Mary Oliver is usually and conveniently referred to as a New England nature or pastoral poet and thought to descend from a line of other New England pastoralist writers, from Thoreau to Robert Frost. "Music Lessons," from Oliver's third volume of poetry, Twelve Moons (1979), however, is somewhat uncharacteristic since its inspiration and situation begin in a house at a private music lesson where a teacher takes a break from teaching and plays for her probably younger student and for herself. Perhaps the poem documents a memory from Oliver's childhood.
In "Music Lessons" a teacher, perhaps growing tired with the student's fumblings or imperfections, decides to take over the keyboard. The music acts upon the student as challenge and adventure and upon the pianist as escape from domesticity and mortality. Quietly feminist and more loudly a paean to music, the title, "Music Lessons," is apropos in that the paean was, in its earliest known instance in The Iliad of Homer, a song praising and calling for Apollo, the Paian, or "healer." Apollo is the ancient Greek god of arts and civilization, and specifically, patron of music (whose instrument is the lyre which is also the name of the frame holding the strings of the piano). Music, Apollonian or otherwise, may not serve as healer of life's ills, but it does depict an act that seems to defy the duties of life and the inevitability of death—at least temporarily.
From the title we know this is a music "lesson" (line 1). The first line immediately alerts the reader to a shift in the action when the narrator says "Sometimes, in the middle ..." (line 1) "we exchanged places" (line 2). The reader can guess that the student and the teacher are the "we." And perhaps this is a private lesson. Oliver further evokes a shift in the reader's experience by starting the poem as if it were the middle of a larger piece. At this point, the teacher takes her place at the keyboard, and the reader can safely conclude that the poem's narrator is the student when the teacher prepares herself before playing as "She would gaze a moment at her hands / spread over the keys" (line 2).
In concentration and in playing, the piano teacher's house vanishes from her mind, or from another perspective, she escapes her home as it vanishes from her mind. The parts of the house the narrator mentions suggest the teacher's rather insular life focused on family and home.
What takes the place of house and home is sound and then music as the sound begins to become shapely, become an object, an object the student-narrator describes as a "scarp," also known as an "escarpment," a wall of high rocks, a cliff. The musical piece, as scarp, is white to give it the in-substantiality of an imagined thing and give it a positive sense as well. The narrator also points out that this scarp can only be climbed "alone" (line 9), as if listening to a piece of music were like scaling a cliff. The word scale, in fact, could have been what connected a musical piece on one hand with the cliff on the other.
The metaphor might now become difficult to follow, for instead of climbing a wall of music to the top, the narrator is leaping over rocks to the top. Perhaps after climbing awhile, the way to the very top became a gentle incline that could have been run or walked? Whatever the case, the narrator arrives at the top transformed, and waits as if she had reached the destination before her teacher, and as if she must now wait for her teacher to catch up. It is possible that the student has realized, before the musical piece ends, where it is going and how it will get there. The student has learned something about music by listening as well as by playing.
The teacher, in these lines, is losing herself to the music, becoming, as they say, wild and abandoned, quite a different thing than what most people think of when they think "piano teacher," an image that may conjure up something like "librarian." The loosening of the hair is the loosening of bonds in general.
But if the student is waiting for the piano teacher to meet her, the teacher seems to have forgotten her student, perhaps has even forgotten herself in her playing. Both teacher and student appear to have transcended their circumstances in different ways (playing and listening) but by experiencing the same piece of music. A difference between them, however, remains: while the teacher has figuratively transcended "the duties of flesh and home" and even danger and death, the student apparently has not, for she notices—in the metronome—time moving relentlessly toward death. The music that had become the pinnacle of living (adventure and challenge) now becomes a reminder of death, which the student connects with the metronome that describes an arc like the scythe of Time, or a pendulum connected to a morbid clock just beneath the music.