I don’t know why my mother decided that my sister and I should take piano lessons. Unlike swimming – another thing we pay others to teach our children how to do – playing the piano isn’t really a life skill. It’s more a pose, a boast, a feather tucked squarely in the back of one’s cap to be pointed at every once in a while and otherwise left to rot. I mean, how many people who took piano lessons as a child still play the piano as they grow older? Not that many from what I can tell (though maybe more than I think, maybe the secrecy of it all is part of the allure).
While my mom would probably say that her own inability to make a piano do anything but cough and spit probably had much to do with her interest in our taking lessons, I imagine that our family’s social class actually played the more significant role. Our family occupied the upper end of the middle class spectrum in what was at the time a small furniture and carpets town in southern Virginia and that made piano lessons – one of those marks of achievement and social sophistication towards which my mom often strived - something we could afford to try. My sister and I, still young enough that we couldn’t really differentiate between our parents’ interests and our own and not knowing what piano lessons entailed until the decision was long past done, went along with things because that’s what we were supposed to do. Plus, it was exciting to bring a piano into the house. I still remember reading the name scrawled across the left-hand side just above the keyboard – Baldwin Acrosonic – and feeling like it sounded special.
Even though I didn’t like practicing for the requisite thirty minutes each night – Mom had to resort to setting a timer and even then with trips to the bathroom and various meanderings away from the piano I found plenty of ways to cut things short – I eventually learned to make my way through a respectable number of pieces. However, my heart wasn’t into it enough to ever get really good. The only reason to push on when a piece got dull or to repeat a measure again and again when I wasn’t getting something was that my parents were paying someone to teach me to do this. While that was all fine and dandy for a bit, it was not a particularly good motivator when the pieces got harder. At some point the input-to-success ratio got low enough that something had to give. Either I needed to find another reason to do lessons or it was time to stop and look for something else to do. I, like most kids, did the latter.
Then something unexpected happened. It turns out that the moment I stopped taking lessons, the moment playing the piano could be something I did for me and not for someone else, the moment the music became a means of expression instead of social training, I started to really enjoy it. Dispensing with the lesson and recital books, I took up a couple of New Age piano solo books, playing them cover to cover, experimenting with how fast I could play the pieces or how dramatic I could make them. Released from having to meet anyone’s expectations, I found playing the piano could become an outlet, an opportunity to be loud or sharp or mischievous or mean or sulky or ecstatic or inside my head, to scream and yell or cry, to be something I was not for a few minutes at a time. I wound up spending many a lonesome teenage evening banging out two or three of the pieces that seemed to speak to me, calling forth thunderstorms or dreams or naked dances in the moonlight. Sometimes, Mom and Dad would come and listen – taking a seat in a velvety blue wingback chair that faced away from the piano, obscuring all but their legs from my view - but it always felt a touch awkward. I didn’t mind their presence, but I wasn’t playing for them. I was playing in spite of them.
Maybe that’s what my mother was hoping for all along.
Ironically, it is because of my parents that my children may wind up learning to play the piano as well. About three years ago they bought us a piano. They didn’t ask us first. They found a used piano in good condition at a charity auction and decided that it was something we should have; so they bought it. It was only after the fact that they pretended to broach our interest before revealing the fait accompli. At the time Ava, the kids, and I were living in a rental house and contemplating a move to a new city. The last thing we needed was a five hundred pound box of vibrating strings that only I knew or cared how play. And yet, how can you say no to an idea your parents have invested so much in that they are willing to rent a truck and drive the thing seven hours for you to have it? We couldn’t, and so we wound up with a piano.
For the first six months it was in our house, no one touched it. It sat in our dining room, a respectable upright dust collector with some framed pictures on top crammed back into the corner so we wouldn’t trip over it when we brought food out to the table. Eventually I started playing for a few minutes before Pip came home from school just to see what kind of chops I still had. It was a pleasant diversion, but in no way did it feel essential. When we finally bought a house of our own two years ago, we contemplated donating the piano to the owner of the rental house just so we didn’t have to move it. However, it turned out to be less painful to move the thing than try to explain to my folks why we left it behind.
In the new house, the piano once again occupied a spot in the dining room, but this time it was centered on the back wall in the direct line of sight whenever you came in from the living room, right where you could never quite put it out of your mind. I continued to fiddle from time to time, playing Christmas songs and seeing how much of my old recital pieces I could still play, and Pip started plucking at it some too. After he expressed interest in learning how to play, we tried a couple of lessons together. But the dynamic didn’t work. As long as the pieces were easy, he was willing to let me teach him things, but the moment he started having trouble, he didn’t want to do it anymore. He’d been less interested in the music itself and more in seeing if he could do something that I was doing. Remembering my own experience, I didn’t make an issue of it. We closed up the books and put them away in the bench for safe keeping.
