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Open Features: My Finest Hour

In Ken Patterson's musical tale a formidable teacher is backed up by a feathered adjudicator.

Anxious over the outcome of our first meeting, I found myself concentrating on my deep breathing while standing in the middle of what was referred to as the study. Was the room cold, or was I shivering because of nerves?

It was certainly a cluttered room. It would almost be an unkindness to say that it was untidy.

A delph rail, overpopulated with Toby jugs bordered the walls, capping a much faded tapestry paper. The carpet felt hard and lumpy underfoot. Partially drawn heavy drapes and the smell of stale tobacco gave the room its oppressive feel.

I could almost believe I had stepped back into the 1920s but for a copy of the Weekender which lay on the floor with other dusty publications. It featured a story about Charles and Camilla's wedding.

My eyes were attracted to a picture of a Puffing Billy which hung crookedly in the centre of a wall, creating an impression that the engine was travelling uphill. I was deliberating whether or not to answer the impulse to step forward and straighten the picture when the door opened and a man entered.

Reacting to the suddenness of his appearance I said "Hi, good evening, hello'' all in one mouthful. The size of the man was a test of one's grit.

He paused just long enough for me to wonder whether I really did need a singing teacher. Then he glided towards me with a smoothness which seemed to contradict his bulk and size. The threat of his stature was diminished with a warm handshake and welcome.

Any reassurance offered by this greeting was short lived.

"My teaching technique” he bellowed, “and my ability to bring out the music in the human voice place me in very high demand. I am in the enviable position of being able to choose my students. Needless to say, I do not waste my time on those who are not committed. I give one hundred percent. I expect one hundred percent in return. Do you understand?”

Then in a challenging tone he added “You have one hour in which to convince me, you are worth my while.”

Before taking up his position at the piano he picked up a cushion from the piano stool, removed a hot water bottle, replaced the cushion warm side up, then, with a sigh, sat down.

He stretched out a hand, offering me the hot water bottle. "Hold this against your stomach muscles,” he ordered. "Relax and breathe deeply.”

I did so.

His hands touched the keyboard and music began to flow, enhanced by the acoustics of the room. He produced sounds which were so soothing that all the things I had considered saying to him drained away.

He had a huge wart on the high point of his chin. In profile it appeared to be double its size. As he silently mouthed the notes his fingers were producing the wart responded in rythimic fashion.

I had to turn away to avoid being overcome by giggles.

“Did you bring any music with you?” he asked

His well-timed question eased my undisciplined tenseness.

“No. I wasn’t sure what the first session would entail.”

“Then we’ll try a few scales, When you’re ready...”

Scales always bored me, so as I began to sing my attention drifted to a pile of old newspapers. I employed a tehnique pefected while travelling daily to the city on the train, that of being able to read newspaper and magazine headings when they were upside down.

The lesson seemed to be going well. My attention returned to the job in hand. I began to move freely about the room, delivering my renditions and pleasantly sharing an occasional voluntary harmony. Reacting to a lively crescendo I toppled an already top heavy folding tray. Most of the bric-a-brac lay where it fell, but a dirty cup ricocheted across the floor, coming to rest against the leg of the piano where it spilled its contents, revealing a soggy cigarette butt.

“Leave that! Leave that!” he insisted. “Now, from the beginning and hold on to those notes and this time let me hear that high C.”

Stealing a pause to regain control of my breathing, I focused on the budgie huddled up in its cage on the window seat, then mentally began making my way up through the chords, filling my lungs and bracing myself for this my final attempt to impress.

Then the budgie squawked in on ‘F’

“Don’t mind Caruso,'' he said. "He only joins in if he likes you.''

Was that it? Was Caruso’s casting vote the deciding factor? Was tonight the night I would be able to stand and say this was my finest hour?


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