Piano Lessons, by Billy Collins


My teacher lies on the floor with a bad back

(every pianist I know has a bad back)

off to the side of the piano.

I sit up straight on the stool.

He begins by telling me that every key

is like a different room

and I am a blind man who must learn

to walk through all twelve of them

(he forgot about minor, and dorian, and mixolydian, and pentatonic. . .)

without hitting the furniture.

I feel myself reach for the first doorknob.


He tells me that every scale has a shape

and I have to learn how to hold

each one in my hands.

(this is true; I tell this to my students quite often, and then read this poem to them)

At home I practice with my eyes closed.

C is an open book.

D is a vase with two handles.

G flat is a black boot.

E has the legs of a bird.


He says the scale is the mother of the chords.

I can see her pacing the bedroom floor

waiting for her children to come home.

They are out at nightclubs shading and lighting

all the songs while couples dance slowly

or stare at one another across tables.

This is the way it must be. After all,

just the right chord can bring you to tears

but no one listens to the scales,

no one listens to their mother.

(they don’t; I didn’t; I still don’t, yet wish my children listened to me)


I am doing my scales,

the familiar anthems of childhood.

My fingers climb the ladder of notes

and come back down without turning around.

Anyone walking under this open window

would picture a girl of about ten

sitting at the keyboard with perfect posture,

not me slumped over in my bathrobe, disheveled,

like a white Horace Silver.


I am learning to play

‘It Might As Well Be Spring’

but my left hand would rather be jingling

the change in the darkness of my pocket

or taking a nap on an armrest.

I have to drag him into the music

like a difficult and neglected child.

This is the revenge of the one who never gets

to hold the pen or wave good-bye,

and now, who never gets to play the melody.


Even when I am not playing, I think about the piano.

It is the largest, heaviest,

and most beautiful object in this house.

(it is, really)

I pause in the doorway just to take it all in.

And late at night I picture it downstairs,

this hallucination standing on three legs,

this curious beast with its enormous moonlit smile.

(Non-italics, mine)

4 Responses to “Piano Lessons, by Billy Collins”

  1. 1 jill
    May 24, 2010 at 10:58 pm

    I love this! Why have I never heard this poem before?

  2. 3 EnglishTeachersRule
    October 14, 2011 at 3:06 pm

    What is the deeper meaning of this poem? It’s so beautiful, but I do not understand it fully.

    • October 14, 2011 at 3:21 pm

      I’m not sure the “deeper” meaning is exactly what he’s after here — I think he describes the instrument, and the way a certain key (E Major, for example) feels, and the experience of an older, balding man in a flapping bathrobe doing, probably laboriously, what a nine-year old girl in pigtails might do without a thought, beautifully.

      I see a deeper meaning — in the significance of music, the sadness-combined-with-wisdom (and its inherent joy) of aging, (the wistfulness he may feel over not learning as a child? the joy in that he gets to choose to learn now?) the “weight” of the instrument — sound, song, music itself — in a life. But sometimes I think that’s just me.

      And then there are the moments of incontrovertible profundity — no one wants to practice their scales, no one listens to their mother. No arguing with that, even if both “no one”s are wrong in their laxity.

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