However, I had liked listening to him work on things; the plucking and plinking of the notes – even when they weren’t doing anything much – was soothing and pleasant. The sound of a piano with a child at the helm is not like what you get with a clarinet or a violin. With those instruments the bad notes are so grating they make you want to fill your ears with cement, but with the piano, the harmonies can be wrong and the rhythms can be all over the place, and it still sounds inviting. There is something timeless about the searching and stretching of a child feeling their way along a keyboard. The music that comes from this is simple, primal, tentative, murky, halting, repetitive and yet viscerally progressive; it’s like a condensation of childhood itself and listening to it always made me feel both hopeful and nostalgic at the same time.
Last year, it was our great good fortune that Pip was invited to take lessons through his school and, with someone else teaching him, he’s found some new interest in playing. In hopes of nurturing this interest while not overdoing it, I’m constantly trying to thread the needle. I remind Pip of times he could play the piano but never tell him he has to. When he finishes after only ten minutes of practice, I want to tell him to go back through his pieces again or find something new to work on, but I keep my trap shut so that he can maintain control over his own progress. I ask questions about things he’s learning and jump in to play with him whenever he asks but otherwise try to let him do it on his own. This means that some weeks he’s just not interested and when he winds up practicing only twice or three times, I have to make my peace with that. However, there are some nights where he’ll sit and play for thirty to forty minutes. We’ll be doing the dishes and he’ll begin with something he knows and then continue to something new – a new piece, sometimes a scale or a new chord. It captures him and he tinkers with it, often asking us questions or running through a tricky measure repeatedly until he gets it. On those evenings I take my sweet time cleaning up, stretching out the tidying and the sweeping, hoping that if it seems like everyone else is busy with their own things, he’ll just keep on playing right up until it’s time to go to bed.
It doesn’t look like Polly is going to get the same opportunity to take lessons through the school that Pip did and this leaves me stuck in a dilemma. Polly’s interest in playing is furtive and difficult to discern. Whenever I suggest we sit and play for a few minutes, she puts up a half-hearted resistance before dragging herself glumly over to the piano. Yet she has collected together all of the earliest exercises Pip brought home from school and placed them in a folder with her name on it. Also once she starts going she often wants me to find something more for her to play. She’ll go for a good ten minutes without pause and seems genuinely interested in learning about the various things she sees on a page of music. If she had disavowed any intent in playing, I would respect that and leave it alone. But she shows enough casual interest that I keep wondering if I should push a little harder, give her enough of a start so she can see if she really likes it or not. I feel as if she might.
There is one example that I keep coming back to as I ponder what to do about this. When Polly was four, I decided it was time for her to dispense with the training wheels on her bicycle. We were riding down to school with Pip every morning and the training wheels were becoming dangerous. Not only were they wearing down but Polly could get the bike going fast enough that one false bump in the wrong direction would send her flying. She needed the maneuverability and nimbleness that comes when the training wheels are gone. However, she wasn’t particularly interested in this project. It wasn’t that she was against it necessarily, but whenever I brought up the idea she preferred to do something else. She was comfortable with her training wheels and the challenge of learning to go without them didn’t excite her. So we came to an agreement: we would practice riding without training wheels once a week for ten or fifteen minutes; just enough time for me to teach her a little bit but not enough for her to feel trapped in something that wasn’t fun for her. If after our time was up she wanted to do more, we could. If not, we would stop for the day and pick it up again the following week. This gave her a sense of control over the project allowing for her both to plan for our lessons and shut them down when she was done for the day.
It took about four weeks of these short lessons before Polly was interested in doing more. But once she got there she really went after it. We would ride up and down the street together for up to an hour at a time and even started going out multiple days of the week to practice. The elderly couple who lived up the block began coming out to cheer for her as she improved. Within three months she was riding on her own down to the school and back.
I feel as if the same thing could be true with playing the piano. We could do ten to fifteen minutes once or twice a week, and she would gradually acquire a comfort with the instrument, the kind of comfort that could lead to real enjoyment in playing. And yet, I’m hesitant to even push that much. Riding a bike without training wheels was a necessary skill for Polly to acquire. We move about our city on our bikes and she needed to be able to keep up. Playing the piano is not. At what point am I helping my child and at what point am I merely indulging my own self-interested whims? It’s a dilemma that brings me back full circle to where I started.