A Blessing without Disguise–Piano Lessons with Miss Ahn

Have you ever wanted something to happen…and then it didn’t? Some series of events kept you from doing something you wanted to do, or getting something you thought you had to have? When it didn’t happen, you might have been disappointed at the very least. Maybe even angry at the circumstances or sad that things didn’t turn out the way you wanted. Then after a few days/weeks/months, more information came to light. Or you found out some previously unknown detail that changed things. And that thing you wanted to have happen, or go do, or get….it was better that it didn’t happen. Suddenly you were relieved. Thank goodness it didn’t happen that way. It might have been a disaster. Now things are actually better than before. This is where I am after the College piano class was cancelled and I have a new piano teacher–and the joyful relief that things seem to have worked out for the best.

I knew I was in trouble several months ago with the first piano class at the music store around the corner from my house. The group lessons were fine; I felt like I was making at least some progress, and I liked the teacher and my two fellow ahjumma classmates. But I was surprised that we weren’t learning any scales, and the teacher only put in a few tidbits about theory after he found out I was taking the class at the local college. Then one day, he gave us this simple Hanon fingering exercise:


OMG, was it difficult! But I worked and worked on it…and suddenly the light went on in my head. Doing the seemingly boring stuff like this made playing the pieces he assigned us much easier in the long run. (BTW, I totally understand why in SLA the ballet class piano lady was so proud of getting up to the 50th Hanon exercise. They are extremely tough.) Perhaps, I thought, if we could do a few technical things like this once in a while….but the teacher and the other two ahjummas in my class shot down my idea, and we kept doing what we had always done. Then things seemed to go farther downhill this summer, and class was cancelled again and again because the teacher was going through a messy divorce/child custody battle. The awesome black Yamaha upright I got used to playing at the store for my lessons disappeared, and was replaced by this brand of digital pianos–you can read the reviews here. I’m no pro, but the difference between a Yamaha acoustic upright and this PSO (*snort-laugh* Piano Shaped Object–a hilarious concept from the reviewer in the link)  was obvious even to a clueless dork like me.

After I dropped the chaotic Beginner College Piano Class (home of the BYO Keyboard), and the class at the local college with Sonsaengnim was cancelled, I got all the tuition and parking fees back without a hitch. I called Miss Ahn, the piano teacher Sonsaengmin recommended to me. Miss Ahn told me I had to go through Miss Tina who runs the studio where she was teaching. I contacted her, and we met to set up lesson times after work. It was another broiling SoCal 90 degree evening as I drove over to the music school/piano studio. It’s north of the Little Saigon neighborhood by my House, and also north of the local Koreatown.

This area was a blighted mess a few years ago, but now is undergoing a interesting transformation. There are storefronts, then 2 diagonal rows of parking, then the street. It’s not like a typical strip mall–it has an almost ‘downtown’ feel to it. I am thrilled to see that this is a truly millennial-influenced area. It is not just one ethnic group that is repopulating this 65+ year old business district–it’s a mix of everything under the sun. In one quarter-mile of shops containing the music studio, there is a Korean BBQ restaurant, an after-school tutoring place, a Mexican restaurant, a surfboard shop where they actually make surfboards, a hobby shop, several Vietnamese professional businesses like insurance and accounting, and a dive bar that must date from the 1950’s. I love the funky combo of old school and new stuff, plus there’s a great international vibe to this neighborhood.

Downstairs from the piano studio is a shop with wedding dresses, and plenty of windows to display them. That first evening while waiting for the owner of the studio, I was lucky enough to get to watch what was surely a reenactment of a Kdrama scene. You know the one: where the model-perfect bride shows off a gorgeous designer wedding gown, and her family, including the stunningly handsome groom are all smiles….golly, it was so romantic! I felt like a stalker watching them, but I couldn’t help it!

I could never live in this city to the south:


the one with the legendary beige cookie-cutter homes, master planned plastic perfection, and sanitized shopping centers. I’m sure the dog in the photo above had to get approval from the homeowners association. Heh, even the trees are uniformly sized, like someone drew them with a stencil! I’m much more comfortable in a slightly scruffy Sillimdong-style multi-cultural neighborhood where the zoning laws are less restrictive. Another perk to the piano studio’s location: there’s a couple of great bakeries (including my fave–85 degrees) on my way home from the piano lesson, so I can stop and get treats, using my oldest son’s perpetually empty stomach as a weak excuse.

The piano studio is upstairs in a sort-of office complex built into the storefronts. The waiting room has been cutely remodeled with fresh paint and a new hardwood floor.

Polished driftwood seats for the kiddies.

Super cool polished driftwood stools for the kids to sit on in the waiting area.

Everything is spartan and tidy. Note the tiny wood piano on the table–I wonder how many times little hands have required Miss Tina to glue it back together! It makes me think about the porcelain piano music box Hye Won had on her desk in SLA.


