They had come to play basketball, in spite of the heat of that especially warm day at the end of August, in spite of the fact that the place where they chose to scrabble around each other and dunk their baskets as best as they could was the blacktop yard of the school that was about to swallow them up in a few days, reclaiming them for months from the halcyon hours of the summer holidays.
They could have gone to the beach to loll about on the sand in the sun, and swim as the mood took them, but they had gathered in the school yard, the six of them, to throw around a basketball. They were too young to hold down regular summer jobs, but one of them came from a family of means, as her father headed up the town’s main industry, the lumber mill and the woods operation that supplied it, so they might have cadged a boat and gone fishing, or simply messed about like Ratty and Mole in the waters off the island, talking about the nothing that was everything and counting down the days until they returned to the questionable business of acquiring an education. But they had decided on basketball.
Ratty and Mole were big that summer with Deirdre Blakeley, the daughter of the manager, and of a mother who had always read to her when she was small, and encouraged her reading when she became skilful in the art in her own right; and so was Roderick Haig-Brown, who was still alive and writing not too far north of their own town on that literarily blessed shore, so a boat out on the water came under the heading of inspiration and adventure that had been much acknowledged in the greatest written works imaginable. Not dealing with girls in his stories for youngsters, Haig Brown was not quite Arthur Ransome, with his pairs of brothers and sisters in Swallows and Amazons, but he was local. Wildcat Island never smelled like the shores Deirdre was used to, with their salt and seaweed and ever changing tides that in some places she knew left huge reaches of sand or mud.
And yet Deirdre and her friends had chosen basketball, and that of the most nonchalant variety, half-a-dozen youngsters in their ordinary summer togs all horsing about a single basket, with no particular ambitions to excel physically, so they could spend a maximum of energy simply talking, prudently getting ready, had they been willing to acknowledge anything so adult as prudence, for another long run at the books and the desks and the teachers that would not know a decent break until Christmas.
They had arrived not long after lunch, contemptuous of the mid-day heat, determined to make all the use they could of the last days and hours of their unsupervised existence, and within half-an-hour had come to many grand conclusions, socially speaking, and not a few excellent plays and nicely sunk shots, some from occasionally battling off interference close under the basket, others from well placed deliciously suspenseful long tossed drifters. Of the two boys present, one was destined for remarkable glories on an Island already famous for its basketball players.
In those days there was not the hockey there is now, and basketball, under roofs shielding them from the omnipresent winter rain, was big. He was also a generous lad, destined to become after basketball a teacher, and he always took pains to show the rest of them how to dribble properly, that is, without looking at the ball. The afternoon had begun well and no one saw any reason why it should not continue in just this manner until it was time to think about supper and drift off home, probably by way of an intervening corner store and several bottles of pop. In the holidays, basketball could go on forever, with neither classes nor homework looming in its way. All that leisure was a lovely thing to hold on to.
And then had come the music.
Via a long-standing tradition, there were two pianos in Saint Bridget’s school, one in the ample space that doubled as gymnasium and auditorium, one in the grade eight classroom, which happened to be right beside the playground, because in the history of the religious order that had taken care of the souls of the young in the Catholic school in Blackfish Bay, the teacher in charge of the grade eights, the oldest class, was usually musical. And this year to come, so the news that spreads from convent to town as quick as can be had told it, the custom was not to be broken except in the vocation and sex of the grade eight teacher, who was to be a young man, not a nun and not a religious brother. And yet the news held it to be – and Deirdre had this on good authority from her mother – that the young man was nonetheless no duffer on the subject of the Faith, coming from a family famous for it in many ways, and also, apparently, a considerable musician and singer. It seemed that he played all sorts of instruments and knew all sorts of well-placed musicians and artists of other skills, and could teach art himself. It also happened that of the six youngsters playing basketball on that warm afternoon, five would find themselves in the grade eight class room.
None of this was very exciting to the boys, especially when they heard that the new teacher was supposed to be very knowledgeable in classical music. It would all be so much better for them if he knew something about sports. And then there was the thought that if he were only a layman, he might not be as strict as the sisters, and they could get away with murder, maybe run the classroom themselves. They were even talking along those lines, the two boys among the four girls, as they thumped the ball on the ground and alternately hit or missed the basket, and chortling over the possibilities. The boys had never known any males teaching in public schools..
And then, as I say, came the music, floating out of the grade room beside the playground, and although their individual skills and taste and understanding varied – Deirdre was the most accomplished – they all understood that it was music, summoned out of the piano with an amazing combination of vigour and lyricism, not quite like anything they had ever heard before. Perhaps floating is not the write word, for all the energy that brought forth the sound.
