Heart and Soul

at 11:35 PM

One of the stories I've often told about my kid sister Jennifer, a singer, is how she was fired by her piano teacher in the second grade. Why? She'd hear a song just once and be figuring it out on the keys. Sheet music was a distraction. Eventually her teacher had enough.

Actually, it's more complicated than that, which I learned when I saw Jennifer in the Netherlands in December. Indeed, as a little girl she was sent packing by her piano teacher. Before that, she was, like her four older siblings, required by our mother, a church soloist, to take piano lessons. Unlike the rest of us, she was a leftie and she had talent. She'd find music everywhere: she'd even harmonize with the hum of the vacuum cleaner.

For a young songwriters' contest, 7-year-old Jennifer wrote a tune about a fluffy snowman. She taught it to her class and they performed it. The song won second place in the state of Illinois.

What proved her undoing in piano lessons was a four-handed duet of "Heart and Soul," that 1938 tune by Hoagy Carmichael who talked about how he "found" melodies. Jennifer learned, with her left hand, to play her teacher's two-handed part. So, during a lesson, when her teacher went to fetch a cup of tea and told her to practice her scales, Jennifer launched into "Heart and Soul," solo.

How proud was her teacher? "I told you to work on your scales," she scolded. And at the end of the lesson, the teacher informed our mother that Jennifer was too undisciplined to teach. Jennifer was crushed. Our mother was more sanguine. You just keep doing what you're doing, she said; playing, singing, composing, harmonizing.

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What our mother didn't say, but what Jennifer started learning: Fall in love with something, give it the best hours of the day, and long ones, and don't stop making beauty. No guarantee it brings wealth or fame. Though it might take you some interesting places - like onto The Voice of Holland, where she sang this past season. That's why, over breakfast in a cafe overlooking the North Sea, the morning after the semifinals, I asked her to retell the story about being told she was unteachable.

With a Perspective, I'm Steven Saum.

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Steven Saum is the editor of Santa Clara Magazine.

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