I meet Miss Tina, who is the owner and we go into her office which is the size of a walk-in closet. (Note: she’s probably married, but I will usually go with “Miss” until I know otherwise. I’ve never liked “Ms.”, although I understand the need for it. Yes, Shamrockmom was born in the last century…or maybe even the one before that!) She asks me a lot of questions as I fill out a simple form: Where did I take lessons before, what do I want to accomplish, how long have I been playing, did I have instruction as a child, what are my other hobbies (No, I didn’t mention the blog!) I have to laugh as I get to the part of the form that asks for my age. I know that they primarily teach children here, so I understand why they are asking, but still I’m all: “You really need this info?” She assures me that I am not the oldest student; that honor belongs to a 76 year old! Ok, I feel slightly better. I pay her up front for the rest of the month’s lesson, hoping for the best. I have not even been able to meet my teacher Miss Ahn yet, but I trust Sonsaengnim.

The next Wednesday afternoon, I have my first lesson with Miss Ahn. I find out quickly it pays to arrive early–the grandparents are shuttling the kids to the after-school tutoring place next door, so the parking lot is jammed with mini-vans, and there’s a lot of kids running around. Miss Ahn asks me to take off my shoes before we go in the room because she has other students whose little siblings play quietly on the floor with their toys during their lesson. I’m super nervous as I sit down in front of this piano:


I can’t even get it all in the pic!

It’s a Belarus, a Soviet-era Russian made upright piano. I would love to know it’s backstory–I’m sure it’s a doozy. It kinda reminds me of the giant upright Hanil that Seon Jae had in his rooftop house. Here’s a better pic I found online:

From the meager info I can find on the web, these pianos were made by the truckload in Belarus, at an affordable price for the average Eastern European family living under the communist dictatorships of those days. They were available all over the Soviet Bloc countries. I gotta wonder how it ended up here in SoCal. Exporting and moving a piano is no easy deal. Even moving the spinet size Maple Wurlitzer that I was gifted after one of my boss’ tenants left it in an apartment about 15 miles down the road was serious business, requiring pro piano movers. This piano is easily twice the size and weight. It plays wonderfully, with a rich and full sound. Here’s a young student from the Piano Studio playing Bach’s Minuet in G:

I wish I could play like that!

I stumble through a song that I have been working on, but know I am far from being able to play correctly because I can’t master the rhythm. At least now we have a start point. She compliments me on my posture and my hand position–heh, I’ll take any positive feedback no matter how small right now. I remember owning a wind-up wooden metronome from my flute playing days, but it has disappeared over the years, and I could really use it. No need to buy one anymore–there’s an app for that!

The 45 minutes fly by. I’m deeply relieved that Sonsaengnim’s class got cancelled–I would have failed it without question. My hope that I will be ready for that class by the end of January–maybe. My homework for this week includes learning my first scale, some rhythm exercises, working on the piece noted above….I definitely have my work cut out for me. I feel like I got so much more out of this experience than the group lesson. Sonsaengnim picked a good teacher for me.

Still, I wonder if I am doing the right thing. Am I in over my head? Is this going to be a frustrating experience for both me and my new teacher? What am I thinking? Realistically, it’s not like I’m gonna go to the University and get a degree in music (although it’s my secret dream) or even play for anyone except myself. I probably should just be happy with the group lessons, but like everything else I do–it’s all fun and games until it isn’t. Music Theory class was a prime example of that. There’s this driven and competitive side of me that is still hanging around after all these years. I get frustrated when I think about how slow I seem to be learning to play the piano, but I try to remember I don’t have 4-6 hours a day to practice like I did back in high school when I learned to play the flute. I have a FT job and a family; even carving out 45-60 minutes a day to practice is huge.

As I gather my books and leave, the familiar sounds of this piece come from the room next door. I recognize it immediately as a lump forms in my throat:

From Secret Love Affair, Episode 2, where Seon Jae plays for Hye Won for the very first time. It’s the Prelude in C from J.S. Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier Book 1 BWV 846.(sheet music here, entire piece here) I’m totally overwhelmed as I stand at the top of the staircase. I have to take a deep breath, and blink the tears away as I start down the steps.

It’s truly amazing; yet again, I am given the reassurance I crave at the moment I need it by the music from this show. Back in February, during the first night at Music Theory Class, I was wondering the same kind of things–Was I crazy to try and take this college course? Could I keep up with the other students? Then Sonsaengmin played the first 15 seconds of Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 8 (from the soundtrack of SLA) to demonstrate tempo:

and I nearly fell out of my chair. There was no way she could have known. Of all the music Sonsaengnim could have chosen, she picked the one that grabbed me by the heart, and let me know without question that I made a good decision to take the class.

The first day I saw the Maple Wurlitzer piano that was left by the tenant in the upstairs apartment with the steep staircase, my Boss brought the sheet music for the Brahms Intermezzo Op.118 #2:

to see how the piano played. I was floored. She had a ton of choices….and brought the one that made me know that piano had been left there for me.

The music of Bach fades away as I get in my car to go home; the late afternoon sun shining in my eyes. Now I am starting out in a unfamiliar place with a new teacher, just like SJ did. His journey brought him many unexpected joys–and a few tears along the way. Will that be my story as well? Even though it looks like it’s a uphill battle, I feel at peace, knowing I’ve done the right thing. The music is there to comfort and reassure me. Like HW reminded SJ–it’s always the most important part. It’s everything.


One thought on “A Blessing without Disguise–Piano Lessons with Miss Ahn

  1. Pingback: Shamrockmom’s continuing Piano Adventures: Lessons, Concerts and a Master Class | Shamrockmom's House

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