The boys tried to keep the game going, but all the girls wavered and Deirdre most of all came to a full stop. As Aristotle said, a musician, when she hears music, can think of nothing else. “Would you listen to that?” she said. “Who is it? It can’t be Sister Barbara. She went off at the end of June and no one’s seen her around since. Besides, she never played like that. That’s really loud, sort of like dance music. Almost rock and roll. Anybody know the tune?”
They all shook their heads, but the boys gave up bouncing the ball.
“Actually, I don’t think it is a tune. I think that’s some kind of scale practice, although it doesn’t sound like any of the scale practices I’ve had to do. It’s not at all boring. Just listen to it!”
On the subject of music, there was little point in arguing with Deirdre, and they listened. And, to tell the truth, it was not difficult, for there was indeed a mighty sweep of sounds pouring through the open windows, powerfully and consistently rhythmical, and yet at the same time there was no shortage of a very melodic emphasis. Very tuneful, yet not a tune, for the performer – or student, it was not easy to decide which – now and again inserted lengthy repetitions of one chord, or two or three in a repetitive pattern.
“Do you know what?” Deirdre said, “That person is practicing and having an awfully good time doing it.”
“Do you recognize it yet?” asked one of the girls.
“No. Like I said, I can’t make it out. He – or she – is mixing up major and minor like I’ve never heard before, I think. At the beginning it was just major chords, I think, and yet not in any scale that I could recognize. And yet it’s not a tune, which is the only place I’ve ever heard major and minor mixed up like that. Well, that person, whoever it is, is playing little tune passages in a way, but I bet it’s just some kind of exercise in which he’s having a lot of fun. That doesn’t sound like any of my exercises. I hate my exercises and now Mrs. McCallum is telling me I have to do even more exercises and scales when I go back in the fall. It’s enough to make me think of giving up the piano!”
“Oh, no!” said the same girl. “You’re too good a it to quit. Besides, your Mom would never let you.”
“The thing is, she would. She quit, you know, at just the age I am now. She had a great row with her parents, but in the end she won, and she quit. She said it didn’t make any sense that there were some subjects she loved, like history and home economics, and literature, and some she’d started to hate, like the piano. We’ve been talking about it, and if I don’t want to go back, I don’t have to. Would you listen to that? How is he using his left hand? It’s got to be a man! It’s so strong! That left hand is incredible!” For a moment, she danced a few lively steps. But her musician’s curiosity suffocated her desire to perform and she became still again to listen. How was the player doing what he was doing?
“Oh, I can’t stand it,” Deirdre said. “I’ve got to go in there and see what’s going on! Who’s coming with me?”
“ Not me,” said the taller of the two boys, the one who made the best shots, especially the long ones. “I’m not going into that building until I absolutely have to. Music or no music. School starts too soon as it is.”
Deirdre looked around the group. None of them looked eager, and except for the girl who’d told her she had to keep studying, there was a uniform shuffling of feet and then a starting drift back to playing positions. Who in their right mind wanted to deal with a teacher in these last hours of the holidays? “Maggie,” Deirdre implored, “You’ll come, won’t you? I’ve got to see what’s going on! I won’t be able to sleep tonight if I don’t find out!”
The tall boy thumped the basketball on the blacktop. “Women!” he said.
“No,” said Deirdre. “Not women. Artists. I have to know what’s going on in there. I have to know. I’ve never heard it before and it sounds really good. If some great basketball player came to town and from watching him you thought you could double your accuracy from the court you’d ask him to show you how it’s done. C’mon, Maggie. Let’s leave these jocks to their fate.”
All the way to the front of the school building, Deirdre was terrified that the front door would be locked. It was one thing to go right up to the door of the classroom and humbly ask to come in and inquire about the magic; it was something much different to bang on a locked main door, interrupting the pianist in the midst of his flight. But the door was open, wonderfully open, and inside the building the music for some reason sounded even better, even more inviting, bouncing off the empty walls that would soon be full again. Nor did there seem to be anyone else in the school, and the door to the grade eight room was also open. There would not even be the sensitive moment of wondering if they should turn the handle. They peered in.
It was a man, as she had begun to be positive, and therefore he had to be their new teacher. What was his name again? K something. Ketchum? Cartwright? These were two names she knew from her Dad’s business. No. Cameron. Mr. Cameron. That was it. But she’d forgotten his first name. Well, what did that matter? Students didn’t call their teachers by their first names anyway.
The music stopped, and for a second the girls both expected a scolding for their boldness, for causing an interruption, but the man only grinned and said, “Aha! An audience. And a generous one, too, for I’m only working on scale patterns. No tunes today, I’m afraid. No tunes until school starts, and then of course you’ll have the bother of having to learn them. That is, if you’re in my class.”
