All original work © 2009 - 2017 Alexey Provolotsky

17 February 2016

THE PIANO TEACHER



It all started three weeks after the first lesson and initially there was not much to it. A slight sensation running across her chest like a procession of black spiders. Their feet stung. An odd, prickly ripple that only came about when she played the highest notes of what Miss Baumann told her to play. Or rather – ordered, in her strong German accent that allowed no argument. It was one month later that she began to hear screams coming from within the deep, fading black of Steinway 1936.

‘Sophie, what is it with you? Are you crying?’

‘I don’t know, Miss Baumann, I just thought of something’.

Miss Baumann put her cup on the coffee table in front of her. Sophie could tell every minute vibration of the glass as the ceramic cup hit the delicate surface covered with notebooks and German newspapers. Miss Baumann’s upper lip quivered. She was angry.

‘This is Beethoven, my dear’. She made that name sound rude, even offensive. ‘You can’t be thinking of anything else. 

Sophie apologised. She really was sorry.


‘It’s the piano’, she said after the lesson as they splashed their feet through the snowy sludge of the pavement. ‘It’s not me’.

December looked hopelessly wet. She felt him squeeze her fingers but was too smart to buy his sympathy. Adult emotions had so many shades to them. Her fingers responded, but only just. She knew what her dad was thinking: ‘Ah well. Last time, it was Mr. Lindeman. Now it’s the piano”.

Sophie hoped her mother would not find out about this conversation. If she did, the lessons would stop and she would never see Miss Baumann again. Which was not what she wanted. In fact, Miss Baumann was the first teacher she liked. Strict, yes, but all music teachers were strict. Miss Baumann was special. Pretty – not magazine-cover pretty, not overwhelmingly so. Rather, there was a slightly sickening twist to the way Miss Baumann looked. It had the effect of a very powerful drug, or that’s the way powerful drugs worked according to Sophie. Intense, sinister, vaguely dangerous, but not at all off-putting. Sometimes Sophie caught herself thinking that she wanted to have straight black hair like that, wear those stockings the way Miss Baumann wore them, twitch her upper lip in such a quizzical manner when she was angry or sad (which was most of the time)… So why did she have to start it anyway, this conversation? Overcoming her fear and her embarrassment? Was it done in silly hope that by telling her father the pain would go away and the piano would stop?

The piano would stop. That really was silly.

In the meantime, they almost missed the bus. Her umbrella stuck, and the driver was beginning to lose patience while overlooking a middle-aged man helping his daughter to shut it. And then, when they entered the bus taking them to some Italian pizza place, and the rain started kicking blindly against the roof and the windows, she suddenly felt warm and thought about Thursday. The big burly hand of her dad, his quiet breath smelling of herbal tea. Maybe it will go away. The screams, the pain. Maybe this time, it really will.


Miss Baumann. The name came out of nowhere. If anything, it was Sophie’s father who brought it up. An investment broker with a healthy indifference to music, especially classical, it was he who broke the silence over Mr. Lindeman’s bullying behavior. This was a quiet, wounded Sunday morning at the breakfast table and Miss Baumann was a friend of a friend of a friend.

‘Sounds German’, Sophie’s mother said.

It was she who wanted Sophie to be a musician. She had her own gallery in central London and believed she had gotten so close to that world that Sophie was just one small step away from breaking through. Initially a whim. Then a children’s piano. Then along came Mr. Lindeman with his obsession for modern art. Then came the classes. ‘She has it’, he said. ‘That girl hovers over the instrument like a bird. She floats’. A professor of music, too. Genius in his own right. However, two years later Sophie was growing restless over her increasingly tedious meetings with Mr. Lindeman when all her friends were getting dates ending in late-night film shows and possibly sex. Sophie was fourteen and the piano no longer sounded like too much fun.

‘She is’, Sophie’s father said. Then he unfolded a flashy poster depicting Franziska Baumann covered in floodlights of some big concert hall. ‘And she is bloody good’.
Sophie could only hear the last part. Clearly this was not about her: she was no longer any good.

‘What?’ he said, looking at his wife.

‘I’m surprised, that’s all. You never cared’.

‘Well, I do. And she has this teaching trick, this technique. She draws the curtain and makes the room dark. Then, as lessons continue, she gradually makes it lighter. You’ll be surprised, but it works like magic’.

Sophie’s mother looked puzzled, but she liked the idea.

‘Besides, if that’s what she wants…’.

Sophie had cut her toast in a million small pieces and was studying them quite sternly. Nothing looked like piano keys anymore. And no, that was not what she wanted. That was not what she wanted at all.


