Tygerpen: Hum (or eat) a few bars

Recently I discussed the significance of chocolate, particularly dark chocolate, in Jewish text and practice. Even as I write this, the Jewish Theological Seminary, Hebrew Union College, Yeshiva University, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association and the Organization of Miscellaneous At-Large Rabbis of Various Eclectic Jewish Groups all are expected to formally recognize chocolate as an instrumental component of Jewish tradition, for without chocolate there would be no celebrated Jewish instrumentalists.*

For generations, Jewish children became musical prodigies strictly because they were rewarded with pieces of chocolate for practicing their instruments. This is known in Hebrew as shih’er or schochad (somewhat inaccurately translated into English as “to grease someone’s palm with chocolate” or “bribe”).

My father became a professional musician because my grandmother persuaded him to practice piano rather than shoot pool by giving him chocolate candy. Years later, Dad played for Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Benny Goodman, Sammy Davis Jr., President Franklin Roosevelt and the “Today” show.

Remarkably, Dad played piano for most of the restricted clubs in our Portland hometown, such as Waverley Country Club, Broadmoor and the University Club. I like to think Dad actually integrated those clubs and broke down the Jewish-exclusion barrier. However, almost no one knew his religious background, and it would have been hard for them to accept him as the first Jewish member since he dressed up for the clubs’ holiday celebrations, such as Easter when he played the piano wearing bunny ears.

At home we had a stunning ebony Steinway baby grand piano, and when my sister was 8 and I was 6, Mom drove us every Saturday to a piano teacher who taught many Jewish kids. Mrs. Tressler was probably in her 70s but appeared to us to be in her 100s. She lived in her large, two-story white house in the same neighborhood where author Beverly Cleary set her Ramona books.

My sister, whose piano lesson preceded mine, easily absorbed music theory and practice. I’d hear her effortless playing as I awaited my turn in the darkened parlor of dusty smells, antiques and dog-eared copies of National Geographic. When it was my turn, Mrs. Tressler would rap her black metal wand on the keys, roaring in frustration at this dimwitted child who ignored the sheet music and played the piano pedal as if it were a car’s accelerator.

When I first started piano lessons, Mom mandated that I practice the piano 15 minutes a day. That grew to a half-hour, then an hour, and later an hour and a half, with two hours under consideration. Not once during these years was chocolate offered at the end of my lessons or practice. (In literature, the previous sentence is known as ”foreshadowing.”)

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Mom would get home by 6 p.m. With that deadline, I’d pile up the piano sheet music to make it appear as if I’d run through all my pieces. I’d mess around at the piano or read a book, drink innumerable glasses of water, keep checking the clock and look out the window until I heard her walk through the door. Quickly I’d slide onto the piano bench and play the last bars of a piece with its heart-stopping runs, trills and flourishes. That never failed to win her acclaim. For decades later, I could spectacularly perform the last several bars of, for example, Chopin’s “Military Polonaise.”

When Mrs. Tressler passed away, Mom enrolled my sister with a jazz pianist and took me to audition for a prestigious classical piano teacher. The teacher listened to me dazzlingly play only the last several bars of Chopin’s “Military Polonaise” and escorted me out the door.

I never took lessons again. Clearly, in Jewish tradition the blame falls on my mother for failing to give me chocolate, notably M&M’s, whenever I practiced.

By contrast, my son Andy agreeably went years later to piano lessons and practiced without urging because I offered him M&M’s up-front. However, when my older son Jordan demanded M&M’s for practicing drums, I refused. I’m absolutely certain there’s a rabbinic “chocolate exclusion” for children who play drums.

* “In the beginning, God created … chocolate, and God saw the light, that it was good. Then God divided the light from the dark, and it was even better.” – From Genesis … somewhere

Trudi York Gardner lives in Walnut Creek and can reached at [email protected] or via her blog, www.tygerpen.wordpress.com.