(It was quite convenient that the Weekly Writing Challenge synched with what I wanted to write. But I’m not complaining.)
The whole affair started out as sibling rivalry. It sounds rather petty to state it as such, but there is a degree of truth to that admission. I come from a long history of musicians. My grandparents played piano and vibraphone. My mother, sister, nephew, and to an extent, my dad, all play piano.
The parents play instruments in church. The sister sings and the brother plays drums for worship. He also plays vibraphone, piano, and pretty much everything in the percussion family. As for me, well I am rather gifted at playing the kazoo. (I can actually play two kazoos at once with my nostrils; but that is a story for another time.)
Due to my musical lineage, I felt the need to acquire some musical skill. (Not including humming into a plastic tube.) After seeing Peter and the Wolf quite a few times, I decided that the oboe as for more. I liked the duck; that was my reasoning. However, after talking to the man in the music store who actually knew what was involved, I changed my mind. I had no desire to learn the flute, no matter how crucial a step it was to learning the oboe. I discarded the musical notion and went back to spending my days playing Transformers and making cars out of LEGOs.
As the years progressed, the piano in our living room mocked me. Everybody else is doing it, the cruel instrument would declare. Hey look, they pay this guy to come in a tune me. I’m pretty special.
Of course, the talented family kept visiting and kept showing me how it is done. One of my uncles has several classical CDs and teaches music at a state university. Another uncle has worked in a recording studio and can play the piano with his back turned to it and his arms behind him. No familial pressure, nope.
Then, the opportunity came. As a soon-to-be junior signing up for classes, I discovered there was a yearlong class about piano. I had never been a singer and band was for kids that actually knew what they were doing. But intro to piano? I could handle that. I even had the instrument at home to practice on. A month or two later, there I was sitting in a room with a dozen or so synthesizers and the best music teacher one could hope for.
Now, I do not know how you learned piano, but this classroom setting was odd. It was as simple as could be. In an otherwise empty room there were a dozen synthesizers and a white board. Nothing more was supplied.
How do you keep from overhearing all the mistakes? How can you focus on your music when there are all these other keyboards around? The answer was apparently headphones. Instead of other notes or ivory keys bounding up or down, we had a different setting. No plinky notes, no masterful performances, only the thund thund as the plastic keys were pushed down. Every time I took off my headphones, I was aware of just how strangely mechanical this music class sounded. Instead of hearing your neighbor play Jingle Bells, one would hear, “Thund thund thund, thund thund thund. Thund thund thund, thund thund.”
The background noise was uninspiring. If nothing else, it removed any distractions. The notes in front of us were far more interesting than the clunky sounds produced by our fellow classmates. The exceptions were the one or two students who had been playing for years. They churned out those thund thunds fast. But I always had to wonder, what the sam hill were they doing taking a class with a newbie like me when they were always so proficient? (This criticism coming from a student who would later be a teacher’s assistant for three classes his senior year. Slacker.)
Our piano teacher clearly loved music. She was also the choir teacher. I still do not know why she taught this one class while the band teacher taught all the other instrument-based classes, but she was more than competent. She would always offer helpful hints, too.
“Clip your nails so you don’t get an extra noise when your fingers hit the keys.”
“Don’t eat candy before your recital. The sugar makes your fingers jumpy.”
She seemed particularly fascinated with my hands. I have long fingers. On a standard sized keyboard, one hand can reach both “alt” keys. I can stretch an octave and a half on a piano. As the teacher referred to them, I had “Chopin hands”. She, not surprisingly, swooned over having fingers that could reach over so many keys and urged me to keep playing piano.
Yet, as with many lessons that we learn as kids, I let piano go once the class ended. In theory I could have taken another nine months my senior year, but that seemed rather impractical. I kept the learners book and I still have it today. There are pianos in my church, my parents’ house, my sister’s house, and of course my brother has his synthesizer. There is even a piano at one of my jobs. If I wished to make the effort, it could be done.
Even with all those opportunities, I have not felt called to spend time developing fingers that dance and wave across piano keys. I have other things that my siblings do not have and I have settled happily into those hobbies. My fingers have their way with a computer keyboard, and that seems to satisfy them. Whenever someone asks if I play any instruments, I very accurately reply, “A little”.
I went for a jog last week. There, on the side of the trail, was a piano. (King County likes putting pianos in public places. Or rather, they do for the six weeks out of the year when it is not raining.) It was early in the morning. No one was around. The closest person was the newspaper delivery van across the street, restocking the machine with the latest news. Between the van’s engine and the chu-chang! of the metal door slamming shut, they would not be able to hear me.
Sweaty and wearing jogging shoes, I walked up to the piano. It was clearly a community piano, painted in green and purple colors, and a lack of professionalism exuded from its much-used wooden exterior. I took its measure, and it did the same.
Is this C and E or is that E and C? I still have to hover above the keys when I approach a keyboard. I may have learned the basics, but they do not leap to mind as quickly as I might like. Since it was early, I simply put my hands to the piano and let the physical memory go to work. No power cords, no headphones to contain my mistakes. There was only me and this humble piano that somehow still managed to convey a sense of intimidation. A novice song came floating back from the decades past and I let my fingers plink away.
Lavender’s Blue, ditty ditty ditty, Lav-ne-der’s blue. I love you too, ditty ditty, ditty, Lav-en-der’s Blue.
It was not graceful. It was not elegant. I ignored the left hand’s part entirely. However, I can say that, years after I was taught, I can still play piano. Barely.
There is a certain fascination to be found in what the brain retains. Toddlers can swim and preschoolers can ride bicycles. The body heals itself on a regular basis. And somewhere, buried very, very deep in the recesses of my noggin, I know how to play Jingle Bells.
Other things take up our time. Priorities change. Hopefully, we stop comparing ourselves to others and do what we truly enjoy. As for myself, I can let my family be gifted at playing piano. I still have my nine months of learning, not to mention my nose-kazoo skills (which are unmatched by any of my relatives). I maintain a goal or two, but piano recitals are not among them. Now the harmonica, that’s an instrument for me.