Relay: Miankoma Memory

Miss Matsuki was the most exotic being imaginable

   Last Thursday was perhaps the most beautiful day we’d had over the last several weeks, perfect for a midafternoon bike ride to Atlantic Avenue Beach.
    As always, I pedaled down Miankoma Lane and, as always, slowed as I neared the house, just past the school where, now as then, children ran and played in the magnificent autumn sunshine.
    The house looked different to me now, so many years on, but in the mind’s eye, the interior was just as it was in the countless hours I spent there.
    It was the largest room I had ever seen, and at the far end, in front of an impossibly long, high stage, not one but two grand pianos faced one another, their sleek contours almost joined — reminiscent, in a way, of the yin-yang symbol of Chinese philosophy.
    To a 7-year-old growing up in Montauk, particularly in the pre-Internet or even cable TV days, Miss Matsuki was the most exotic being imaginable. A Japanese-American woman almost 70 years older than me. I steeled myself, that first day, for an hour of dreary discomfort. But a piano had arrived at our house in Montauk, I had promptly developed an obsession, and mercilessly demanded that my parents let me take lessons.
    The otherworldly Miss Matsuki was, however, warm and welcoming, even captivating (“a gracious woman with a delicate sweep of hair,” The Star wrote upon her passing, at 92), and I quickly grew to cherish the hour we’d spend together each week in Amagansett. Side by side at the keyboard, she revealed the secret. Through her patient instruction, and two hands gnarled by arthritis, the coded messages on the page in front of me were deciphered, the new language learned. A simple melody, then a chord, then another, and another. Major, minor, diminished, augmented. Melody, harmony, and, soon, simple pieces by the masters: Bach, Handel, Lennon and McCartney (the latter two at my insistence).
    Sometimes we would just talk over milk and cookies. During the war, she confided, she was barred from playing in the officers club because of her heritage. She lent me a book about Mozart; I was mesmerized for months. In this little town at the end of the world, she opened the door to an undiscovered universe of knowledge, experience, and mellifluous, glorious sound. Like the greatest teachers, her influence is incalculable.
    Maybe it’s too easy to say that I’ve come full circle, but I just moved into an apartment a proverbial stone’s throw from Miss Matsuki’s house. Late in my 20-year run in New York City, during which I’d been a penniless guitarist, staff writer for Billboard magazine, amateur recording engineer and would-be music producer, and gotten both married and divorced, I took up the piano again. Like so many things today, my piano is digital, but with a little imagination its close-enough emulation transports me back to those sunny afternoons of childhood.
    I pedaled up Atlantic Avenue, turned left on Bluff Road, right on Miankoma Lane, back to my new abode, and sat down to practice.

   Christopher Walsh is a reporter at The Star. His first piano lesson with Tsuya Matsuki at the former Miankoma Hall took place on the afternoon of Oct. 8, 1973.