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Around 2000, or possibly 2001, in a little town in North Dakota, in a house on a nice, straight street there was a girl. And a piano. And an ongoing battle between the two of them.
I was the girl. I was four or five at the time, and practicing my piano lessons every day had become the bane of my existence. My hands couldn’t reach all the keys, our black stool was too hard, and I just couldn’t sit up straight for that long. If you’re amused, well, you should be- looking back on it, I often am. But for a moment, imagine yourself in my shoes, forced to learn to play an off-key old upright that I hadn’t the slightest interest in, wasting my precious time that should have been spent on precious nothing, and worst of all, learning about Mozart in Music Class that morning in the first grade.
Learning about Mozart, you say. A fine example for a budding musician! And while it is almost always a good idea to set the bar high, come on, a boy who wrote his first composition at age four? That’s mighty high, as they say, and I was determined to catch up. Being constantly praised for my singing and schoolwork were simply not enough- no, I had to match wits with one of the greatest piano players in history. I had to beat him! And so that sunny afternoon found me frustrated and upset, eyes stinging and bottom sore, pounding my little hands on the lower octaves of the piano in a furious attempt to make the ugliest noise possible come from the tortuous device.
The noise summoned my father, who did his utmost to comfort me. I stopped banging and proceeded to sob. Dad, perplexed, asked what possibly could be the matter; had the piano injured me? Was I in pain? What in the world had caused me such hysteria?
The answer? “I’m not as good as Mozart!”
And so began my love-hate relationship with the piano, a relationship that has been going for upwards of nine years and is still healthy and strong. I may have hated those early days- may have. Ha! I loathed piano in the beginning. It was a useless practice forced upon me by my parents, one of whom had played in their youth. The ditties and songs were childish. The scales were a bore. The shiny blue notebook Dad presented me with as a reward for good, if forced, practice habits became a register of punishment. For the life of me, I had no idea why such a horrible pastime was so darn popular.
Oh, I listened to piano music. I loved it. My parents made a point of taking me to piano features at the local symphony, where I would bounce on the seat, kick my shiny Sunday shoes, and watch the performers’ fingers dance across the keys. The performances were nice, but I still couldn’t see what was in it for me. How did they learn? I was certain that they somehow came that way, came talented. I didn’t realize that, in my own way, I had too.
It took several years, but there came a day, there came a song, when I realized that I could make the piano sing, too. I graduated from Hot Cross Buns to Sonatinas and folk songs, and playing became fun. It was fun being the best piano player in the fifth grade in my not-so-humble opinion. It was fun to be respected, fun to be envied, fun to be adored.
But middle school came, and, overcome with sports and theater and class projects, I did the unthinkable- I dropped out of piano. Now, I was playing flute with the band. I had to practice two hours a week with the confounded thing, but I was patient this time. I knew it was only a matter of time until it sang.
I never connected the dots, made the comparison between learning the flute and learning the piano. Piano was a fight- it was me versus the instrument, as I tried to force it to sing for me. But when it came time to learn something new, I realized the error of my ways- and suddenly, I was actually learning instead of making myself suffer by thinking I was Mozart.
The years passed. I acquired a guitar the summer after sixth grade, and taught myself the chords. It was lovely, perfect even- I had saved up for half and had the rest supplied as a birthday present from my grandparents. And it made me happy, it really did. Music, on whichever instrument, is my driving passion. I must never forget that. But one night while Susie, as the guitar was dubbed, something inside me began to itch.
I couldn’t figure it out. The guitar was tuned. I pulled out the flute and played a rusty B flat, but it didn’t work- it was like something deep inside me was trying to claw its way into my consciousness, an ancient memory attempting to resurface.
Slowly, wondering what in the world I was doing, I pulled out an ancient orange lesson book. Flipping the pages, it fell open to Arkansas Traveler- a well-marked, pencil-smudged piece that had served as my sentence almost three years past. I put my fingers to the keys. I played the first chord. And suddenly, the itch was gone- not gone, but transformed into something wonderful, something deeply satisfying. Joy.
Piano brought me joy- that was my epiphany. Oh, so did the flute, and the guitar, and even the Celtic tinwhistle when it came along some years later. But the history, the misunderstandings, all the obstacles I had gotten past (culminating with my quitting the instrument entirely for almost two years), all made piano something more. These days, I play songs full of emotion, the lovely, complex melodies of a love to lovely and complex to understand- the love of music. It drives me. It makes me who I am.
I took one more year of lessons, and then began to teach myself songs I liked. My mom often asks me if I don’t want to start lessons again, to chase some impossible mastery of the instrument- as good as Mozart, perhaps? I inevitably say no. Some call it a waste of talent, but they’re wasting their breath- I am so happy, so content with where I am right now that I see absolutely no reason to risk all this. It’s taken me almost ten years to get where I am. And nothing, no one can ruin this perfect love.
I sing. I play flute, and guitar and tinwhistle and even a bit of sub-par harmonica, but most evenings you’ll catch me with that old piano. We swapped our stool for an equally uncomfortable bench, and our old black upright for an equally out-of-tune chestnut affair, but in the end, it makes no difference. The piano and I, we’re teaching each other these days. It comforts me. The music we make teaches me that life is beautiful, love is real and that both will keep going.
And believe me, I’m learning.