Thursday, July 21, 2011

Piano: My Old, Rusty Talent. What's yours?

It's 1:52am right now and I can't sleep. Squire and I usually talk a while before going to sleep to unwind. Our discussion tonight though has given me a bad bout of insomnia. It's not surprising really, as the majority of our discussion was focused on the private piano lessons I took throughout my childhood. The private lessons I took almost every week for about 10 years.

The lessons I oftentimes resented because of the heavy load of expectation they set on my shoulders.
The lessons that had brought - on more than one occasion - hot tears to a blushing face.
The lessons I frustratedly practiced for each most week(s).
The lessons that made me want to shake and scream with the tick-tick-ticking of the metronome, and the repetition, "Again. Again. Do that again. You made a mistake. You need to play that again until you can play it 5 times perfectly. Good, now play it again."
The lessons that were not one of the 15 other activities I preferred to be involved with.
The lessons, that by early Sophomore year of high school, I hated so much I ended - for good.

"Were they really that bad?!" Squire prodded, surprised at my emotional outpouring. I thought again. Ready to confirm that they were that bad, I stopped.

Just as I was opening my mouth, the memory of one particular lesson came to my mind. The one where I played Grieg's "Nocturne" for my teacher after months and months of preparation and intricate practice.

As I played, the tones and syncopated flow of the music blinded me to anything else in the room. I didn't want the music to end, I didn't want to stop playing! It was as perfect as anything I had ever played. As I savored the last chord of the piece, I reluctantly lifted my fingers from the keys and rich static silence filled the room. My teacher and I just paused together in the beauty of the moment. And then we talked excitedly about how soon, I would be ready for Debussy.

Then another memory from a Festival performance a few years earlier, when I had played William Gillock's swanky little jazz tune, "Canal Street Blues." The man who was adjudicating my performance bobbed and swayed his head to the rhythm of the song as my fingers gracefully dragged, tripped, and dipped all over those black and white keys. When I was finished, he chuckled and turned around to my mother and whispered something about being ready for a cigarette and some good booze. I received a very high score at Festival that year.

Finally the memory of my very last recital came to me. The recitals through my piano teacher's studio were set up so that her most advanced students would play the very last songs. To be the finale of a recital meant you were "top dog" of all her students. The last recital I played in, I performed the very last piece. I played beautifully . . .and then walked off the stage never to perform another piano solo again. This last memory, realization rather, made me really sad. After years of practice, sweat, and tears I had worked my way up to the top of the recital totem pole. More importantly though, I was just on the cusp of getting really good, and I quit.

Thinking about all these things bothered me. Why did I quit? Why didn't I just suck it up and stick with it? With all the fuzzy emotions and memories of my years as a piano student swirling in my mind, I told Squire, "I need to go play piano." "Go ahead," he said. "Nothing's stopping you. Just shut Lincoln's door."

So, I just did - for about two hours. Luckily, I have not lost my skill completely. Being a member of my church has presented me with opportunities to keep playing the piano on occasion. We purchased a cheap little upright early in our marriage, so I have been able to play at home over the last few years. When I quit taking lessons, I was beginning to learn Rachmaninoff's, "Prelude Op.3 No.2 in C-sharp minor."

But without the consistent practice I used to put it in, the structure of weekly lessons, or an excellent teacher's constructive criticism sounding in my ear, I now struggle to smoothly sight-read even simple songs/hymns. I can still play my beloved "Nocturne", but the trills just aren't evenly tuned in my fingers anymore. And in general, I don't know the keys like I used to. I misjudge their spacing where I used to be able to play without hardly looking down at all. I long to sightread and let the music flow from my fingers like it used to - but it just doesn't.

I feel like I'm the servant in the parable of the talents who buried his talent deep in the ground. But in a turn of events from the original version of the parable, I'm now playing tug of war with the Lord to keep him from taking my talent away permanently. "Please, give me one more chance!"

In typing all of this, I'm desperately wishing I hadn't quit piano lessons. Yes, they were torturous at times - I certainly wouldn't deny that. (Probably most people have their tales of torturous private piano lessons to contribute?) But through the strife, they were also the key to some of the richest spiritual experiences of my life. They gave me the gift of freedom in music. But, without consistent nurturing my gift has become restricted. Now all that remains is an embarrassing tattered string of notes in my right hand, and a nervous chord in my left.
We're both going to need a lot of work. I'm very out of practice, and my little Lester upright is extremely out of tune.
I can't go back and change the past, but maybe I can change the future. . . ? Where does one find the courage/zeal/discipline/faith to restore an old dirt-covered, chipped, rusty talent? Perhaps in writing a blog post in the early morning hours? In watching the sun rise after a lost night's sleep? It's so overwhelming, but maybe, just maybe I can still play something by Debussy before I get too old die. But to get there some real practice is in order, I believe.

Wish me luck.

What do you wish you would have kept up but didn't? What's stopping you from trying again? And, in a semi-related vein: how do you feel about signing your kids up for music lessons? How can (do) you help them incorporate music into their lives, without burning them out?


  1. That's funny because today while leaving my yoga class I was just telling my friend that I'm going to start Logan on small 15 minute lessons once week come fall. He can semi play chop sticks with my friend who will be teaching him. I hope he doesn't get burnt out. I don't think he will just because when there is a piano in the room he can sit at it for easily hours trying to play (not banging and slamming like most kids). What do you think? Did you want piano lessons in the first place? He is very excited about it.

  2. I think that is totally up to you! Moms usually know best what their kids are ready to experience. :) And, yes! I REALLY wanted to take piano lessons. My mom had a policy of waiting to put us in lessons until we were begging for them. So, I started when I was about 6 years old. Even after I quit taking piano lessons, I still stayed involved with music - I was my high school drum major, and I became very good at playing french horn and participated in many musical groups. So, it wasn't like I gave up on music altogether - not by any means. Piano lessons actually served to fuel my many other musical interests. I guess I liked the group interactive experience with music more? (At least in high school?) What's your thinking? And what are your overall musical goals for Logan?



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...