The Music Teacher by Barbara Hall starts out like this:
“I am the mean music teacher. I am the cranky woman you remember from your youth, the one whose face you dreaded seeing, whose breath you dreaded smelling as I leaned over you, tugging at your fingers. You made jokes about me, drew caricatures of me in your notebooks, made puns out of my name, swore never to be me.
Well, listen. I swore never to be me, too.”
Pearl Swain is a 40 year old divorced violin teacher working in a Los Angeles music store. She started playing the violin too late to ever truly be great, plus her parents couldn’t afford proper lessons, so here she is. She never considered any other career but music- it is all she’s ever wanted to do. Her co-workers are also frustrated musicians, teaching instead of playing, picking up small gigs here and there, and endlessly discussing music. The clerks and teachers argue about who has more students and why, about different teaching philosophies, about who is the best guitar player ever, or which instrument is the best. The continuous banter reminded me of High Fidelity by Nick Hornby (set in a London record shop).
Pearl has a wry sense of humor and I liked her introspective thoughts on music and life. But with a failed marriage, a half-hearted attempt at a career, few friends and a solitary existence, she wears her social isolation like a jacket. She seems to have given up on herself and on any dreams for the future. According to one of her co-workers, she fails to ‘extend herself’. She needs to get a life.
In walks Hallie, a troubled teen full of talent and promise but saddled with an attitude and a family that is not really hers. The state pays for her lessons and her ‘family’ could care less. She doesn’t want to be there but, according to Hallie, “every half hour I spend here is a half hour I don’t have to spend at home.” Pearl recognizes Hallie’s gift immediately (perfect pitch! a natural ear!) and becomes excited and over-invested in her future, as any teacher might. But then she crosses a line and becomes over-involved in her life.
All of this causes Pearl to ruminate on her own life. There are so many good quotes about music and life in The Music Teacher. This one comes during Pearl’s first session with Hallie, when she sees that the battered violin Hallie pulls from the case has been played, and if a wood instrument has been played, ‘that’s half the battle’.
“I will tell you why, though you might not care. A musician is used to that- caring to an outrageous degree about something everyone else ignores.”
The Music Teacher is author Barbara Hall’s 9th book. She is also the award-winning creator of the tv series Judging Amy and Joan of Arcadia, and contributes scripts for other shows as well.
This is an excellent little book, one that held my interest from beginning to end. It’s definitely introspective, with more thoughts and dialogue than action (not a lot really happens). That is not a criticism- I thoroughly enjoyed it- but if you like your books action-packed, this won’t be for you. It made me think about my relationships with others, the depth of my friendships and acquaintances (or lack thereof)- when to get involved with another’s problems and when to mind your own business. It also made me think about music and lessons, following your dreams or those of your children, when to push a kid or let them decide, when to encourage, when to back off. Highly recommended.
Thank you to Algonquin Books for sending me this book to review.