However, things began to improve. Despite initial suspicions and misguided protests from Sophie’s mother, Miss Baumann proved to be the difference. She was pretty, she was relatively well-known in classical music circles (mainly for her acclaimed series of Christmas shows called ‘Liszt by Candlelight’), and, most importantly, she rekindled Sophie’s love for playing the piano. Something she had lost in Mr. Lindeman’s house whose slick brown Wurlitzer piano was the perfect cure for insomnia. Still, Sophie felt a little sorry for the old man. After all, there really was nothing in the way he had touched her hair two or three times.

And now it looked as though Sophie’s father did care after all. Never too keen on those long dark walks to Mr. Lindeman’s shoddy house in Brixton, he seemed a different man now. Two times a week, on Mondays and Thursdays, he brought Sophie to Miss Baumann’s flat, walking all the way from Baker St. Tube Station and back and sometimes staying in the sitting-room to listen to his daughter playing (Miss Baumann didn’t seem to mind and made him strong herbal tea whose smell stayed with Sophie’s father long after the lessons finished). Sophie’s mother gave in, too. Miss Baumann agreed to teach Sophie one of Beethoven’s more difficult sonatas, and the plan was for Sophie to play it at the opening of some modern exhibition in late January. 

It had all been going well – up to a point. Because then there was this piano.

The piano looked ordinary, way too ordinary for a wealthy apartment near St. James Park. Black old Steinway 1936, gnawed away by time. The piano had no edge or depth to its sound. It was something you could perhaps see on a vintage postcard or buy at an odd bazaar for a thousand pounds. Indeed, the most intriguing thing about that instrument was that it belonged to Miss Baumann who stood behind your back and listened to the way you played it. Mr. Lindeman’s Wurlitzer led you to the music. Miss Baumann’s Steinway did not. It was you who had to fill it with personality (if you had any, that is). And that is why those first three weeks were special: because she felt she could do it. Each time she played that piano, she imagined herself doing it in public, in front of a crowd of disbelieving, largely unfamiliar people cheering her on with that silent intensity she had once seen at Royal Albert Hall.

But it didn’t last. Because first there was a pinprick, then another. She jumped from her chair a few times, not quite realising what was going on and whether she was only imagining it. Sophie thought it would go away the very next lesson, but the pain intensified. It needled her fingers and ran through her body. She had to stop a few times and think of a silly excuse. Once she went to the bathroom. Another time she sneezed on purpose and said she needed a handkerchief. Miss Baumann, she felt, noticed her restlessness but chose to ignore it. Sophie was, what, thirteen? Fourteen? It was normal for a child to be fidgety.

Sophie practiced at home, occasionally even doodled some notes in an idle attempt to come up with an original idea (she would have given the whole world to impress Miss Baumann), and there was never any pain. Mr. Lindeman’s piano, too, had at best made her sleepy. So that’s how Sophie knew it wasn’t her. That all along – it was the piano.

She really wanted to tell Miss Baumann, but somehow the very thought of it brought on a strong panic attack. Miss Baumann could get angry or, worse, disappointed.

‘Miss Baumann, I think there’s something about the piano. It does something to me. Something painful’.

‘Sophie, you are not trying too hard. It’s time to make up your mind whether you want to be a professional musician or not’.

Of course, this conversation was never going to happen. Instead, Sophie began to hear screams that were like hot poisoned air passing through her veins and inflating her chest. The screams were coming out of the piano itself. Strangely, it was all about the higher notes which were becoming more and more unbearable with each new lesson. A few times Sophie heard herself whispering in pain. In a little while, she feared, the scream would break her whisper.

There was no point in telling her mother either as that could put an end to her classes with Miss Baumann. Which was how she decided to tell her father, who listened, nodded and looked concerned – but who could not understand. Adult sympathy seemed like some exotic phenomenon to Sophie, but strangely, it had its way of working. So that when Sophie’s father suggested going to that Italian pizza place, she felt better. She even hoped that Thursday would put everything right.  


Yet again, the warm breath of Miss Baumann’s apartment reminded Sophie how much she wanted to be here. She looked around to take it all in, and marveled at how cozy Miss Baumann made it look. This was the house you dreamt of as a child sitting behind the sofa. The sacred hiding place – that was Miss Baumann’s home. The delicious smell was old furniture and dusty stacks of books.

‘Your new hair’, said Sophie’s father. ‘It looks great’.

Miss Baumann didn’t smile, she rarely did. And even when she did, it was only a half-smile, a possibility that was never going to reveal itself. She did it now, making Sophie think that if Miss Baumann did in fact smile, the whole world would burst open or fall apart.

‘We have less than two months, Sophie. Your mother gave very clear instructions’.

‘I’m sure she remembers’, Sophie’s father said. Miss Baumann led him to the sitting-room. The smell of herbal tea purred mysteriously into Sophie’s face like a cat of a stranger.

