serendipity (or, should I say, the paranormal)

 

 

It usually is the case that if two people don’t get along, they can’t have a successful working relationship.

This applies to an instructor and a student.

If the thing being taught is something technical, you would think that if the instructor has the knowledge and expertise, personality wouldn’t matter.

It does for me. I have had experiences taking lessons (briefly) in swimming, tennis, and piano, all of which didn’t work out mostly because I could not establish rapport with the instructor.

 

 

 

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This was true of George Cohen of Newton, Massachusetts, a well known and very successful piano teacher.

My father, who became a professional pianist and himself a piano teacher, was a student of Mr. Cohen in his youth. My younger brother took lessons with Mr. Cohen for years and was one of his best students.

I myself decided that I wanted to try taking piano lessons for a second time when I was a junior in college. I had taken them briefly at age eleven with a very nice, attractive, and vivacious Japanese woman, Marsha Fukui, in Cambridge, Mass. We hit it off, but I lost interest in piano after a few months and stopped taking lessons.

I tried again in my late teens, when I was in college, with Mr. Cohen. I thought the fact that I was my father’s son and that my father must have been one of his best students would have meant something, also the fact that my younger brother was his student for a long time. This didn’t seem to matter to Mr. Cohen. Personal relationships were not of interest to him. One could say, why should they matter? You were there to learn how to play the piano. But in my case — from my perspective — such things are very important. I have to feel connected to the other person, have to be able to make conversation. If I don’t, I can’t get anywhere with them.

 

 

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But that’s not the key point of this post. I wish to share a couple of amazing, serendipitous things that happened to me. One involved my lessons with Mr. Cohen.

Mr. Cohen kept telling me that I needed to strengthen my fingers as an older piano student. He said that stiffness in the fingers (they are, apparently, much more limber in a grade schooler) was a problem that had to be overcome if I was ever going to make progress. He told me to take a book and put it over my hand when playing, as a finger muscle strengthening exercise. So, I took a book at random off the bookshelf in the living room of my home and used it when practicing. A while later, I happened to look at the book. The title was The Physiology of Piano Playing.

A totally coincidental occurrence. What were the odds that that would be the book I would use?

 

 

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The other anecdote involved, indirectly, my former therapist, Dr. Ralph Colp, Jr.

From time to time during the course of our therapy sessions, Dr. Colp, who was a prolific writer and well known scholar, would ask me to do unpaid research for him. I remember once when he was writing an article updating some aspect of the psychiatric literature and he asked me to make an inventory of new publications in the field.

Dr. Colp’s fees were every low, well below professional norms. He made it clear to me personally and also in comments he made to interviewers that he was not in medicine for the money.

Perhaps he regarded “hiring” me to do research as a form of barter, with the research amounting to partial payment. But he only asked me to do it when he was stumped by something and absolutely could not find anything.

I told him that I was flattered to be asked. Yet, sometimes I was thinking, what will he ask me to find now? He always gave me the hardest things to look up.

Often, the research concerned, usually indirectly, Charles Darwin, Dr. Colp’s major research interest, about whom he wrote two books and many articles.

Dr. Colp was interested in learning everything he could about Darwin’s personal (as well as his scientific) life, including how he spent his leisure time and what his tastes in books (e.g., novels) and music were. He had found out that Darwin liked a popular song of the Victorian era, “Will He Come?,” composed by Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame).

Could I find out where the lyrics came from?

It was known that the lyrics to the song were by Adelaide Procter. Adelaide Anne Procter (1825–1864) was a very popular poet of her day; she was the favorite poet of Queen Victoria. She burst on the literary scene as a teenager. She died of tuberculosis at age thirty-nine.

So, what poem of Procter’s were the lyrics to the song taken from? Dr. Colp, like me, was a stickler for details. He wanted to be exact.

I couldn’t find out what poem of Procter’s the lyrics came from. She published three books of poetry in her lifetime. There is no poem with the title “Will He Come?”

It seems that it would have made sense for me to consult her books, but they weren’t available to me. I cannot remember why I didn’t. This was pre-internet days. Somehow, I found out that Procter had known Charles Dickens, who admired her work, and that some of her earliest poems had been published in Household Words, a weekly magazine edited by Dickens. (I doubt that nowadays many people know that Dickens was an editor.)

I went to the New York Public Library and put in a call slip for several issues of Household Words from the 1850’s. A big fat volume with a faded green cover was handed over to me. It was comprised of several issues of the magazine that had been bound together into a single volume. The pages were old and showed their age.

I placed the big, weighty book on a table in front of me and opened it carefully, not wanting to damage it. I opened it at random to a page somewhere in the middle.

On that very page was THE poem. Miss Procter’s poem. Published under the title “Hush!”

The exact same words, verbatim, as the lyrics in the Arthur Sullivan song.

How had it happened that I had requested the right volume of the magazine, and then, amazingly, opened to the very page on which there was not only a poem by Proctor, but the very poem I was looking for?

 

— Roger W. Smith

   October 2017

 

 

 

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Hush!
“I CAN scarcely hear,” she murmured,
“For my heart beats loud and fast,
But surely, in the far, far distance,
I can hear a sound at last.”
“It is only the reapers singing,
As they carry home their sheaves,
And the evening breeze has risen,
And rustles the dying leaves.”

“Listen! there are voices talking.”
Calmly still she strove to speak,
Yet her voice grew faint and trembling,
And the red flushed in her cheek.
“It is only the children playing
Below, now their work is done,
And they laugh that their eyes are dazzled
By the rays of the setting sun.”

Fainter grew her voice, and weaker
As with anxious eyes she cried,
“Down the avenue of chestnuts,
I can hear a horseman ride.”
“It was only the deer that were feeding
In a herd on the clover grass,
They were startled, and fled to the thicket,
As they saw the reapers pass.”

Now the night arose in silence,
Birds lay in their leafy nest,
And the deer couched in the forest,
And the children were at rest:
There was only a sound of weeping
From watchers around a bed,
But Rest to the weary spirit,
Peace to the quiet Dead!

 

Adelaide Procter

About Roger W. Smith

Roger W. Smith is a writer and independent scholar based in New York City. His experience includes freelance writing and editing, business writing, book reviewing, and the teaching of writing and literature as an adjunct professor. Mr. Smith's interests include personal essays and opinion pieces; American and world literature; culture, especially books and reading; current issues that involve social, moral, and philosophical views; and experiences of daily living from a ground level perspective. Besides (1) rogersgleanings.com, a personal site, he also hosts a websites devoted to (2) the author Theodore Dreiser and (3) to the sociologist and social philosopher Pitirim Aleksandrovich Sorokin.
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3 Responses to serendipity (or, should I say, the paranormal)

  1. Luanne says:

    Wonderful examples of serendipity and a good story, too. Was it you who recommended The Ladies’ Paradise to me, Roger? I am enjoying it! Thank you so much.

  2. Yes, it was me, Luanne. Thanks for remembering, and thanks for commenting. Best wishes, Roger

  3. Luanne says:

    It reminds me of the American books of the era that I like, although (and part of it could be translation) the style is different. And I love all the “shop talk.”

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