As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, we have a piano that is new to us. It is, strangely enough, about the same age as the one we used to have, but it’s much better, and after some drama, it lives upstairs, rather than in the basement.
Having it upstairs means it gets played more often, including by me, which is one of the reasons I wanted it up instead of down and mostly out of sight. I thought that I might play it more, and that seemed to me to be a good thing, even though I didn’t know why. I have enough to do, I have interests and work. On paper, I don’t need to play the piano more, and it wasn’t a conscious burning desire, but nonetheless, it nudged and became a reason.
It’s been about three weeks, and in that time, I have realized something: I had forgotten how much I enjoy playing the piano.
I think what happened was that as decades passed and I got rusty, I checked “piano” off the list. That’s over. I was never very good anyway. My personality is not that of the perfectionist. When it seems good enough, I move on to something else, and combined with the fact that I lead life mostly on intuition and response, that means everything I do only goes so far until I decide something else is more worth my time.
For most of my adult life – well, since my 30’s, I guess – I’ve had a piano in the house, but it was that old Storey and Clark, it wasn’t fun to play, I was busy, and every time I did sit down, I fumbled on those unresponsive keys, it was a strain to see the music and reading glasses didn’t help, so yes, that’s what I figured. That’s over.
. — 3 —
Here’s my piano history.
When I was in second grade, we lived in an apartment in Arlington, Virginia. My father was doing some sort of year-long commitment with the Department of the Interior. They rented a piano, and started me on group lessons at the public school. In 1967, long before electronic keyboards, group piano lessons in a public school meant a classroom full of children, each with a wood board painted like a keyboard in front of us. I don’t recall anything about it, except the recital, in which I played this, from this book.
I don’t keep a lot of things, but music, I keep. But I didn’t know until I just now found it and opened it up that – gulp – almost fifty years later, I could read the kind words of congratulations from that first piano teacher right there.
The next year, we moved to Lawrence, Kansas. During third and fourth grade, we lived in an apartment, but moved into a house, where we were through seventh grade. At some point during that time, my parents convinced my paternal grandmother to buy a piano for me, and so that Storey and Clark entered our lives (used you can get one for a couple hundred bucks now – that’s why I didn’t even bother to put ours on Craigslist, and let the piano delivery guy take it away instead) and private lessons began.
There was a catch, though. The catch was that my parents were frugal and my mother didn’t drive, so when they looked for at teacher, they looked only as far as the KU music department, and a student who could drive to our house. I don’t remember much of anything about my teachers – I think I had a young woman one year and a man the next. I don’t think there were recitals (which was fine with me), just these music students showing up at our house to give me lessons.
— 4 —
When eighth grade came around, we had moved again – to Knoxville. That first year, of course, we lived in an apartment, but then for high school, we settled into a house in an area called Holston Hills, in east Knoxville. It’s that kind of hilly neighborhood with no sidewalks, full of 1950’s ranches and some Tudors built on half-acres, set well back from the road. A few months after we moved, we figured out that the woman who lived across the road and two houses down taught piano out of her home. So I started. Again.
At the time, I intuited that it was an odd situation, but didn’t know how odd until later. She wasn’t the most rigorous teacher in the world, but she wasn’t terrible. She had me play Bach and such, but she also let me play things I wanted – like Summertime. I was never really comfortable in her home, and I reached a tipping point when, for a winter “recital,” she insisted I play a duet of Rudolph with her daughter at their Baptist church’s Christmas program. I didn’t like recitals anyway, I was a senior in high school playing Rudolph in the basement of the Macedonia Baptist Church, so I was done.
Oh, and why was it odd? As we learned a few years later, both the woman and her husband were serious alcoholics. They both ended being hospitalized, the kids did nothing with the house, the parents died from their alcoholism, and last time I was there – probably four years ago to see to the sale of my parents’ home – the house was in complete collapse and disrepair, overgrown, a notice of condemnation on the door.
— 5 —
And that was it. Maybe five years of instruction all together, spread out over ten years?
Over the years, when passing the keyboard, I might sit down and pound out a few measures of Maple Leaf Rag or Alla Turca. I remember those. Probably about twenty years ago, I went through a stage when I thought I would try to get serious again, took out the Gershwin, and worked at it. Not too bad, but then we probably moved again and life took over again.