Sophie sat at the piano and closed her eyes. She hoped today Miss Baumann would see some improvement. She had never practiced so hard as she had during the last two days. Unlike Mr. Lindeman who had praised her even when she hadn’t deserved it, Miss Baumann never said anything. It was like she didn’t care or else was looking for something elusive that just wasn’t there yet. Would it ever be there, Sophie wondered.

She opened the lid and tried a few scales and noticed how her fingers kept leaning towards the left side of the piano. The lower keys. Then she remembered the recent conversation with her father, the warmth of the bus, the bad taste of the pizza (which turned out to be the worst pizza she’d ever had) and tried to convince herself that there was nothing to it in the end. She even found her vague reflection on the black surface of Steinway 1936.

When Miss Baumann came back, she drew the curtains on the dimly lit room, and Sophie began playing.

Her fingers ran all over the keys and Beethoven sounded better than ever. The higher notes, the lower notes, it was all the same to her. Sophie even wondered, like she sometimes did, where Miss Baumann was looking when she was playing. Was she looking at her or was she looking out of the window? At some point Sophie imagined herself in her late thirties, like she sometimes did, and invariably she was with this straight black hair and in Miss Baumann’s stockings. In the meantime, the piece went on, and Sophie realised that she had never before given Beethoven’s sonata so much freedom and so little thought.

She made a small pause, kept her finger on a black key, and turned the page. This time, the silence in the room as well as the clicking of Miss Baumann’s cup against the glass seemed relaxing if not encouraging. Sophie got to the second part of Beethoven’s sonata.

Which was when it jumped at her. Abruptly, from the back. There was no procession of black spiders with legs that stung. It’s like all this time it had been gathering strength right behind her, waiting for the right moment. It grabbed her wrists and breathed something into her ears. Touched her hair, ran fingers across her chest. It all happened in two or three long, excruciatingly long seconds. And this time, it was she who screamed. The kind of hollow scream that comes out of your body, not out of your mouth.

Then, with one quick but heavy thud, Sophie fell down on the floor.


‘Did you imagine anything?’

For once, Miss Baumann was genuinely concerned. In fact, they were both standing over Sophie with glasses of water, asking pointless questions. Sophie shivered as it felt too cold in the room. And all she could say, but never actually did, was that at some point it had weakened its grip and then released her. She couldn’t tell the actual moment when that happened, but she knew for certain that by that time she had stopped playing the piece.

‘So impressionable’, her father said.  

They were now walking along the street. For some reason, Sophie knew that he would never mention any of it to her mother. She also knew that she would do her best to cover the red mark on her wrist that neither Miss Baumann nor her father had noticed.


There were no lessons over the next week as Miss Baumann was doing a series of Liszt related concerts in Wales. Sophie felt relieved and barely touched the piano. All through the week, she thought hard about whether she should ever go back, and was it not wiser to tell her mother and put an end to it all? Maybe this was all a sign and Mr. Lindeman was wrong; she simply wasn’t any good and it was never supposed to work out?

But there were also moments when Sophie agreed with her father and conceded that she just had great imagination. ‘An artistic girl of her age’, she heard Miss Baumann say after the incident during their last lesson. There were also dreams about the opening of the exhibition in January and how she played through the pain and it felt good, oddly victorious. She also listened to the record given to her by her father: Franziska Baumann, Live in Homburg. And then the mark on her wrist turned invisible. Again, had she imagined it?

No, she really had to go back. There was something that went beyond Miss Baumann and her German accent. A memory. A dream. Or maybe just an object.


‘Sophie, today I want to listen to you from a distance’. Sophie looked at Miss Baumann. She didn’t understand. ‘Let’s make it real. I will be in the next room with your father. Play the whole thing for us. The whole sonata. Do not stop’.

It just sounded strange to her, but you were not supposed to argue with Miss Baumann. Still, it made no sense, unless, of course, Miss Baumann believed that it had all been her fault. Alone, Sophie would stay calm. But alone, Sophie knew, meant many other things. Like staying on her own with Miss Baumann’s piano.

Sophie’s heart raced all the way to her throat as she hit the first high note of the piece. She hit it softly, in that polite manner that begged someone, something to have mercy. And this time, there was nothing, not even when she reached the dreaded second part. Just the sound of her piano floating about the darkened apartment. Drowning so much more than the muted screams, the smell of herbal tea and the silence covering this room.

She felt how her fingers stopped playing, almost against her will, and stood up from the chair. There was something she had long meant to do. It was mad and inexplicable, but there was no stopping her. She had all the time in the world before the door clicked open and Miss Baumann emerged from the sitting-room.


Back in her room, Sophie opened the notebook. She had noticed it long ago, on the coffee table where Miss Baumann placed her cup. She had wondered so many times why Miss Baumann never put the cup on the notebook, never softened the sound that was often so indelicate and so distracting.

The notebook looked like a diary with just one entry. 23rd of March, 1942. Two pages long. The diary was in German, in poor handwriting. Sophie figured out that she didn’t have much time and her German was too poor anyway, so she carefully copied the entry without fully understanding its meaning.

