Flashback Friday is a feature I did in 2011 when I first started this blog. It was a way to practice my writing by sharing stories of things that happened in my life. This feature is what inspired the name of my blog. This short story is about a class I took in college where I got the first F of my life and it was quite shocking. Hope you enjoy it.
“Welcome to Piano Literature! I’m Professor Beekman and we will be studying the wonderful world of the Romantic period. Lizst, Brahms, and Chopin are just some of the great composers we will get to know this semester. Please take one syllabus and pass them down.”
Professor Beekman seems nice. He’s young unlike most of the piano professors. He’s average height and has a gentle smile, unlike the head of the piano department who is short, terrifying, and smiles in a condescending way. Professor Beekman also still has all of his hair which is a nice bonus.
“Are there any questions before I hand out the music?”
YES. WHAT THE CRAP IS PIANO LITERATURE.
I’m about to raise my hand but I look around the room first. Two students are sleeping, four are staring off into space and the girl next to me is taking detailed notes. Great, I’ll be the idiot freshman who wants to know “What IS piano literature?” I don’t raise my hand.
During the noise of CDs being passed around the class along with huge notebooks that contain the scores to the CDs with at least 100 pages in them, I turn to the girl next to me who was taking notes. Her name is Maggie.
“So…what is piano literature exactly?” I try to seem curious and not dumb by slouching a little and twirling my pencil casually.
“I don’t really know, either.” She shrugs with a small smile.
That’s okay. I’m sure I’ll do great in this class even if I don’t know what it’s even about yet.
CRYING MAKES MY PROFESSOR QUOTE TOLSTOY
Here’s the short version of what piano literature is: it’s the class from hell. The long version: It’s a class to help you recognize all of the major piano works just by listening to them and learning about the lives of the famous piano composers. To accomplish this we have to take tests that are so laughably hard that my friends thought I was kidding when I described the tests to them.
For our first quiz, Professor Beekman plays 30 second clips from the four hours of music the we have been listening to. And he doesn’t play the main themes of the pieces that everyone recognizes. Oh no. That would be too easy. He takes way too much delight in playing the very obscure, transitional parts of the music. I can’t remember the names of any of the pieces. I should have memorized them. You know that charming, beautiful music from the romantic period? It all sounds the same. I end up getting 2 out of 5 right on my first quiz. The seniors that were sleeping on the first day of class all get 4 out of 5 right. That should be me. I slept through calculus in high school and still got an A. Something must be wrong.
I talk to my professor after class about my grade and explain that I correctly identified the Hungarian Rhapsody. “I can live with a C if I get this one more question right….” He smiles a little and says “But the title of the song is Hungarian Rhapsody NUMBER 2.”
“But you didn’t say we had to list the whole title of the song.”
He helpfully suggests that he’ll announce it in class next time and now I know.
He must have been Snape in another life. He walks out the door but he sees me crying before he gets there and says some quote from Tolstoy about how everyone is unhappy in different ways. THANK YOU THAT’S VERY HELPFUL.
I have to come up with a plan to pass this class.
STUDYING STRATEGY #1 – BUY ENOUGH BATTERIES TO FILL A SMALL LANDFILL.
I can feel my husband watching me as I cram my portable CD player, my bulky headphones, my CD wallet, and a ten-pack of batteries into my backpack.
“What are all the batteries for?”
“I have to listen to my CDs to study for piano lit. My portable CD player eats batteries for breakfast.”
“I know. I hope it’s enough to get through the day.”
The study by osmosis method didn’t work. I thought I could just listen to the music over and over without really paying attention since I can memorize tons of radio songs that way. Learning this music is going to take more work. I listen to my piano lit CDs for at least an hour and a half every day. And now I know that he loves transitions. So I pay special attention to the strange parts of the pieces.
The professor hands back my first test. I got 35 right out of 100. How pathetic is that. It’s not even enough for random chance. It’s like my brain is trying to get them wrong. At least I didn’t cry this time.
He passes out four more CDs with FOUR MORE hours of music to learn. We get a new set of music at the end of each month.
I can’t breathe. How is everyone else passing this class? Why did I decide to be a piano major?
STUDYING STRATEGY #2 – TO PASS THIS CLASS YOU MUST KILL TREES
“It’s okay. I didn’t do so well on my test either,” Maggie says as she looks at my test. I glance at her paper. She got a C. I’ve never gotten one of those either. I went from an A student right to an F student. It would have been nice to pass through mediocrity first before I went straight for failure.
