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February 26, 2024

Piano Envy

By Kellie Gillespie

The panic usually starts around 3 pm on Wednesdays. That's when I'm winding down in my workday, starting to think about dinner plans and WHAM! It hits me. It's piano lesson night. Oh, no. My hands start to tremble, my forehead breaks out in a cold sweat, and my mind races to create some clever, never-before-used excuse to explain my lack of readiness. The cat peed on my music? Darn, I tried that one already. I broke my ring finger? Hmmm. I do have a whole box of bandages in the cupboard. But, really, why do I bother? I should know by now, at forty-three years of age, that excuses never work. My piano teacher can sniff her way through each new excuse like a dog with a bowl of vegetable beef stew. It doesn't take her long to get to the meat of the matter, which is: I didn't practice.

"Well, I did practice soooommmee," I might say in a small voice.

"Every day?" asks the Voice of Doom. Uh, no. Not every day. Maybe every other day?

"I had to work the whole weekend," I say in an almost whine. I don't tell her that it may have been more like every third day.

Piano Teacher sighs. It's a big sigh, like when I was in third grade and threw up my lunch all over the school cafeteria. My teacher sighed just like that before she sent me to the nurse's office. I don't know why Piano Teacher feels the need to sigh since we have an almost identical conversation every Wednesday night and the result is always the same, but sigh she does. And it always serves to make me feel like that little girl who threw up her lunch -- guilty and confused. Guilty because I didn't practice. Confused because why should I feel guilty when I'm the one who pays for the lessons and if I want to take six weeks to learn "The Theme From Love Story," who the hell cares? It's my money, my time, and my piano, damn it!

I wisely do not voice this opinion to my piano teacher. If she gets mad at me, she whips out the flash cards and I have to sit at the piano and identify each note, both verbally and musically. If I miss one, it goes back in the pile to try again. If she's really mad at me, she makes me identify all the dynamics, tempos and even some mystery notations that I could swear she makes up on the spur of the moment. It's punishment for not practicing, which I have to admit I deserve, so I try not to complain and fidget too much during Quiz Time. But I've become pretty adept at cracking jokes in an attempt to divert her attention away from the excessive amount of time it takes me to think of each answer.

Who says Piano Teacher is always the smartest one?

I know what you're thinking. Why on earth am I putting myself through this torture week after week, month after month? It's not like I don't work full-time, have housecleaning duties, or need to please a husband once in a while. I'm plenty busy, so why add this extra stress to my life? Well, like any other adult dysfunction, it all goes back to my deprived childhood. When I was a kid, I really wanted to learn how to play the piano. I used to beg my mother for lessons. Okay, sometimes it bordered on irritatingly loud whining, but she would not budge on the issue, no matter how much I pleaded, bargained, or lay on the floor sobbing hysterically. When my sister and I went to the YMCA every Saturday, we would fake play on the beater piano in the recreation room. Instead of satisfying my piano urges, however, this just made me feel more destitute and musically challenged. I wish the Mozart Effect Theory had been around back then; I could have used it to emotionally blackmail my mother by pointing out that a lack of music lessons could stunt my growth or lower my SAT scores, or something. In fact, my lack of musical ability did negatively affect my college career years later, when I had to take Music Appreciation to fulfill graduation requirements -- and almost failed it.

Yes, I almost failed Music Appreciation. This is very difficult for me, a person who graduated Summa Cum Laude, to admit. Oh, I did fine when we had to listen to different composers' works and identify them on a test. Piece of cake. I also managed to hold my own when we learned about the parts of an orchestra, the historical periods of music, and even some basic theory, like the musical scale. Every Good Boy Does Fine. See? I've got it. The tricky part came when we had to know how to change the KEY of a piece of music. Huh? Change the KEY? Put something in the key of C to the key of G? The instructor might as well have been speaking Norwegian. I had no idea what this was, and what's worse, I seemed to have some kind of music disability prohibiting me from learning how to do it.

