Review: The Music Teacher by Barbara Hall

imagedbThe 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.”

02midi-imageThe 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.

26 Responses

  1. I’m looking forward to reading this one after reading your review.

  2. I read an excerpt from this via the e-mail book club a few months ago, and was intrigued then. I loved “Joan of Arcadia,” so I’d be interested in this novel anyway because of that connection :-). Thanks for the enlightening review!

  3. I had no idea this author had ties to television.

    The part you included in the beginning of your review reminded me soooo much of my music teacher when I was in grade school. I cannot remember her name but from that description, man…it could have been her. LOL.

  4. That is an awesome start to a book!

    • I’ve seen other reviewers include first lines, but this is the first time I’ve done that. I might start doing it all the time. I’ve heard authors agonize over the all important first line of a book!

  5. The book I recognize…but I’ve never heard of the tv shows. I’m so out of it, tv-wise. The book sounds great, though…thanks for the review.

    • Don’t feel like the lone ranger.. I’ve never seen Joan of Arcadia, and only saw Judging Amy two or three times at my mom’s house (she was a fan). It was a good book. Any book that makes me think about things that I care about or can relate to is a good book to me. Still can’t rate it though, LOL.

  6. Sometime back I had watched a movie (Hindi) on music and a music teacher. It was totally disimilar. Your review makes me want to check it out.

  7. I’m so glad that you liked this book Lisa. It didn’t work for me. It was one that I really wanted to like but I just didn’t connect to the characters and the plot and found it a bit disjointed.

    • I’m sorry you didn’t care for it (I’ll look for your review). I wished the storyline with Hallie had been a bit more detailed but it seemed like the author started to go there and then got nervous and changed her mind, KWIM? But I really liked the characters and the slice of life feel to the book.

  8. The quote you opened with really caught my attention! As a mother I catch myself doing things I swore I never would (nothing horrible, just along the vein of “because I’m the mom and I said so”.)

    Your ending sentence, too, made me stop and think … “when to encourage, when to back off” Good themes.

  9. HAH! I HAD that music teacher – ended up being one of the best things that ever happened to me. I’m definitely going to look for this book!

    • I’m glad to hear you say that, Elizabeth, since I recently twisted my daughter’s arm to take band as an elective next year. She’s played the trumpet for two years but thought maybe she’d like to do wood shop and sewing instead of band in junior high, grrrr. Thankfully she came to her senses.

  10. Just now heard of this book from you, but have you reviewed The PIano Teacher? That would make a good pair. (I reviewed in on via Vine.

    -knowlengr on Twitter

    • Thanks for the comment! I’ll check out your review. I haven’t read The Piano Teacher but have seen a couple of good reviews on the blogs.

  11. Happy Birthday!

  12. I was interested in the book from your review. Realizing the author was the creator of “Joan of Arcadia” was enough to move it from “on list of books I’d like to buy someday” and into my Amazon shopping cart.

    Thanks for pointing this book out to me!

    • Hi Laura! She’s really a talented writer. I’ve never seen Joan of ARcadia but enjoyed Judging Amy. Let me know what you think of it once you’ve read it!

  13. Would you say that this is more of character driven novel? I am interested in reading it, and I love character driven novels, so that might just push me over the edge to buy a copy.

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