway that, like the audience, sat hushed and patiently waiting with bated breath for his first touch. Sotto voce he repeated a favorite mantra as the final part of his on-stage ritual, “Calm mind, peaceful heart.” Just before he lifted his hands to the keyboard he felt totally alone; the dazzling, floating, vibrating anticipatory moment was like sitting in a canoe at the top of Niagara Falls on the verge of flowing over into precipitous descent. He took one calm, natural inhale––and something caught his attention.
In that micro-millisecond, his mind flashed backwards to the looming, old, mammoth black upright piano sitting to the side of his preschool class. On the first day that his teacher had lifted him up to the bench then sat down beside him, he had felt the same kind of breathless anticipation. He remembered the feeling of complete magic in the exact moment when he first put one finger on a white key, then how she showed him to make a chord, and how incredibly beautiful all that had sounded!
And he remembered something else…it was the lucious fragrance that had always surrounded his teacher and her pink cloud aura. Years later he came to find out that she wore the perfume called “Pink Magnolia.” Now, in this final pause before lifting his hands to begin, and with a flash of recognition, the very same fragrance wafted across the stage! He cast one final quick glance to his right into the audience, and there in the first row smiling at him was -- without one doubt -- Ms. Bailey! In the next instant his fingers came down gently on the keyboard, and then he moved inside the sound, lost in the gorgeous melody even as now he had become part of the music that played that evening.
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