my big chance

One day when I was six years old, a huge truck pulled up in our driveway, and two men struggled to get something really big out of it. They dragged it up our front steps into the living room–a beautiful, brand new upright grand piano. The wood was shiny and the ivory keys looked like they had been polished. I immediately sat down and begin to play as if I knew what I was doing, which I did not. My mother quickly bought several beginning books and taught me a few simple songs.

When I turned eight my mother selected my teacher, Mrs. Genevieve Kaplan. She lived close by so I could cross the street, walk down the alley and come out right in her backyard. I entered through the backdoor and walked down a long, dark hallway to straight chairs just outside her music room. I hardly breathed until the previous student’s lesson finished. Then Mrs. Kaplan called me, and I walked in carrying my music, my practice record and a huge smile. Once when my fingernails were too long, Mrs. Kaplan gave me a pair of clippers and made me cut my nails before she would hear my lesson. The piano was serious business with her.

In the beginning I took two thirty minute lessons every week, but after a couple of years I graduated to a 45 minute lesson and then to a full hour. I practiced every day, only 30 minutes at first. How many times do you need to play, “Going up, going down, then a skip?” But that gradually increased to an hour and later to two hours daily. I rarely complained about practicing because I love playing the piano and imagined that one day I’d be a concert pianist.

Mrs. Kaplan and my parents encouraged and helped me to accomplish my dream, but the greatest inspiration of all was Liberace. I would have given everything I owned, including my new Schwinn bike, my Susie walking doll and my little brother to be able to play like he did.

Liberace performed on his television show with such ease and charm. I could hardly wait to see him each week as he floated out with that beautiful smile and flipped the tails of his tuxedo behind the bench of his incredible grand piano topped by a huge silver candelabra. He took my breath away as he stared right at me through the TV screen and talked about the music he was about to play.

And then he started—Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, Prelude in C# Minor by Rachmaninoff, or Chopin’s Minute Waltz—and I barely batted my eyes for fear that I’d miss some of his grace and skill. He was incredible. Of course he played things for fun too, like Beer Barrel Polka. And he could make Chopsticks sound like it was written by Mozart as he added flourishes, trills, and arpeggios. I soaked up his every move. His hand position was perfect and strong, with curved fingers that played with such power or flew across the keyboard like hummingbird wings, so fast that you could barely see them move.

The half hour program was over in a flash and soon he was playing and singing, “I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places, that this heart of mine embraces all day through…I’ll be looking at the moon and I’ll be seeing you.”

I sighed and almost cried because the show was over for another week, but I was so fired up. As his last note lingered, I’d run to my piano and begin to play in my best Liberace style, with gusto and energy that came directly from him to me.

As the years went by, I never missed his show. His outfits got fancier, his style got flashier, and I loved him even more. Every year I practiced longer and harder and my recital pieces got more and more difficult, but watching him helped me get over my stage fright. The calm, easy style with which he performed encouraged me to try with focused effort to be just like him.

When I was twelve years old, Mrs. Kaplan announced at the beginning of seventh grade that she wanted me to perform a solo concert the following spring. A concert where I was the only performer! This is my big chance, I thought, so I agreed to all the work necessary to make it happen. She handed me a detailed schedule of when each piece would have to be ready for performance. I could hardly sit still. I even wrote Liberace a letter to tell him about the concert, and I received an autographed picture of him, addressed to me, wishing me good luck.

Half way through the year, disaster struck. I broke the middle finger on my right hand while playing softball. I cried a lot, and Mrs. Kaplan threw a fit. “How could you do that? Those hands should never risk playing ball,” she said.

I managed to practice with my finger in a cast. Fortunately it healed quickly and I stayed on track. On May 23, 1955 I performed my first concert at the Baconsfield Club House in Macon, GA. I wore a long dress made with layers of lavender netting covered with small velvet bows. I glided into the room with a big smile and thought I was well on my way to being a famous pianist—just like Liberace.

The next year as I started Junior High, I worked harder, even getting up early to practice before going to school so I could get it all done. I became a student member of the Macon Piano Teacher’s Guild, so Mrs. Kaplan could have me perform at the Wesleyan Conservatory of Music. I played Malaguena at one of their meetings and received high ratings from the teachers.

I continued to take lessons, practice daily, and watch Liberace even during summer vacation. My dream was coming true.

And then one day, everything came crashing down. My familiar world ended as my mother struggled to tell me that Daddy had lost his job and we had to move to Atlanta to live with my grandparents.

