March 8, 2014

Can you play me a memory?

Today, Evie played in her first piano recital. She and a handful of other young musicians visited a local senior center and played for the residents. Evie was the youngest performer there, and I was so proud of her.

Watching her perform brought back memories. It reminded me why I was so insistent that she start piano lessons, and why I'm so grateful that she is enjoying herself.

My parents signed me up for piano lessons when I was 8. My best friend Roxana had been playing for years at this point, and I dreamed of someday being as good as her. Here she is, possibly giving me pointers.

My first piano teacher, Mrs. Collins, was approximately 100 years old and lived in a sea-foam green, powder-scented house with clocks that played chimes every 15 minutes. She would rap her bony knuckles on the piano to tap out a steady beat and introduced me to my arch nemesis, the metronome. I enjoyed piano, but steadiness eluded me and the constant clicking stressed me out.

My mother longed to hear Chopin, but instead I brought home repetitive songs with titles like "The Hopping Frog" and "Clown Parade." One night, we had to call Mrs. Collins because my song sounded so terrible that my mom was sure I was reading the notes incorrectly. Mrs. Collins patiently explained the concept of discordant tones, how "wrong" notes create tension that is resolved beautifully when a prettier chord follows.

I kept learning and playing piano throughout my childhood. Mrs. Collins retired and I found a sweet, youngish piano teacher who still made me use a metronome but also let me flip to the back of the book and tackle the hardest song, even if it meant playing imperfectly - dropping a couple notes from a big chord or slowing down at the tricky parts.

Sometimes, while practicing, I would daydream that boys I had crushes on might hear me playing Rachmaninoff and be swept away by all the emotion I was pouring into my music. It would be instant Romantic love. I knew this would not happen if I played Bach or used a metronome. Metronomes = instant mood killer.

In high school, I played the Chopin my mom loved, and I developed a composer-crush on Mozart. I also learned popular songs like November Rain and Bohemian Rhapsody so that I could casually sit down at a piano in the school music room or theater, lead a singalong, and create a perfect moment in which I would win the eternal admiration of my classmates and/or the heart of a cute boy. This never happened. Instead, I would retreat to the practice rooms and play the piano during my lunch and study hall periods, to escape the awkwardness of nobody wanting to sit with me. Music was a place of strength, confidence, and emotional safety for me. By my senior year, a few friends were regularly following me to the practice rooms to chat and hang out and occasionally indulge in a singalong.

My piano career peaked in 1995. In a 3-way tie for culminating moments, I performed a concerto with my high school orchestra, I gave an hour-long senior recital, and I played for my brother's wedding.

I have no idea why I look so sad. It was a lovely wedding for a lovely couple, who are now a lovely family.

I took a couple semesters of lessons in college, but the teacher was strict and made me play Bach. She saw my flaws as a musician - I was inconsistent, my rhythm was shaky, and I had far more heart than discipline. I could have learned a lot from her, but I needed to learn other things more. 

I have probably been the best pianist I will ever be; now I play only for the joy of it. I can play a half-dozen songs well enough for polite company, I can sight-read my way through a Christmas carol singalong, and I can help Evie with her lessons. I downloaded a metronome app, and she despises it.

Wherever Evie's piano playing takes her, I'm glad that she is starting on this journey, and that I get to listen along the way.

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