I walked up the driveway to the top of a small hill in a nice, Minnesotan neighborhood every Thursday afternoon for piano lessons. When I reached the top and opened the front door, I slipped into another world.
A curtain drew back from my black-and-white movie and allowed me to enter a full-color film. Marilyn Kiffmeyer changed my life using the strings, hammers, and keys of a piano. But I never called her by her first name. She was always Mrs. Kiffmeyer.
There was a beautiful, black Kawaii baby grand piano in the first room. It was polished to a shine and you could see your reflection in the blackness. As I sat to remove my winter boots, I gazed at the piano, and quickly my eyes were drawn to the contemporary paintings and small sculptures that surrounded it. Their strangeness and beauty enraptured me.
I sat and waited for the student before me to finish their lesson. They were in the beating heart of this wondrous place; a studio just off from the main room. By the sound of the music being played, I could usually tell who it was. Most of Mrs. Kiffmeyer’s students were girls or young women, and I always hoped it was Krista. I had a crush on her.
I listened for music but the door opened too quickly. My heart leaped when Krista smiled at me, then my innocent desires were replaced by dread. I knew it was time to play for Mrs. Kiffmeyer and she demanded excellence.
I was whisked into the small room. A brown, upright piano was against one wall. It was hot in the room after being in the winter cold. Mrs. Kiffmeyer sat in a chair to the right of the piano and I was instructed to sit on the wooden bench as usual.
She was in her mid-40s, with a close-cropped but always stylish hairdo. Her long, artful earrings matched her classy but casual clothes. Mrs. Kiffmeyer’s entire ensemble looked carefully chosen.
Her voice was regal when she spoke, “I hope practice went well this week, Gentry. Let’s begin by warming up with scales and arpeggios. We were working on A flat minor this week.”
She had perfect diction. There was no hint of the dull Granite City accent I heard every day. Her words were like the way she played notes: specifically chosen. The way she taught me to play.
Years before, my early musical memories were of playing the piano at my grandparents’ home. I was four years old and I would climb up on the bench in front of the piano covered in old sheet music and topped with framed photos. The keys drew me because they looked like imaginary characters.
The white keys were good guys and the black keys were bad. I would play them like I would my Six Million Dollar Man, Stretch Armstrong, or Fisher Price action figures. I pressed the keys and they moved together as I would move toys on my bedroom floor. The sounds of the hammers hitting the strings inside the piano represented action and adventure. Batman and The Joker. Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader.
My grandfather heard me play and assumed I had taken lessons. I had not. This was simply a grand toy playset to me. Soon after that, my parents asked me if I wanted a piano, and I did.
My piano arrived on the back of a pickup truck when I was five years old. A giant behemoth. A bar room piano my parents obtained from a vegetarian pacifist who hated that the keys were made from ivory, so he had them removed and replaced by plastic keys.
It was loaded into the old farmhouse where my family and I lived. A haunted place surrounded by dilapidated farm buildings, a decayed tin barn, slews and marshland, fields of wheat and corn, groves of pine trees, and ghosts.
The piano was placed in the corner of the house. It was tuned a few days later and never tuned again.
I began taking piano lessons with a teacher who taught me the hits: Old MacDonald, Feres Jacques, and Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. Then, she moved away and my weekly climb up the hill to Mrs. Kiffmeyer’s began.
Each week, my father put me and my little brother into his 1969 Volkswagen van with a missing muffler. The front of the van had the words, “Reagan’s Here, The End Is Near” spray-painted on the front. He painted those words there after Ronald Reagan won the presidential election.
My father smoked Salems as he drove, and I sat in front inhaling secondhand smoke. My brother was still a baby, and he was placed in a car seat in the back, surrounded by noxious fumes that seeped in through rusted-out holes in the floor. I arrived at Mrs. Kiffmeyer’s home smelling of menthol cigarettes and exhaust fumes.
When I sat at the piano bench Mrs. Kiffmeyer would say, “I knew it was you coming. I could hear your dad’s van from a mile away.”
My shame and embarrassment, my feeling of being an outsider and a misfit because of my counter-culture family, constantly existed as a child. But when my hands played piano everything else evaporated. As I pounded and stroked the keys, I left my world of long hair, beards, nakedness, patchouli, and chocolate-replaced-by-carob behind.
I learned Mozart, Chopin, Mendelssohn, and Khachaturian. My fingers arched and curved to play every major and minor scale, spider-climbed arpeggiated triads, and dove headlong into contemporary pieces with chords so dissonant I didn’t know if I was playing the correct notes. Much of the music I played made no sense to me, but I loved the musical chaos.
As sixteenth notes flew, grace notes slid, and glissandos crept up the keyboard, Mrs. Kiffmeyer whispered or called out the dynamics. Quietly saying, “Now, pianissimo.” Then loudly, “And here forte!”
I felt I could make the piano explode, and I rode melodic phrases like a magic carpet. Across the snowy desolation of the flat Midwest wasteland to a new and fantastic world in my mind.
It was much different when I practiced at home on the farm. Keys that had been replaced with plastic ones fell off when I played. My mother and I would glue them back on, but they fell off again.
The sound of my piano was also off and became more obtuse over time. After several years without it being tuned, and because it rested against the outside wall, it was affected by drastic changes from Minnesota’s psychopathic climate. Long, cold months of minus-30 winters followed by hot, humid summers penetrated the old piano and warped it. It began to mutate into a tuning of its own.
