Second set of keys


A while back, I wrote this essay about my failed attempt at piano when I was a little girl. If I’d had a different kind of teacher, a teacher, perhaps, like the teacher my older kids have now, I might have kept up piano. When my older daughter threatened to quit, her teacher taught her to play music from the Harry Potter movies. When they get bored, she teaches them to sing while they play. She’s fine with doing only 2-3 lessons a month. She doesn’t mind if we take most of the summer off. She doesn’t care that the girls don’t want to do recitals. She’s flexible in a way that keeps the kids interested, but also makes music relevant to their lives.

Up until now, the girls have practiced on a keyboard. Last week, we had my parents’ piano moved from their house to ours, so my older daughter could practice more difficult songs.

I suppose I thought the girls might be interested in practicing more if they had a real piano to play on (they’re not). They like how their songs sound. They do, eventually, sit down to practice. But the arrival of a “real” piano has not really increased their enthusiasm for music.

It’s increased mine.

As I struggle through rewriting the first 55 pages of my novel, the piano has become my biggest savior. In between lackluster metaphors and the deletion of useless paragraphs, I steal away to a different keyboard, dust the cobwebs off the theme song to Hill Street Blues (the last song I was learning before I quit), and take a stab at a new measure or two– playing this piano of my childhood for the first time in twenty-five years. I still can’t play the piano worth crap. I still have to write out the letter of every note because for me, reading music is like reading Mandarin. I still don’t understand what a B sharp is. (Is there such a thing?) But I lift my hands, position my fingers, and find a way to play.

Sometimes writing a novel feels like drowning. I sink under the weight of dialogue, characters’ dilemmas, the descriptions of settings, the conflict and crises. I suffocate from constant self-doubt. I search for answers in scenes, in chapters, in prologues and epilogues, my mind tortured with questions — Is this the right way to do it? Is this the answer I’m looking for?

There is no right or wrong in story-telling. No up or down. No yin or yang. The endless possibilities can be overwhelming. But thankfully, for the few minutes a day, I can steal away to the piano– an instrument I once found frustrating, and now find liberating– where the answers are always in black and white.

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6 thoughts on “Second set of keys

  1. Sigh… I must be PMSing because I’m just so depressed today… and this post made me feel that my life is such a failure… (sorry! I know that was not your point or your aim at all, it’s just me, I promise, and my really complicated relationship to music). Let me explain!

    I didn’t quit piano… I went to lessons for SEVENTEEN years, including after I’d finished college and gotten married. It took me six, instead of three years, but I finished the equivalent to a high school degree in music, with piano as my “main” instrument. I still can’t play well at all. I mean, I can play any hymn in the church hymnal if you give it to me (I read simple music really well, no matter how many flats — yes, there is such a thing as B flat! 😉 or sharps), but I can’t play anything by ear, I cannot for the life of me learn ANYTHING by heart (that’s why it took me six years, I had to do a 45 minute recital to graduate. I had to split it in two and play several two piano pieces (that can be played looking at the music) in order to make it, at age 23.5, married. P.S. I never quit because my mom kept pressing me to continue and finish.

    So… why is that depressing?

    Because I didn’t quit the PhD either. It took me ten years, four of which only in the dissertation phase and the only reason I finished was that my parents dedicated 24 months of their lives to my family so I simply HAD to finish. Did it help much — except for a mild sense of accomplishment? No because academia is crazy and all I can have is a crappy adjunct job.

    Yeah, the piano, the phd, I know I’m not good at anything, really. I’m ok, but don’t excel… (and I do know I have many other qualities in life).

    Sorry. let’s blame it on the hormones, shall we? and I may just go ahead and expand this into a pity-fest post. Blah. thanks for listening, dear friend. And I’m truly glad the piano is helping you. You should study with one of the new methods (try Alfred’s all-in-one for adults, it works, seriously!).

    As for my sons, they’re doing pretty well in piano. They have to be forced to practice (mostly Kelvin), but they’re making so much progress, it’s a joy! and I won’t let them quit either. 😉

  2. Oh, Lilian. I’m sorry the post touched a nerve with you. If you still play piano, and you still enjoy piano, I’d say you are a piano-playing success! Good for you for keeping the boys at it. If my girls truly no longer enjoy it, I will let them quit.

    BTW, I was asking about B sharp…

  3. I know exactly what you mean! As much as I love playing music in general, I love it most when I have other work to do – there’s nothing quite like the reprieve of being able to create something and see (hear) the results instantly. I don’t know if that’s what you mean but at least for me, that’s what I like about playing a piece when I’m suffering through a drawn out project.

    I’m so jealous you have the piano back! I miss mine and am still thinking about having it carted to my new place next year, but I’m not sure yet. It’s great you’re trying it out again – so many people I know hated learning instruments as children and never go back at all. (Maybe you should learn the Harry Potter music, too, as incentive? haha)

    PS- a B sharp is a plain old C 😉

  4. Oh… I wasn’t paying attention with the sharps and flats, good think shilps was on the ball! 😉

    I’m sorry your daughters aren’t enjoying it, my boys don’t enjoy to practice either (particularly Kelvin), but I totally subscribe to Amy Chua’s seemingly brash idea that music is not fun until you get pretty good at it, so there may be periods of struggle, but I think it’s worth it.

    Besides… I know I’d be WAY better if I’d studied with today’s methods which teach [laying by chords as well as “classical” reading music and theory. How long have the girls studied? well… maybe it’s piano not for them after all, who am I to judge?

    My boys are both very musical, Kelvin loves to sing and to make up his own little songs in the piano and Linton — after a pretty steep learning curve the first few months (he really wanted to give up) — now is just so persistent at practicing (unlike Kelvin), it’s wonderful to see his quick progress. Of course they both get discouraged, but I try to help. That, I must confess, is not easy because I think that being a piano teacher (and I was for several months at a time when we lived in PA) is the most boring thing in the world… (let’s blame it on my ADHD). So I don’t enjoy having to sit with them and make them practice, but sometimes I have do do it (sigh).

    I meant to have them practice during the summer and even take some lessons, but I really was too lazy to pursue it. I may aspire to some Tiger Mama’s values, but I sure can’t carry them out to completion! 😉

    P.S. I was a mess on Friday because of what I blogged that day (or Thursday) — my class being under enrolled and stuff, but I’m feeling much better. Those feelings of failure lay buried in my unconscious most of the time, though, just waiting to come up to the surface in times of crisis. Blah!

  5. How funny, I just had a dream the other night about trying to play the piano again and discovering that I didn’t remember how at all. (which is probably true). When I took lessons, our piano was in our (scary!) unfinished basement. So when I whined about that, my parents totally called my bluff and moved the piano into my bedroom. It still didn’t make me want to play/practice more. (The last song I was learning was the theme song from “Chariots of Fire.”)

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