After an intense one-on-one session with the teacher, he shook his head and sighed. This sigh was very similar to the kind of sigh my mother made when I was five and flushed my panties down the toilet. The sigh implied that he had had it up to HERE and I was the worst student EVER. He suggested I get a tutor. A tutor? Where in hell was I going to find a Music Appreciation tutor? I checked out all the little index cards posted around campus that advertised tutors in various subjects. There was an abundance of calculus tutors, French tutors, even someone willing to teach me to sew, but no music tutors, although someone was offering tuba lessons. But the guardian angel assigned to musical idiots must have been watching out for me, because a miracle occurred. One day I was lurking outside the piano lab, getting up enough nerve to ask one of the players to take pity on me, when someone tapped me on the shoulder.

"I heard you need a tutor," he said. Hallelujah. My life was saved. Fred (not his real name) was extremely patient with me and never sighed once. I gave him a big tip for that bit of kindness, and whatever he taught me worked because I passed all my exams in Music Appreciation. But that was a long time ago and any key-changing skill I might have possessed has gone by the wayside. I sure hope I never become shipwrecked on a desert island and the only way to save myself is to change keys in a piece of music. I haven't got to that part yet in Albert's Adult Music Theory, Book 1.

My piano envy condition continued for quite some time. Like all good parents, I transferred my own ambitions and aspirations onto my children and forced them all to take music lessons. Of course, this was for their own good and to help boost their SAT scores. My oldest son turned out to have a natural ability. He started playing at five years old and added organ lessons at ten. By the time he was thirteen, he was playing at a nearby church and getting paid for it. I really wanted him to continue with it professionally, maybe work at Organ Stop Pizza, but he chose instead to become a computer programmer and now earns more money than I do. Go figure.

My daughter was not so musically inclined. She hated to practice but I insisted, and we held fast to that power struggle until she strategically negotiated to replace the piano with clarinet lessons. Good enough for me. She played clarinet in the high school marching band and had a great time. My third child, however, decided to play the violin until he jumped off the high bunk bed when he was eight and accidentally landed on his instrument, which cost $200.00, by the way. He also left it on the school bus, forgot it at his friend's house and broke it in half while trying to hit a baseball. He's in college now, but I have confidence we got enough music lessons in him to ace any music class that gets thrown his way. And his SAT scores were pretty good, too.

My fourth child also takes piano lessons. He is fourteen and we share a teacher on Wednesday evenings. Sometimes he calls me at work on a Wednesday afternoon, pleading for me to cancel the lesson for that night. If I'm feeling a little apprehensive about my own performance, I do cancel. For his sake, or course. Then we both breathe a little easier  until the next Wednesday comes around. To be fair, Piano Teacher tries to make this experience fun for us, and I admit to a certain thrill for each star I get to put on my sticker chart. Don't laugh. I was very embarrassed about the star thing at first, but I've come to really anticipate these little rewards. Don't underestimate the power of a fun-size Three Musketeers bar. And keep in mind that I have to work very, very hard for any little treats I get; Piano Teacher is a self-professed perfectionist. I either play too loud or too soft. I don't connect the phrases well enough, or my pedal technique is lacking. More often than not, though, I suspect I get passed on a song because she just can't stand to hear it anymore.

Last week I got a big prize for getting fifty stars. Fifty stars! Fifty stars means I got to rummage around the "big prize bag" to possibly choose a temporary tattoo or fake teeth or even a whoopee cushion. I was very proud of achieving the fifty star milestone, even if most of them were pity stars. No matter. I worked hard for my glow-in-the-dark eyeglasses by playing "You Are My Sunshine" over and over and over until the dog started howling. Now I'm working on "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." I quite enjoy butchering this song every other night (or is that every third night?), thanking my lucky stars that I've finally achieved my wish to learn the piano. Now if I could just get my husband to stop sighing whenever I leave my shoes all over the bedroom floor, my life would be perfect.

Article © Kellie Gillespie. All rights reserved.
Published on 2004-02-14
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