I started playing piano when I was in second grade. Looking back, I don’t know that I really had much of a choice, at least at the beginning. My mom was our church organist, we had a piano in our Detroit basement, and music was how our family entertained ourselves. We would either listen to our mom play piano downstairs, singing along when we knew the words, or we would sing and dance upstairs in the living room while my dad played his guitar for us. Some of my earliest memories are of me dancing on his guitar case or standing around the piano at my grandparent’s home in Ontario, singing along with the rest of my dad’s family when everyone was home.
Music was a way of life. I pounded on the piano keys from the time I could reach them and it was only natural to want to learn what those signs in front of my mom meant.
Then my mother decided to become my piano teacher.
It was rough. I thought the progress was too slow and I didn’t like listening to her directions. I also didn’t want to practice. But we didn’t have money to spare so if I was going to learn to play piano, I had to suck it up and accept lessons at home. And there was no way she was going to let me quit. Her oldest daughter was going to learn how to play piano, period.
My mom went on to start all four of us girls on the piano, but eventually we were moved on to “real” teachers. Not that she wasn’t a real teacher. Over the last thirty years, my mother has had a whole pile of piano students. But when it came to her daughters, we all eventually needed to be moved to the care of someone we didn’t live with. Under the tutelage of my new piano teacher, I thrived throughout my middle school and early high school years. I played recitals, participated in a duet concert, and eventually accompanied my high school choir on at least one number per concert. I enjoyed playing and appreciated the opportunities that my teacher gave me.
However, I eventually stopped playing. I never intended to, but the later years of high school got busy, college got even busier, and then I was struggling to keep my head above water as a new teacher. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy running my fingers across the keys, but I found other tasks and hobbies that drew my attention. I can still read music and sit down to play simpler pieces, but I would rather write than play, and so that is what I do in my spare time.
Despite the drop-off in my own playing, I determined that when we had children, they would learn how to play piano. Basic music skills are good for academics (particularly math), creativity, and personal development. I want my children to be well-rounded and that means a healthy mix of the arts and athletics.
So when our daughter announced at the age of six that she wanted to learn how to play the violin, I told her that she wasn’t getting violin lessons until she learned the basics in piano. I dreamed of listening to her play on the keys and falling in love with the creation of music at her fingertips. I couldn’t wait to make videos to send her piano teacher grandmother so that she could see her granddaughter’s progress from a distance.
But as with my ballet dreams, reality frequently does not match our fantasies.
She enjoyed playing piano, but she didn’t like the process. She didn’t want to spend 30 minutes a day practicing. She didn’t want to work on her theory books (which was also one of my biggest weaknesses). She didn’t want to take the time to get better. She just wanted to get into piano lessons, hear what her teacher had to say, absorb about half of it, and then return home to whatever she was doing before we left for piano.
It was frustrating and I stubbornly refused to give up.
I know that I should probably have done so earlier, but I had dreams. I just knew that someday it would click, that someday she would discover the benefits of practicing piano and she would take off. It never happened.
So this year, when we added the extra responsibility of middle school soccer to the mix of our family life, I asked her what she wanted to do about piano.
“Well, I don’t want to play violin anymore, so I think I can quit.”
I was honestly a little hurt. I asked if she was sure. She said that she was.
When my daughter decided she was done with dance, it was the end of my own unfulfilled childhood dreams. But when she said she was done with piano, it felt like so much more than that. It felt like a rejection of one of the things that had been such a big part of my own childhood.
But I know that’s not fair. After all, she’s never seen her mom lose herself in a piece of music, fingers flying up and down the ivories. Instead she’s watched her mom spend hours lost in her own writing, her fingers making words instead of music. So much so that she has taken to doing her own writing, creating stories and drawing pictures to match, convinced that someday she will create something worthy of other’s praise. Her stage is the page, not the baby grand.
My entire life I’ve heard older women lament the fact that they never learned to play piano or wishing that they had never stopped. Now that I’m older and I’ve had experience with both learning to play and no longer doing so, I wonder if maybe the lament is because they never found something to fill that grand piano sized creative hole. I’m glad that I spent all of those years playing, but I also am ok with the fact that I don’t play anymore.
Watching my daughter move into the more complicated sphere of middle school sports, balancing school and athletics and important friend and family time, has convinced me that we don’t need to add one more time consuming activity into the mix. I don’t need to keep fighting her on her practicing routine, looking over her shoulder to see if she’s actually playing the right notes or just the notes that she wants to play. She has fallen in love with choir, choosing to use her voice as her instrument instead of the piano or violin. I’m ok with that. I really am.
And I still have one more shot with my son, as long as I can get him to put down whatever ball he has in his hands long enough to sit down and make some music.
Can’t blame a girl for trying, can you?