“But that’s why we’re here,” Deirdre said. “I knew you were doing exercises. I study the piano too, and I never heard anything before like what you were doing so we came in to see if you’d show me. I mean, they may have only been studies, but they were beautiful, and I wanted to see if I could catch on to your method. Mrs. McCallum really pitched into me at the end of the year and threatened me with a whole book of scales. You must know Hanon?”
The young man chuckled one of the warmest chuckles Deirdre had ever heard, and it was at that moment that both girls understood that this was not only a musician who could do things they had not been aware of, but that he had an amazing ability to make them feel utterly at home, and Deirdre, being a generous soul, suddenly felt sorry for the children who had stayed on the playground. But it was all right. They’d have him next week.
“Only as the enemy,” Mr. Cameron said. “He and his like are no friends of mine. Or of yours, I suspect. I take it that Mrs. McCallum is your piano teacher?”
“Yes. Oh, she’s very nice. But she’s . . . .”
“Ambitious for you. She wants you to get your grade ten with the Conservatory and all that.”
“Yes. And I love the piano and I love to play and both my parents are very encouraging in all the right ways but I know I hate scales. They seem stupid and boring and unmusical.” She had never put her attitude into just these words before, so thoroughly categorical, but there was something about the presence of this dark haired new teacher of theirs that made it possible, no necessary, that she say what had lain in the bottom of her heart. “And I think I’m starting to hate the conservatory.”
“And so you should,” Mr. Cameron said, still grinning, but both girls knew he was looking them over thoroughly. In fact they felt that he was somehow looking right through them. “The conservatories, all of them as far as I know, are great victims of eighteenth century philosophy, of the neglect of Aristotle and sensible metaphysics, to say nothing of metaphysical sensibility.”
He kept grinning. “Do you know what I’m talking about?
“Not really,” Maggie finally spoke up. “But it sounds very interesting. Is this something we have to study this year?”
“Oh, yes. But it’s not as hard as it sounds. You do know who Saint Thomas Aquinas was?”
“Yes,” said Deirdre. “His feast day was in March. We had a special mass, and Sister Principal said a few words. She was our teacher last year and we learned a lot about the middle ages and how Saint Thomas baptized Aristotle so the Church could stay sensible. But what’s that go to do with piano studies? My Mom talks about Saint Thomas sometimes too. She told me that your grandfather is a great expert on his writing. And some other saint whose name I can’t remember.”
“Ah. It’s a wise mother who understands her daughter’s teacher. But right now the only thing we need to know about Thomas or Aristotle is that a philosopher in the seventeen hundreds decided to ignore both of them and came up with his own version of Plato just in time to confuse piano teachers, so that they ran away from common sense and forgot what Aristotle said about music being a branch of arithmetic. You see, what you heard me doing, and seemed to be charmed by, was merely the use of numbers as applied to the keyboard. Numbers and common sense, along with the ears God gave you and some attention to all the possibilities of fingering, but also with some attention to some rules.”
As he had begun to talk, Mr. Cameron had gestured with his hands, inviting them to come right up to him, so that they were now in full view of the front of the piano, and from that vantage point, Deirdre could plainly see that the shelf where one usually found printed music was totally bare. Not a book, not a sheet.
“Good heavens! What you were playing you were playing from out of your own head, weren’t you? You don’t have any written music in front of you.”
“Not a jot. Of course. When you know the math, you don’t need written music for these exercises. In fact, you don’t want it. It would just get in the way. Kant came along just as printing was about to get cheaper, so some people grabbed at the opportunity to make money by making it seem like students couldn’t get along without books full of stupid studies. I’m not talking about real compositions. For the classic stuff, printing is both necessary and very democratic. It saves us from the tyrannies of the oral tradition.”
“Who was Kant? What did he compose?”
“He didn’t compose anything. He was a philosopher. But philosophers have a way of affecting art and the way that art is taught.”
“You must have been really smart to figure all this out,” Maggie said.
“Not me. My grandfather. He only played the violin, and he could read music to sing with too. But when my mother wanted to study the piano he started to figure out the stuff she didn’t like and found a better way. She taught me.”
“Is that the same grandfather that knew about Aquinas?” Deirdre asked.
“Yep. That’s how he knew what was wrong with the teaching methods. Finally. It took him a while.”
Well, Deirdre thought, it’s now or never. He can only say no. Maybe it’s a secret he’s not allowed to share, even if he looks so nice. And sounds so nice. But I have to ask, or I’ll die. She gathered her courage, again. “Will you show us? Will you show us what you were doing, and explain it? I’m pretty good at math, and so is Maggie, and Maggie has started studying the piano too. A couple of years ago.”
“ Same teacher?”
“Yes,” said Maggie.
“Ah. So eventually more Hanon, or at least the watered down versions. Hang ‘em all. Sure I’ll show you. But what about the game? You guys were doing some good stuff. That tall boy is a great shooter. And he was teaching you some drills. Seems like a nice lad.”
