A violinist with a stalled career tries to teach a gifted, troubled teen.
Dutifully slogging through the John Thompson piano series as a 12-year-old (well, mostly dutifully – I had been known to sneak into the kitchen to shave a few minutes off the practice timer), I came to a realization: I was never going to sound good.
Even six years of lessons (including Hanon book exercises complex enough to knot up E.T.’s fingers) couldn’t give me the ability to play in public. So, in the time-honored tradition of piano students everywhere, I quit.
Barbara Hall’s witty, downbeat new novel, The Music Teacher, looks at what happens to those children who, although they will never make even fifth chair in an orchestra, love music so much that they can’t quit. (Hint: They grow up to teach kids like me.)
“I became a very good violinist, which is about like being a very good mathematician. It means you cannot actually make your living at your chosen profession. It means you have to teach others how to surpass you,” Pearl Swain explains to readers, after declaring that she’s “the mean music teacher” they remember from their youth. “Here’s why your music teacher was so mean: She didn’t want to teach. She wanted to be a musician.”
In addition to being a self-described musical failure, Pearl has also failed at marriage. (Actually, her husband says she failed. A reader may see it differently, since he’s the one who had an affair with one of his college students.) Pearl now works at McCoy’s, a quaint Los Angeles music store.
Franklin, the owner (on whom Pearl has a crush) dreams of being a session musician, “which is not unlike dreaming of being a ghost writer.” In between private music lessons, the staff stands around arguing about how overrated Jimi Hendrix was and sobbing over Stevie Ray Vaughn. (The tears are courtesy of a bass teacher named Clive, who has a crush on Pearl.) McCoy’s is like the record store in the movie “High Fidelity” starring John Cusack, with Pearl serving as a female Cusack. Two of Pearl’s co-workers vie for Jack Black’s opinionated, mouthy slot, and one – an ambiguous character named Patrick – opts for the quieter role played by Todd Louiso.