Saturday, February 14, 2009
Playing for Keeps
When I was a child I took 4 years of piano lessons. My talent with music was evident at a young age. I could sing almost anything and was already beginning to learn to sing in harmony by the time I was 6. I could match pitches that my dad would sing, finding them first with my voice and then finding them on the piano. My parents decided that they needed to feed this talent. So, Mom and Dad took the initiative to find one of the best teachers in the area, Mrs. Lucy Chu. I sat in the basement studio of her house with about 9 other kids, every Saturday morning, and we were taught, using the Suzuki method, to play our scales and simple little tunes that every parent hoped would turn their child into the next virtuoso.
Mrs. Chu had a strict policy for practice: One hour per day, to be broken up in to three sessions of 20 minutes each, (20 minutes before school, 20 minutes right after school (even before homework!), and 20 minutes after dinner). Parents were to be as engaged in this activity as the child was. They had to sit with us during lessons and then during each of our 20 minute practice sessions. I can only imagine, looking back now, as a parent, that my Mom must've said, "You've got to be kidding me. I have things to do!" In fact, I know she did. I certainly would!
Needless to say, though I excelled in my vocal music progress, there was something about piano that I could never grasp. It never really became part of me. I could never make the keyboard "one" with me. I can still to this day remember my teacher coming around to critique our wrist placement with her thick Chinese accent, it came out something like "rike dead fiss". Really she was trying to tell me not to tighten my wrists, to relax and to hold them "like dead fish". My husband taunts me with this image to this very day. Somehow, my 7-year-old self found nothing musical or exciting about "dead fish". Looking back, I now understand that she wanted me to relax so that the music would flow from my hands effortlessly. I still question whether "dead fish" was the right metaphor for a bunch of 7-year-olds.
I learned a lot about theory from Mrs. Chu. I still remember all of my scales and all of my I, IV and V7 chords for every key. I could even transpose things. But, after about 3 years, Mrs. Chu despaired of me ever amounting to anything. You see, I wouldn't practice for an hour a day. I was very lucky to get in 20 minutes a day. So, Mrs. Chu passed me along to Mrs. Livingston. She was the nicest lady. It was she who introduced me to Bach. I began to learn that there was more to piano than the Bastiens had ever dreamed up.
I began to learn a piece from Anna Magdelena's Notebook. It was a minuet and I loved it, but I couldn't play it. I couldn't make my left hand do what I told it to do. I could play the right hand. I could play the left hand by itself, but I'll be darned if I could ever put the two of them together.
I began to think that perhaps Mrs. Chu was right and I would never be able to play piano, so when my mother threatened me with "practice or quit", I knew I couldn't ever do it perfectly, so I quit.
When I was a Senior in High School, I was at a performing arts school and keyboard was required. I dragged my old piano books out and began to play with them. I started to make some progress. I could play two hands at once, but not two notes in each hand at once. I finally conquered that minuet. I was so proud of myself! It was Progress, but not nearly enough.
By the time I reached college and was required to pass a keyboard proficiency test, which included playing a four-part hymn, all my dreams of ever being proficient evaporated. I had learned, along the way, from my Dad, how to use the chords on a lead sheet to play and that was good enough (or it would have to be). My mind simply couldn't take in four notes and play them all together. It was unthinkable. I froze.
Fast forward 20 years...
About a year ago, I began practicing my piano again. I don't know why, but somehow I thought, maybe this time it will be different. I picked up a book of simplified hymn accompaniments (most of them are in 3 parts) and I can (sort of) play them. I drill them until I get them right. Then I thought, why not something a little more daring?
I work for a pipe organ company and for a church so I thought that maybe I ought to learn how to play a pipe organ. So I picked up a setting of "In Dulci Jubilo" by Bach. It's still mostly one note in each hand, but the parts move independently and it is for organ (so it is actually on two different manuals) so it is a little more of a challenge.
I have a friend who is a brilliant organist (at least I think he is) who caught me practicing at church one day. I froze immediately and couldn't play anymore. I don't know if maybe my inability to play goes back to being afraid to fail or if I simply can't stand the thought of being embarrassed. But I have come to an important determination: I must conquer it.
But this time, it's all on my own time. It doesn't really matter how long it takes me to learn the piece. I can take a whole year to perfect it. I can work on conquering that fear of messing it up and learn how to recover and keep going, just as I have with choral singing. Maybe in a few months (or a couple of years) I will summon the courage to call one of the organ teachers in town to actually take lessons. But, honestly, right now, this is just a battle with myself. How much can I accomplish on my own? Am I really a hopeless case or just a nervous Nellie? I guess we'll find out...
Am I crazy? Picking up a new instrument (organ, no less) at 40! Probably.
What else is new?