“That’s Andy. Andrew Johnson. I tried to get them all to come in with us, but they don’t want school to start yet. They’re not musicians.”
“To a degree at least, they will be. But all in due time. For the moment, let us seize the day and get you started.”
“Really. What else are teachers for, but to teach? In the key of C major, to begin with, only forget that the letters are the most important names for the notes and start to believe, for now and forever that it is the numbers that give us the dynamics and therefore the meaning. Can you sing?
Of course you can. Whoever heard of girls who couldn’t sing?”
“Of course we can sing, especially after Sister Barbara. But what’s singing got to do with piano?”
“Everything, as you shall see. Think of it as a conversion experience.”
“Teacher’s joke. Never mind. Try this.” He poked middle C and sang out in a perfectly resonant voice: “One”. Only he held the syllable for a very long time, longer than they had ever heard anyone hold a note, including Sister Barbara. They were both so shocked by the power of Mr. Cameron’s voice that they couldn’t sing a note themselves.
Deirdre finally spoke up. “Do we have to sing like that?”
“No. Of course not. I was just using up some of the energy I picked up when I was rolling on my chords. You sing as quietly as you like, so long as I can hear you get the numbers right. Okay? ‘One, two, three’ and so on. After all, you wouldn’t want the others to hear you. Let’s go.” Thus they started, with four slow beats on each note, as he took them up the octave. He did not sing loudly this time, but he surprised them by using “one” for the top note. “You could say ‘eight’, because it’s the same thing, but the vowel for ‘one’ is a back vowel and easier to sing than the front vowel that does for ‘eight’, when you get to the high notes. For some people the upper C is getting high. All right? Take a deep breath and we’ll go down. Going down is easier by the way. The Greeks liked to sing their scales downward.”
They did as they were told, but Deirdre had another question at the bottom of the stairs. “Do you teach singing too?”
“’Fraid so. It’s a family disease. We will do a lot of it, but I think you’ll all have a good time. Singing is very good for you, especially when you do it right.”
“Do you know more about singing than Sister Barbara did?”
“At the moment, I have no idea, although if Sister Barbara did not study with my mother, I just might. But do you know what? I’ve been incredibly rude. I haven’t even asked you your names.”
“Of course not,” Deirdre said. “You were waiting to see if we could sing. This is Maggie – Margaret – Schlegel – and I’m Deirdre Blakeley.”
“ Irish. Ah. I know lots of Irish and Celtic songs. And Schlegel! German! The greatest heritage in classical music. Maggie, it will be up to you to become my protector when I start your classmates on Bach’s Variations. That’s where the numbers really strut their stuff. My first name is Paul, by the way, but things being what they are, you have to use my surname. At least in public.”
But the impelling curiosity that had summoned Deirdre into the school in the first place had not been satisfied. “That’s neat about the singing, Sir. But what were you doing with the piano keys? That was unbelievable, and I have no idea what it was!”
Paul studied her with mock ferocity. “Ah. So you want me to reveal the family secret, do you? Give away the treasures of the guild?. It might cost you supper, now that I know who you are. I was chatting with Father McKeon, inasmuch as I’m staying with him for the moment and he told me how involved your mother was with the arts. Well, it would cost your mother supper, although not necessarily tonight.”
“Really? Tonight would be great. I know things are quiet at the house. Maggie is staying overnight anyway and we can just bring you home and tell Mom we need another plate. I know she’s got a whole bunch of cold salmon in the fridge. Or did Father have you lined up with someone else? Or maybe he’s expecting to talk more with you?”.From what had been said at home about the new teacher, Deirdre had got it into her head that for all his youth, Mr. Paul Cameron knew so much about the Church that he would be the sort the priest would want to be talking to all the time, so much so that he might even live at the rectory. The religious elements had seemed to be the predominant subjects, her mother speaking to her father in quite amazing tones, actually, and the artistic elements had not had quite as much attention. So if the music was any sign of his abilities with religion, he must be really something. It also hit her, with no little force, that this was the first time she would have a man for a teacher. As young as he was – what, twenty-three, twenty-four? – he was not unlike Father McKeon, and yet he was also, somehow, different.
“It all sounds very organized then, almost ordained. Therefore, I am under obligation to let the cat out of the bag. So be it. Smarter than any of the Bachs, and even smarter than Beethoven and Mozart, shall you be, courtesy of Aristotle and my Grandpere.” He paused. “That is, if you practice. Do you know the joke about the little boy with the violin who asked the old man the way to Carnegie Hall?”
They did not, so Paul told them: Practice, son, practice, and then began to show them the major and minor triads for each degree of the scale, with the appropriate left hand notes. He made them do quite a lot of singing of the numbers, and scolded them kindly when their fingering was not consistent, but both girls knew they had never had so much fun around a piano before.