Sorry for the tunes unplayed

"It wasn't so much that I hated piano "It wasn't so much that I hated piano lessons. . .," Fred Bruning explains. "It was only that I couldn't coax anything generally understood as music out of the piano." Photo Credit: Istock

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On Mondays, I went, hopeless, to Mr. Herbert.

It wasn't so much that I hated piano lessons, or had any beef with Mr. Herbert, or his sister downstairs, Miss Lillian, who also taught, or even that I was stuck indoors practicing scales or murdering "Turkey in the Straw" when the rest of Brooklyn was occupying itself with iron tag or stoopball. It was only that I couldn't coax anything generally understood as music out of the piano.

After an hour, Mr. Herbert would sigh and say, "Enough for today." Not wanting to seem like a guy who just got a reprieve from the governor, I did not break for freedom but edged slowly off the bench.

"See you next week," I said to Mr. Herbert.

"Yes," he conceded. "Next week."

Evenings, I practiced on the upright jammed into my parents' tiny bedroom. Sharps and flats flew around the cramped apartment -- Ralph and Alice Kramden had more space -- but in no special order. Occasionally, I would slam the keys.

"I can't do this," I complained.

"You'll be sorry," replied my mother. "Someday, you'll be sorry."

About this, and everything else, Mom was correct.

I'm sorry.

At college, there was a baby grand in the dormitory lounge. Once a young man sat down unannounced and started to play ragtime. Talking stopped. Girls drew close. I watched, amazed, as the fellow's fingers skipped up and down the keyboard. He knew the pieces -- blues, swing, stride, jazzy numbers of all kinds -- by heart and made no mistakes. Barely hesitating between tunes, the guy went on and on. He was a human Wurlitzer. I stood, unmoving, forlorn.

Finally, he stopped and, to a great round of applause, made his exit. It was as though Superman had arrived, performed a smashing act of heroism and streaked into the night.

Girls seemed in a hypnotic state. If the piano man had suggested a beer at the nearby rathskeller, co-eds would have rushed to be first in line. Why hadn't Mom mentioned this side benefit of the performing arts when, lamenting my fate, I threatened to swan dive off the fire escape if forced again to play "Home on the Range"? Why hadn't she mentioned girls?

I am reminded of my gainless piano lessons because on radio I heard a researcher say he had been asking people to recall what others thought of them as children. It is a clever question because respondents must disclose that early promise was fulfilled or squandered, or, as for many of us, there was, at the time, no evident promise at all.

The inquiry can be unsettling in later years. It asks, after all, what have you made of yourself? What is left undone? What hopes are dashed? Vows broken?

Let's not be depressing.

Here's a less dire way to approach the subject: What would you like to tackle in the time remaining?

When a young man, I considered parachute jumping but, discovering that the practitioner at some point packs his own chute, soon reconsidered. Still smitten by the wild blue, I thought about a private pilot's license. I scratched that idea too when, during a demonstration flight, my ashen instructor abruptly took the controls and pointed to the little yellow plane whizzing just below. Close call, he said, only not exactly in those words.

Several times, I have tried Spanish but no luck.

Once my wife and I were in a Latin country. It was hot and we wanted ice for a drink.

The Spanish word for ice is hielo, pronounced E-L-O.

No matter how often I asked for hielo, clerks offered only the bewildered look whose meaning is known world-round: Huh?

OK, what else?

I'd like to learn to waltz. Chess would be nice. Enough astronomy to spot the Great Bear constellation, sure. Speed reading sounded swell since I heard a million years ago that John F. Kennedy sent White House staff members to an Evelyn Wood course.

And, oh, I want to update my Frisbee style with that neat overhand wrist flip favored by devotees who came of age after, say, 1965. I'd give anything to sauté like celebrity chef Mario Batali -- you know, where the stuff in the pan leaps up and rolls over without plopping on the floor -- and I'd still love to sing bass in a '50s rhythm and blues group that sounded as sweet as the Moonglows or Five Keys.

But, you know, there is nothing like the piano.

Most Thursdays, my wife, Wink, and I head at around 8:30 p.m. to a spot called Grasso's in Cold Spring Harbor. The piano player, Frank O'Brien, who has performed with some of the greats, and his sidekick, bassist Tim Givens, celebrate the eternal American songbook. O'Brien is near my age. Givens is in another demographic. Together, they blend beautifully on tunes by Mercer, Gershwin, Berlin, Jule Styne, Cole Porter and, sometimes, maybe a little Henry Mancini and Billy Joel, too.

I may appear to be sitting at the bar nursing the night's single glass of Malbec, but, really, I am somewhere beyond the boundaries of Long Island. I am in Brooklyn, getting nowhere on the piano, and at college, speechless at the splendid moves of a fellow my own age. And then I am in some dreamland where it is not the redoubtable Frank O'Brien at the keyboard, but, me, the kid who wouldn't listen to his mother, and who, on Mondays, made Mr. Herbert sigh -- that kid, making up for lost time.

 

If only

Is there a skill your folks wanted you to learn when you were young but you were too stubborn to work at it? Did lessons go to waste because you hated to practice the piano, violin, sewing or crocheting? Describe your lost chance at developing a talent for something, and whether you ever found your creative side. Write to Act 2 Editor, c/o Newsday Newsroom, 235 Pinelawn Rd., Melville, NY 11747, or email act2@newsday.com for possible publication. Be sure to include your name, address and phone numbers.

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