My piano became a monster that I learned to tame. When I played other pianos, it felt like I had been training on a tricycle in molasses and most other pianos seemed like I was going downhill on a racing bicycle. Slightly out of control but sounding brilliant to my ears.
Within a year of studying with Mrs. Kiffmeyer, I began competing and soon winning piano contests. The judges seemed to like me. I won often and I began competing with college-level pianists when I was 13 years old. I wanted to win to please Mrs. Kiffmeyer. I believed pleasing her meant that I could receive a key to the mythical world she lived in.
When I had a broken leg, I needed to use my opposite leg to press the sustain pedal, and I won again. Winning at higher and higher levels meant that my reward was to perform in front of a few thousand people. And I did a number of times.
There are few sounds like thousands of people clapping for you. It’s like being blown by a hurricane wind while being struck by lightning. And there are few emotions like the deep anxiety felt preparing for the stage. When fear comes close to strangling and murdering your ability to perform.
With my awards and accolades at that point, it was assumed I loved to play the piano.
People would ask me in the form of a statement, “I bet you want to be a piano player when you grow up?”
I would reply, “No. I want to be a soccer player.”
Even though I didn’t love playing the piano, I kept playing and winning because it seemed to mean so much to people, my family, and especially, to Mrs. Kiffmeyer. But my lack of love grew worse.
In my teens, I had kidney surgery, broke my leg, had a house fire, and my arm was broken by a gang of rednecks. My family and I were evicted from the farm and we moved twice in six months.
During that time, I shaved the hair off one side of my head, wore Bauhaus and The Smiths t-shirts, pierced my ears, and started smoking cigarettes. I discovered girls, punk rock, and College Radio, and I drank booze and took lots of drugs. Things went downhill quickly in my piano life when I started to show up high to lessons with Mrs. Kiffmeyer.
In the winter after I turned 15 and won my final piano contest, I became the lead vocalist in my first band. We played songs by The Replacements, The Doors, and R.E.M., and many of the songs we played we wrote ourselves. I loved writing songs but I didn’t touch a piano in the band.
My piano still remained un-tuned. It grew from a ferocious monster that needed to be tamed into an infirm, old beast. It didn’t want to be played and I didn’t want to play it.
When a piano tuner was finally hired, he said, “This instrument is so out of tune that if I try to work on it, I’ll crack the soundboard.”
There was no way to save the beast. It needed to be put down.
Instead, I quit piano lessons with Mrs. Kiffmeyer. It was the year just before my senior recital, and I knew she was disappointed in me. I didn’t think pianos would ever be a part of my life again.
Magically, my love for pianos returned. In my mid-20s, I brushed off an old Korg keyboard and began to write songs with it. That led to awards, records, touring, and a return to being called a pianist. Once again, the piano enabled me to do and see things I never imagined.
Mrs. Kiffmeyer molded me into a pianist. But more than that, she made me into a performer.
At recitals, I watched her perform. Mrs. Kiffmeyer moved, slid, arched her back, and rose up to dance behind the keys. She did ballet as she played, swaying and moving and gliding across the bench with every note. She could play better than all of her students, and she played with energy that was beyond all of us. I emulated her movements and they were the foundation for the way I crafted my performances.
When I returned to Minnesota to perform a homecoming record release for my album No War, I had no idea she was in the theater. She was in her 70’s then and she came with a group of older women.
The night was filled with rock ’n’ roll mayhem. Loud guitars and drums fronted by my high kicks and devil horn fingers thrown in the air.
Just before the band and I returned for our second set, Mrs. Kiffmeyer approached me. She looked exactly the same and I was immediately reduced to being an eight-year-old again.
“Mrs. Kiffmeyer!” I bashfully exclaimed.
“Hello, Gentry. It is so nice to see you,” she said. “My friends and I are — how would you say? — rocking out in the balcony. What fun we are having.”
I was dumbfounded.
Then, she got close and said quietly, “Do you know who you remind me of?”
“No. Who?” I asked.
“Bruce Springsteen,” she giggled. Then, she went back to her seat.
I went to visit Mrs. Kiffmeyer in 2015. It was a cold, rainy April day. Her husband had died and she lived alone in a condominium near a golf course. She had the same Kawaii baby grand and she still taught piano.
We sat in her living room and talked. At one point, she looked at me with endearment and said, “I’m so happy you made a career in music. I wasn’t sure you would. But I’m happy you did.”
I was afraid to tell her how burned out and unhappy I was with music at that time, so I didn’t tell her. Then, she told me that she was sick with cancer.
“The doctors said I have a few months left. So, I’ll keep teaching piano.”
She died three weeks later. I attended her funeral but I didn’t play.
In one of my memories, it’s summer in Minnesota. The grass is green and it’s warm. Midwest tropical. I’m 12 years old and I do not want to study piano over the summer, but Mrs. Kiffmeyer says it will be good when contest time comes.
She arrives in her tennis outfit. All in white. Carrying a tennis racket and smiling broadly.
She lets me inside and says, “I’m sorry I’m late.”
Mrs. Kiffmeyer is never late.
Then, she unfolds the sheet music in front of me and says with perfect diction, “Let’s begin with Jacques Ibert today.”
And I begin to play.