“What about my music lessons?” I cried.

“We’ll have to see what happens, but right now there’s no extra money, so you’ll have to stop taking lessons from Mrs. Kaplan,” Mother said.

How is that possible, I thought, after six years and hundreds of hours of practicing and dreaming? Life just isn’t fair. Not only did my weekly session with Mrs. Kaplan end, I didn’t even have a piano to play once we moved in with Gran and Papa. There was hardly enough room in their small house for the four of us, much less a piano.

Six months crept by while I tried to adjust to a new school, new friends and a whole new world. At last we were able to rent a small house of our own, and the movers brought in a shrunk down version of our household goods, including the piano, which was badly out of tune like everything else.

I didn’t care if the piano sounded funny. I felt like I was reconnecting with a long, lost friend as I ran my fingers over the keys. I played for hours–nonstop. Somehow it didn’t sound much like Liberace. In fact, I hadn’t even seen him for weeks. I didn’t want him to know that I had let him down. I felt like I had to let him go, along with my dreams, because there was still no money for lessons. I tried to practice on a regular basis, but without the watchful eye of Mrs. Kaplan, I did not progress.

Years past and life kept going as it always does. I was thirty years old, married with three children before I was able to take piano lessons again. I once again loved learning and playing music from the great composers and reconnected with Beethoven, Chopin, and Mozart. I managed to rekindle my interest but could not find the burning passion that consumed me in my youth. I knew that magical window of opportunity had closed.

Who knows if I could have become the performer of my dreams even if my life had stayed on its original track? I know I would have given it my best shot. But at least I acquired a lifelong appreciation and love of music that has added so much pleasure to my life as I’ve continued to sing in choruses and play the piano for my own enjoyment.

Throughout my life many other dreams arose and faltered, some of them realistic and some not so much. I know some dreams must die in order for others to flourish. But never again did I feel the drive and commitment that consumed me years ago when I played the piano as if my life depended on it. I can be back there in a heartbeat when I hear a young musician perform with the intensity that I felt then. Those memories are as clear as watching an old movie. I remember exactly what it felt like to believe with all my heart that I would accomplish my goal, and I cherish that feeling even today. I’ve realized that real dreams seem harder to come by the older I get, especially ones filled with intensity and passion. And that’s what I miss the most.

Where is Liberace when I need him?

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Diane Rooks

Diane Rooks

Diane loves telling stories to audiences of all ages and teaching people about storytelling. She's been involved in storytelling and public speaking for many years and uses those skills to create programs and stories to help people navigate changes in their live. Her storytelling path changed direction following the death of her son when she realized that stories were the key to her own healing process. She grew stronger by remembering and telling stories of her son, which kept him present in her daily life. Selected milestones on her journey: Masters Degree in Storytelling - East Tennessee State UniversityAuthor of Spinning Gold out of Straw - How Stories Heal and the new CD/audiocassette - "Selected Stories from Spinning Gold out of Straw"Frequent teller on WFCF-FM Treasury of TalesLiving history performer for St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum and St. Augustine Historic Preservation BoardStorytelling World special advisor and contributorHealing Story Alliance secretary and resource coordinatorPerformer in dozens of festivals including Atlanta Storytelling Festival, Florida Folk Festival, Gamble Rogers Festival, Cracker Festival, Stephen Foster Festival, Caladium Festival, Florida Citrus Festival - and othersPresenter at the national conference of The Compassionate Friends, an international organization for bereaved parentsMember of National Storytelling Network, Southern Order of Storytellers, Florida Storytellers Association, and Tale Tellers of St. Augustine.Former board member of FSA and Tale TellersState representative and judge for the National Storytelling Youth OlympicsCertified bereavement facilitator - American Academy of BereavementFacilitator of local chapter of The Compassionate Friends organizationKeynote speaker -- Community Hospice of NE FloridaContributor to Sandspun -- Florida Tales by Florida TellersTeacher for school students developing stories from historyTeacher and coach for performers at World Golf VillageCultural exchange student at University of Edinburgh, ScotlandPerformer for ElderhostelStoryteller for Camp Healing Powers - a bereaved children's campDiane is a native of Atlanta, Georgia and holds an AB from Georgia State University in Psychology and Information Systems and an M.Ed. from ETSU. In addition to her deceased son, she has two daughters and six grandchildren. She and her husband, Wilton Rooks, live on Lake Lanier, near Atlanta, and enjoy sailing and traveling.