Now we have this new-old piano, it’s in the dining room, and since it cost a lot of money and it’s sitting there, I might as well play it, I think. So I do. And I’m not bad. And I’m getting better.
And as I said at the beginning, what has come back to me in a startling rush is how much I like it, and how much I actually don’t mind practicing. I don’t think I ever did, either. I don’t remember practicing being an agony. I say I’m not a perfectionist, and I’m not, but I do want to get it basically right, and for some reason, even though in most things I have the attention span of a gnat, when I play piano, I can play the same few measures over and over again and not tire of it.
Perhaps it’s just a new way to procrastinate and put off work. I think it’s going to be helpful in keeping mentally sharp as I age: my version of my father and his crossword puzzles, taken up with intense commitment in his 60’s. Who knows.
I have goals, and they are the same goals I’ve had during every other return to the instrument. Right now, it’s The Maple Leaf Rag – the first page has been in my memory for forty years, but I never really went beyond that, and now I am, and I want to learn the whole thing. And then there’s the Gershwin.
Gershwin’s piano music – his variations on his songs, and his stand-alone pieces like the Preludes – have always been favorites of mine. As a teen, I played the William Bolcom recordings over and over, and tried my hand at several, but could never get beyond a certain point: too many accidentals, I felt my hands weren’t big enough. Again: not a perfectionist.
Somewhere along the way, my book went missing – I suspect it’s either in a sorority house in Williamsburg, Virginia or a resort in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. So I bought a new one, and am working hard. I started with Rialto Ripples, have almost got ‘S Wonderful down and really really want to conquer Prelude 1. I think I can do it.
So I play. I play during the day when the boys are gone, and I play in the evening, after Michael has his time. I enjoy it, but it’s also part of my determination for them to see me doing and reading real books and making real things instead of scrolling through one more damn screen. And it works. An adult doing this in a household is an invitation for interaction and community in a way that an adult staring at a screen is not. It might be a joke, right? The minute I get interested in doing something…there they are, all around me. But I don’t mind. I sit down to play, and before I know it, one’s on the futon behind me, flipping through a magazine or drawing, and the other is standing at my side, leafing through music, wanting his turn again.
I also think it’s good for them to watch me take on something I’m not so great at, then work and improve. We lecture them all the time on how that’s what you have to do, but how often do they actual see us at this task, making mistakes, learning and growing and having to resist the temptation to give up?
My experience with piano explains why I am torn about children’s activities. On the one hand, I’m mostly against them. I am famous among my friends for asserting “I won’t be held hostage by my children’s activities,” by which I mean that there’s more to life than weekends at soccer fields allows many of us with children to experience. My kids do activities when they have an interest. My daughter was intensely involved with forensics and drama – but in high school. My youngest son has exhibited some musical talent and likes it, so I am investing in some pretty high level instruction for him. They know that if they are interested and serious, I’ll support them. But I do draw a line, and in the end, a weekend just hanging out, relaxing around home or taking a day trip is, I think, more valuable than most activities.
A couple of years ago, a friend of mine posted an impassioned Facebook post after her family had spent a Saturday morning doing some really good volunteer work. She wondered why they didn’t do this kind of thing more? And then she answered her own question: because of sports, dance and homework projects that absorbed every second of their family’s free time and energy. Then she asked another question: what would the world be like if everyone made more time to help others instead of spending so much time watching 4 year olds play soccer?
I only had five years of haphazard instruction, and..I’m not bad and I like it. I think I can get a lot better.
I wonder sometimes what would have happened if my parents had seen my moderate level of talent and interest and made the effort to get me more consistent instruction – even as we moved about – at a higher level. Why didn’t they? They had their own problems which dominated the home, that’s true, and I would imagine that’s a big part of why as long as I didn’t present problems – and I didn’t – I was left to myself. Perhaps back in the 70’s people didn’t pursue Excellence in Extra-Curriculars as they do now. That’s certainly true. And it also never occurred to me to ask for something different, or even that there might be the possibility. Who knows. And who knows what would have happened if they had done anything different. I might have had intense music instruction, excelled, and then grown to hate it and never take it up again, even here in middle age, when I am hankering for it and appreciating it again.
We parents do what we can do with the information we have. I won’t say “we do our best,” because we don’t. We just do what we do. It’s what I have done, it’s what my parents did. So I’m not resentful. I just wonder.
And then I sit down to play.
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