“A bunch of us are going to study together. Do you want to join us?”
Heck yes I do. I’m no longer Hermione. I’ve officially become the Ron of this study group.
The study group gives tips for remembering transitions that sound similar in songs. I also notice that all of them have copied the over 100 pages of the scores for the music.
“How do you even copy 100 pages of music?” I ask Maggie at one of our study sessions.
“Oh it’s easy actually. They have a tray the feeds the paper for you. But you’ll need to get a copy card to copy that many pages.”
Between the batteries and the copy card, this class is costing me a fortune.
I stare at the pages during the study sessions like everyone else. I’m not exactly sure what they are looking for. I memorize all the names of the pieces and ask my professor if I can write them down on a piece of paper before the test starts. Maybe the confidence of having options to look at will help. It’s clear from the look on his face that in all the years he’s taught this class,no one has ever asked him that but he says it’s fine.
I get 40 out of 100 right this time.
I’ve gone from a straight A high school student to completely failing a class. Half of my grade is an F. After lots of calculations, I figure I can get a C- if I get 200% on the next two tests.
“I shouldn’t be a piano major.” I tell Maggie as we leave the classroom. “I suck at it. No matter how much I listen to the music, it just falls out of my head.”
“No, you don’t suck! Everyone just learns differently. We’ll study more and you’ll do great.” Maggie then gives me a hug and a big smile.
She’s annoyingly chipper.
At the end of the day, the broken record of “I’m a failure” and “Everyone learns differently” is still playing in my head when I realize something.
I LEARN DIFFERENTLY.
I have almost photographic memory for things I read and see but I’ll forget the beginning of a conversation by the time I get to the end of one. Especially if the person yammers on a lot. I remember learning in psychology that some people are visual learners and some are aural learners. Now that I think about it, I realize that I am definitely a visual learner. I can totally pass this class if I find a way to make piano lit visual instead of aural!
Right. I have no idea how to do that. I’m pretty sure it’s not possible to make a listening test visual because it’s, you know, a LISTENING TEST. But I need to do this for me. No matter what grade I end up with at the end of the semester, I can’t help thinking that I haven’t failed until I give up. This is a class for my major. If I don’t pass, I can’t be a piano major anymore. Besides – what’s the worst that could happen? I’ll get another F? The thought makes me laugh for a moment before it turns into a sob.
STUDYING STRATEGY #3 – CRAYONS AREN’T JUST FOR PRESCHOOL
“What are you doing?” my friend Maggie asks.
“I’m studying for piano lit.”
“Ok. But what’s with the crayons.”
I look at my score spread out before me. There are blue circles, green lines, and red dots just on this page alone.
I shrug. “The colors help me remember the themes. Hopefully.”
It’s the last test of the semester. I’ve been studying 3 hours a day for this class alone. I spent the last of my money on a brand new iPod Mini just for this class that even has a built in quiz function. I think my classmates are a little jealous of it. At my desk, I furiously write down my song list before he begins the first clip. I am so ready.
I get 60 out of 100 hundred right. OH YEAH!!! That’s more than half right! Which means statistically it wasn’t just guessing! I so rocked that test.
EPILOGUE – NEVER GIVE UP, NEVER SURRENDER
My professor calls me into his office later that day. He invites me to sit. I’m so sure that he’s going to congratulate me on my score that I don’t understand what he says at first.
“I’m a little concerned about your grade.”
“….Oh. Well I got 60 right this time.” A huge smile spreads across my face. I can’t help it.
He purses his lips together and gives me a look full of pity. “That’s a D.”
My smile deflates. “Oh. I guess it is.” Some people just don’t look at the positive in life. I see it as more than half right, he sees it as almost half of them wrong….
“Look I know you’ve been studying hard. I’ll take that into account for your final grade. You can do some extra credit and your writing tests should help bump up your grade a little.”
My final grade that semester was a B-. I’m crying because I’m more proud of that B- than I was of all the other A’s I had earned combined. Next semester we studied 20th century music which was mostly glass and nails on piano strings and other disturbing things. But I had my study methods down to an art. I was getting 90 out of 100 right on my tests. Remember those sleeping seniors? They had never heard any of this so-called music and wanted to learn our studying strategies. So I got to be Hermione again by helping them study. And that was a wonderful feeling.