A 1903 mahogany Fischer upright piano graces my small house, a present from my mom to appease me after giving the family piano to my sister. It’s a castoff, a bargain gleaned from a church that was upgrading its music department. They let this treasure go, replacing it with a sleek, portable electronic keyboard.
Their loss is my gain.
We have had a piano in my house for as long as I can remember. As a young child I would tap out tunes on the ivory keys. My mom, picking up on my interest, readily signed me up for piano lessons.
It met with measured success. I hated scales, but loved playing
tunes. I’ve never been one for practicing, always wanting to miraculously appear at the finish line without first doing the hard work. My teacher would assign drills and my mom would have to enforce them. I would skip ahead to the fun songs. (This strategy has been applied to so many areas of my life.) I still have piano books with stickers in pages of the simple songs I loved to play.
Recitals were torture. At home, I would always play when my family was not around. They were supportive, my mom being the most ebullient cheerleader, but I think all of that attention served to drive my “talent” underground where it could develop unnoticed… until the dreaded recital day.
I understand recitals. Music, writing, art – these are all meant to be shared, but I have horrible performance anxiety. This makes me more prone to mistakes, and in my young mind, those mistakes, those jarring wrong notes, rankled my ear and my brain throughout the rest of the performance. I couldn’t get off the stage fast enough.
I must have hidden my anxiety well. Word eventually spread through the family that I played the piano. My soon-to-be aunt asked me to play Evergreen at her wedding. I tried and tried, but the span of notes on that song were too vast for my underachieving fingers. My mom said maybe I could play something else instead, so with the bride’s consent, we settled on the song If, by Bread. I’m sure my mom was more honored than I was that I was asked to be a part of the wedding. For me, playing for such an important occasion was a great source of stress. Who wants to mess up a wedding?
On my own, tinkling the ivories was a pleasure. I wanted to play popular tunes, not songs of stodgy old composers whose work I didn’t recognize. I didn’t want to run my fingers up and down the keyboard in endless drills. I would much rather play Endless Love. Luckily I had a piano teacher who would humor my interests and slipped some of these tunes in with the more standard classics.
My number-one-fan mom eventually switched me to a more structured program. I went from being a student of a smiling and laid-back, stay-at-home mom/part time piano teacher to being a student of Mrs. Mezzerli, a stiff, elderly, wizened-fingered perfectionist who lived by the metronome. Immediately I was instructed on how to sit at the piano. Apparently, in my joy of playing, I had been doing it all wrong. Back straight, fingers arched uncomfortably, I was to play my song to the unforgiving click-click-click of the metronome.
It was a short lived experiment, and I soon gave up piano lessons forever.
But not piano.
Maybe my mom gave the piano to my sister out of hurt feelings because I quit something she thought I was really good at. I recently asked her why she had changed teachers. She said she had thought I had talent, and she wanted me to develop it. She seemed disappointed.
I still play, mostly when I’m alone, but that’s more because I live with teenagers who don’t recognize my dulcet tones for talent, seeing them instead as an annoyance. I hope that someday they will think it’s cool that their mom played the piano. I have my set songs that I memorized long ago, and I play them over and over again. (I think it’s pretty amazing that the brain can remember them over all these years.) I recently bought drill books that are just a bit too hard, hoping to improve, and now I can sit and practice them. I can’t read music well enough to cold-play a song, unfortunately, but through laborious repetition and practice, I can learn them.
And I’ve learned two lessons through this experience that I have tried to apply to my own parenting:
- Set your kids in front of the instrument/interest of their choice, whether it be a piano, saxophone, trumpet, pen, drawing pencils, or a soccer ball and let them guide the way.
- When things get tough for them, don’t let them give up. Make them stick it out for a prescribed time and see if they truly are not interested. See if there’s another route that will pique their interest again. If there’s a reason they started in the first place, the love is still there somewhere.
Realistically, we will not all be virtuosos, but if we can experience our craft, if it gives us joy, and if we can share it with circles small or wide, we have gained immeasurable success.
In response to The Daily Post, December 6, 2015: Do you play an instrument? Is there a musical instrument whose sound you find particularly pleasing? Tell us a story about your experience or relationship with an instrument of your choice.