portrait of dorcas
tell me that’s not a subhead that grabs your attention! yes, her name was actually dorcas. dorcas lavina snow. the tattered yellow newspaper clippings framed on her wall told of her descendants braving the atlantic on “the good ship anne” and settling in plymouth, massachusetts in 1623. eventually her family migrated to brecksville, ohio and settled much of the quaint town on the west side of cleveland.
our paths intersected one fateful day when i was a freshman in high school. it was an all too familiar scene. my mom, standing at the foot of the stairs yelling to us early on a saturday morning.
“get dressed! we’re going to meet your new piano teacher!”
“shit!” the collective groan could be heard from both my brother’s and my rooms. “here we go…”
since i was in kindergarten, we had a revolving door of horrific piano teachers. bernadette, a snappy twenty-something blonde who taught lessons above a candy store (the only saving grace) and made me cry when I struck the wrong keys. miss woodman at the cleveland institute of music, a haughty, balding woman with a shrill voice and penchant for not wearing bras. miss castellano, a mean spirited italian princess who would tap her pen to the beat of the song and tell us we “should be ashamed of ourselves” for not practicing more. needless to say, we were not excited to meet the next perpetrator of our musical torture.
when we exited off the highway, we turned onto snow road, aptly named for miss snow’s father. she lived in an old white colonial with black shudders. we rung the doorbell and her filipino maid maria opened the door. sweet.
“an old white lady with a filipino maid is going to teach two new filipino kids some piano.” i could feel the dread bubbling up inside me.
we walked down the long creaky corridor to the “parlor.” the smell of mothballs and roasted chicken from the local stage coach restaurant permeated the air. at the end of the hallway, there were six old queen anne victorian chairs with scrolled legs and faded tapestry seat covers lined up. the sitting room was adjacent to a pair of white french doors that were closed shut.
then one of the doors swung open. dorcas snow. was she a sight to behold! old. no, decrepit. white stringy hair tied up in a bun. thick, cloudy cat-eye glasses. a parchment lace blouse that buttoned up to her neck. floral prairie skirt hiked up to just below her bosom. white lace ankle socks and gnarled feet stuffed into pointy caramel brown heels.
it was difficult to process how this little old lady could possibly teach me anything besides how to dress like a granny on little house on the prarie…but as my eyes gazed past her, there was a serious clue. after she greeted us, she opened up the second double door, and there, in the next room, were two gleaming 8-foot Steinway concert grand pianos, their undulating curves nestled perfectly together like two pieces of the most glamorous jigsaw puzzle you’ve ever seen.
this lady meant business. sometimes she was wistful and nostalgic. other times she was stern and crotchety. but she always commanded the utmost respect when she’d tell you to step aside, hobble over to the piano, and bang out a concerto with the verve of a sixteen-year-old.
she was a concert pianist in her youth and demanded excellence. even with all the high school angst and bitterness about having to forgo precious mall time to practice piano, you did it—in order to avoid humiliation, in order to please her, and shockingly, in order to push yourself, to revel in how you could possibly make the piano sing like you never imagined you could.
miss snow had an uncanny ability to size up not only your technical aptitude, but also your aura, your unique personal style. she selected songs that played perfectly into your strengths. for my brother, it was melodic, upbeat rhythms a la gershwin. for me, it was all about finesse—idyllic reveries and pieces that required emotion, expression, touch.
the only problem was, in all the years of “playing the piano,” i never really understood what that meant. sure, i could read the notes. i’d bang them out. when the direction said pianissimo, i played softer. crescendo, i played louder. staccato, crisp and light. ritardo, slow it down.
i learned the difference when it came time for our first big recital. i was given my piece: a prelude by rachmaninoff. it was intimidating, but eventually i committed it to memory. i was quite proud of myself when i went into my lesson.
i sat down on the bench and started the song. miss snow listened. from the corner of my eye, i saw her fidgeting. i played a few more bars. then I saw the grimace. the next thing I heard was the clapping.
“hold on, hold on. stop for a minute.”
she hobbled over to the bench. “i can tell that you have been practicing because you have the notes memorized, and that’s great. but you’re missing something.”
“what was she talking about? i sacrificed some serious phone time to learn this stupid song.”
she plopped right down on the bench next to me and pulled up her sleeves. she crouched down and started to play. her bony frame swayed to the melody while her curled fingers traversed the keys like a dancer pirouetting across the stage. the piano was shaking and i could feel the music. in my gut. could my eyes actually be welling up from hearing, or rather feeling, the music?
after she played the last chord, she stopped, turned, and looked me in the eyes.
“when you play—whether in your living room at home or in the biggest concert hall—play to the top row. like you mean it. so you feel it.”
during this season of fresh starts and new year’s resolutions, miss snow’s words ring true. playing the piano, much like life, can be rote. you go through the motions. memorize the notes. but do you really live like you mean it? so you feel it?
if not, it’s never too late to start.