I was nine years old when we first met. She was in her sixties. She was a tiny little lady, somewhat elfish in appearance. Miss Monce was always impeccably dressed in silky dresses, some with large, lacy collars. On one foot she wore a laced up orthopedic shoe and a brace; on the other foot, always a lovely slipper or shoe, quite stylish. She wore long nylon stockings even over the top of her brace. She hobbled more than walked, but with surprising speed. Her nose was prominent and pointy and her graying hair was pulled back neatly into a bun at the nape of her neck. She was always cheerful and eager to greet me. When she spoke, despite the fact that her language and speech was quite formal, you knew there was nothing to fear. You also knew that she was in charge.
Her hands were lovely, with long elegant fingers which could fly over the piano keys at an alarming pace and could play many difficult works. She was a graduate of The Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and lived with her parents who must have been in their 80’s when I first began to take piano lessons at their home. Her father wore a three piece suit complete with a pocket watch and fob. Her mother dressed in dark dresses, long stockings and sturdy-looking shoes. They would sometimes nod as I entered the house and then return to reading the newspaper. The faces remain a blur to me; I only glanced at them as I passed through the living area, too afraid to speak. They sat quietly throughout the lesson, sometimes in the kitchen drinking a cup of tea or coffee, careful not to disturb.
The house was a big square house, with dark, beautiful woodwork, an open staircase, and formal furniture of the period. Overstuffed couches and chairs, pillows with fringe, lots of lamps and dark tables covered with doilies. Pocket doors made of beautiful polished wood would separate the parlor/piano room from the living room and front entrance. I saw the kitchen only once in the 10 years that I took lessons there, and that was when I had a coughing spell and Miss Monce took me back to get a drink of water. I never asked to use the restroom while I was there. That would not have been appropriate. I knew to come prepared for a 30 minute lesson with no interruptions.
A baby grand piano sat in the parlor next to a window, which I found distracting. I sat on the piano bench, window to my left, Miss Monce to my right. When I first began lessons a small box of some sort was placed under my feet. Miss Monce sat in a small chair so that she was almost at eye level with the keyboard. She kept a close eye on the music and on my fingers and hands. Keep those fingers arched. Curved. Don’t slouch, sit up straight. She demanded respect and inspired high standards. Her red pencil was ready, tapping out the rhythm as I played.
She would often play the songs that I was assigned for the upcoming week so I knew what they should sound like. We would talk about the time signature, and the key signature, use of the pedals, any concepts new to me. The next week, she expected the song to be presented without fault. If I made mistakes, there was the red pencil which circled the measure where the mistake was made. To repeat a piece of music for a second week was failure; failure never spoken aloud, but understood even by a 9 year old. I was often expected to memorize songs and when I was successful, I was rewarded with her signature near the title of the song for all the world to see. “Memorized” it said. A gold star often accompanied a piece that was mastered. Occasionally a song was not mastered. There were no gold stars unless you earned them. Sometimes we just moved on. At the end of each book, a certificate of completion was filled out and signed and dated.
I had short fingers. Miss Monce often lamented about this. I could barely reach an octave and she would often say “Oh if you only had long fingers you could be quite accomplished.” She encouraged me to go on to music school, but it didn’t seem practical. I didn’t have the dedication to become an accomplished pianist. I accompanied the church choir, played for church and Sunday School, entertained at intermissions at high school plays and musical events, played for 8th grade graduation and accompanied instrumentalists and soloists at high school music contests. Later I played for Rainbow Girls, Church, and Grange. I was pretty good, but not great.
I often felt as if I were her favorite student. She pushed me into levels of playing that I would not have accomplished on my own. She never doubted my ability to read music, interpret, and play.
When I was in high school, I began to lose interest in piano lessons. Band, football games, hanging out with friends became more important. I found less time to practice which she noticed. It was a dilemma for me. I really wanted to stop, but was afraid of hurting her feelings. Also, I knew this was her only source of income. I figured I could stick it out until I graduated. Fortunately, she decided to retire at about the same time I was ready to graduate. Her parents had passed away, it was becoming difficult for her to take care of a large house at her age and with her disability. She had a sale of household goods and sold the house. My mom and I went to the auction and bought a floor lamp. It wasn’t the one I wanted. I wanted the lamp that stood over my left shoulder while I played my lessons. It had a pull chain and a lovely pink lampshade. On dark winter afternoons, if there was not enough light coming in through the window, she would ask me to turn it on. For some reason, I loved that lamp, but I didn’t see it at the sale. Perhaps she took it with her. Before the auction and at the close of my final lesson with Miss Monce, she gave me a large cardboard box full of music, duets, and Etude magazines. I noticed other boxes as well, probably destined for other “favorite” students. I treasured that box of music and felt a bit sad. The lessons had been a huge part of my life.
After the sale, Miss Monce moved near Cleveland, Ohio. She had nieces and nephews and they wanted her closer to where they lived.
I think of her often and of the influence she had on me. She helped me develop musical skills that stay with me still today. She was a wonderful role model and when I became a teacher myself, I would often think about how she motivated and disciplined and helped nurture me along the way.
And sometimes, I pull out that cardboard box full of music that she gave me forty-five years ago and sit down at my little piano and play one of the songs she passed on to me.