Sister Olga and the Piano

In our hose, we had a piano which my grandfather bought for Mum. She had piano and singing lessons when she attended boarding school. When I was about 7 or 8, my mother arranged piano lessons for me.

I was happy about the lessons but not so happy about my teacher. In our small town, a gulf existed between the Roman Catholics and the rest of us. The RC kids attended the convent primary school and we chanted at them. “Catholic dogs, stink like frogs in their mother’s bathing togs” Of they retaliatated by substituting ‘Public” for “Convent.” My teacher Sister Olga lived in the convent between the church and the school. The building was hidden behind a high wall which made it seem very mysterious.

I remember going to my first lesson. I opened the gate in fear and trepidation. Inside was a lawn and two paths. One went left past a little grotto with a statue in it while the other went right to a side door. As a good Presbyterian, I regarded the statue of Mary with great suspicion and in all the years of lessons, I never took the left path. .

Sister Olga answered my tentative knock. She wore the traditional black and white garments of a nun. That scared me as I hadn’t ever seen a nun up close. As I grew accustomed to her, I felt sorry for Sister Olga in the summer when she fanned her damp face with the newspaper. I was reprimanded one hot day when I turned up in a sundress with straps and was told to wear a dress with sleeves for my lessons.

I would never have argued or talked back to Sister Olga. She was firm but air as long as I practised every day. Since I learned things easily and had a reasonable ear, lessons were not difficult. She followed the Trinity School of Music and we sat their exams. I usually did well so one year when I had the measles at exam time, Sister Olga asked my mother what we could do about it. I was past the feeling sick stage but still had the rash. Since the examiner had been exposed to measles, I was scheduled to be the last examinee. After my departure, the whole room was disinfected and scrubbed clean. It smelled of soap and polish in normal times.

Sister Olga wasn’t above using a ruler to hit my fingers as punishment if necessary. She also would grab my hands to stretch the fingers. I had a small hand and a limited span which made playing octaves difficult. In retrospect, she was a good teacher. I remember her reading the local newspaper and sighing about the sin in our small town and the world. Having lessons with her certainly dispelled my strange notions about nuns and Roman Catholics. So that was a bonus in learning the piano.