I was the same age my own daughter is now when I decided to quit playing the clarinet. I can’t honestly remember what my breaking point was, but I remember moving from being proudly First Clarinet, to quitting band altogether. It had something to do with the fact that singing and clarinet were not compatible, and I wanted to play an instrument that would allow me to indulge in the pre-adolescent joy of singing love songs and heart-breaking ballads. Thirty years later, quitting clarinet is intertwined in the soundtrack of my life with choppy quarter note piano chords pounding out “The Rose” so I could do my best to vocally emulate Bette Midler.
Earlier this week, my own daughter…who has just recently had stops and starts with both viola and guitar…asked me about my green-cased clarinet which still rests in our guest room. She also asked when I learned to play piano. I was able to connect the story of the two instruments for her. It seems like sixth grade is a musical transition year in our family.
After I quit clarinet at the end of my sixth grade year, I started playing piano. I began seventh grade practicing on the poorly tuned upright piano that my mother had in the corner of her first grade classroom. I could already read music, so I exchanged my clarinet practice hour for forays into “Chariots of Fire” and “The Entertainer” as well as some music from the piano classics book we had at home. After proving my diligence for several weeks, my parents decided to send me for lessons. Like most others who wanted to learn in our small town, piano lessons were at the home of Mrs. Willis, the Baptist minister’s wife, who lived in the white painted parsonage next to the church on Main Street. I would walk to her house after school, bringing my $5 per lesson, and learn how to appropriately finger my way through music, play the scales and arpeggios that unleashed the realm of musical possibilities, and improvise on the four-part harmonies of church hymnals. I also learned to keep my nails cut short, to exercise and stretch my fingers, to keep impeccable wrist posture, and never ever to play volleyball. The latter was like gold: any “get out of gym free” excuse would keep me to a rigid schedule of daily piano practice.
What I remembered most vividly, though, was getting our own piano. After remaining true to my hour daily of practice, my family saved and borrowed enough to buy a spinet piano. It was beautiful: cherry wood, mellow resonance, keys that seemed to perfectly match the touch of my fingers. I loved that instrument and, in fact, moved it several times to subsequent apartments and houses after I launched from the family home. My piano and I only parted ways after I moved cross-country; at that point, its moving costs exceeded its worth even in spite of my attachments.
At one point, I was a decent pianist. I was always emotionally connected to my playing. I was never, ever precise enough, though. So, I was never destined to be a great pianist. That was fine by me. I could play, and I could sing. I made quick progress and could work hard and hear my improvements. My left hand was never as coordinated as my right, but I could work through most intermediate pieces with a modest amount of practice. More importantly, I could improvise on four part hymns. As it turned out, in small town USA, that was a great way to make a few dollars every weekend on the country church circuit filling in for vacationing church musicians.
I thought I would always play piano. For a short time, I considered adding a music minor in college, but one semester of private lessons convinced me that academics were a stronger fit than the arts for my professional life. Piano became a hobby when I stopped taking lessons during my sophomore year. When I experienced a crisis of faith later that year, my hymn improvisation and tolerance of the church circuit went out along with it. Sometimes, in the years that followed, I would find a piano and play just to soothe my own soul. “Will I lose my dignity?” from Rent. Debussy’s Reverie. Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.
I got rusty. I had a child. I bought a piano, another spinet, when she started school. I tried (unsuccessfully) to give her lessons using the “John Thompson’s Book One” that I had kept all those years. I quickly realized that my daughter has less tendency toward detail than I do. I also realized that there is a reason I teach adults. Family piano lessons were not a joy for either of us. I acknowledged that Mrs. Willis must have had nerves of steel. I made a few attempts to play, but realized I was practically a beginner again myself. Discouraged, my piano was relegated to a great place to display photos, and to occasionally plunk out my vocal parts before choir rehearsal.
The other night, I woke up shortly after midnight. I was sure I heard something, and thought perhaps the stereo was still on. I opened the bedroom door, and slipped down the stairs. My daughter was pajama-clad, playing the Harry Potter theme by ear on our piano. I started to give a “waaaay past your bedtime” lecture. But, I stopped myself. I listened, and she beamed. “I figured it out myself!” was her joyful realization.
Pianos are meant to be played. Music was meant to emerge from the soul. My voice makes music more often than my fingers these days, but maybe I should let my hands return to the keys more often. It doesn’t matter what the tune is. Music has its own soul language.
My daughter is leery of committing to lessons yet, but she taught me one: Beautiful souls make beautiful music.
That is my piano lesson…and my small point of light…tonight.