Later that evening, Miss Baumann knocked on their door and made a scene. For once, she didn’t look pretty, her hair was all over the place and the sickening twist of her German accent no longer sounded too appealing. Miss Baumann told Sophie’s mother that her daughter was a thief, and it all ended in Sophie’s tears and the humiliating confession. Miss Baumann snatched the notebook from Sophie’s hands and told the three of them that there would be no more lessons. It looked so wrong and awkward, especially the way Sophie’s father ran after Miss Baumann. It was then, perhaps, that Sophie began to understand.
Mr. Lindeman was still hurt and refused to accept Sophie’s apology. Sophie said she didn’t need a music teacher anyway and was happy to study on her own. She did well at the opening of the exhibition, and there was another art lover willing to help.


God this is awful. I just have to write it down. What a despicable man, what a horrible brute.

The girl with an armband plays the piano for us every Saturday. Late at night, after another party, someone throws her a loaf of bread and she leaves. I have to see it every week: harassment and abuse. And yet I have never seen her cry or complain. They get out of their skin trying to humiliate her, but she just takes it calmly and continues playing. It seems to annoy them, and this time my father did something quite horrific.

Of course, I had no knowledge of this, but it turned out that they had inserted sharp razors between the keys on the right side of the piano. The poor girl started playing, and they all just laughed. They were waiting. And they laughed when they saw blood dripping from the piano. But laughter turned to anger, because the girl didn’t react. In fact, she didn’t show any discomfort. If you had just closed your eyes, you wouldn’t have noticed anything. The piece sounded beautiful. More beautiful, perhaps, than ever.

The silence I would never forget. When the girl stood up from the chair, the laughing stopped. They all looked at her bloodied hand (I turned away, I couldn’t look), incredulous that she just stood there smiling. With that timid expression I will never forget.

Then she left. The girl with an armband did it without saying a word.

This is the most awful day of life. I wonder if I will ever see that girl again. But most of all I wonder who will wash away the blood from the piano…


Sophia Weston folded the sheet of paper that had gone so yellow and so thin over the years. She thought of that piano. It was now standing just a few feet away from her. Steinway 1936. After all this time, it was so hard to imagine it being the same piano that poor Jewish girl played in the spring of 1942. And yet here it was. Back then, she had to use a fake name to buy it from the disgraced pianist who was selling her house for nothing to be able to pay the lawyers and get back to Germany. Sophia didn’t know why, she just had to buy it. Like she had to steal the notebook many years before that.

The scandal happened fifteen years after she had last seen Miss Baumann at the door of their house, and it made Sophie (already the celebrated pianist Sophia Weston) go back to that final lesson and how her quiet playing must have turned out louder than what was happening in another room. She often thought of her late father, and wondered what could have drawn him to it. Was it a beast? A beast of another kind that was nonetheless just as brutal and untamed? 

Another question that still lingered was whether Miss Baumann knew about it. About the screams and the pain. The woman who wrote the entry (Miss Baumann’s mother, as Sophia found out later) claimed she hadn’t known about the razors. But what about Miss Baumann? Didn’t she know what the piano was doing to the skinny 14-year old girl who came to her apartment near St. James Park to study that most complicated of Beethoven’s sonatas?..

Strange how those memories flooded back every time Sophia felt compelled to unfold the sheet of paper and reread its contents for the hundredth time. Steinway 1936. She hadn’t opened the lid in years and it must have been so hopelessly out of tune, too, standing there like a relic from the past. An abandoned exhibit from a dead museum.

Still, what was it that made her do it today? She tried to remember, tried to think of every little thing that had happened that day...

But wait. Ah yes, that new boy. Her new pupil.


Sophia went to the kitchen to make tea for his father when she heard the croaky sound of a waltz. It was that boy. He entered the room and noticed two pianos. He didn’t know which one to use. For reasons he could never explain, he went for the black old Steinway. She ran hurriedly to him but stopped halfway. The sound was becoming smoother. His playing was good, too. 

She quietly put her cup on a bookshelf and then felt some new sensation she could not yet describe. Her upper lip twitched, and she dashed a worried look at her new pupil. The boy went on playing.


8 comments:

  1. What? On a roll? In February? Worst month for writing!

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    Replies
    1. Oh for sure - but some Februaries are bigger than others.

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    2. You do get money for this, right?

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    3. Yes, of course. A million us dollars for one story.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-3V1rNEmbRo

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  2. Alexey, this is Claude! I e-mailed you on Sunday - you haven't replied yet.

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    Replies
    1. Sorry, Claude. Self-imposed hiatus - have just replied to you.

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  3. Sadly enough, that was the choice a Sophie had made.

    Thank you, anyway. The story is great.

    ReplyDelete