Friday, October 12, 2007

Piano Lessons

This post is dedicated to Urban Pedestrian, in response to this comment:

"Kwachie -- now I'm hyperventilating... 12 years of piano and now you can't play a thing? I'm forking over thousands of dollars to get my daughter a musical education so she'll always have a valuable skill to fall back on all her life and you're telling me it's all going to fly out the window? Arrggghhh. Please tell me all these piano lessons were of some use to you somewhere along the line???"

My mom played the piano all her life, but we didn't actually have a piano in our house until my dad bought her a Winter upright for their 14th anniversary. (I know it was their 14th anniversary because, even though they were divorced for the last ten or so years of their lives, I discovered the anniversary card, still in the piano bench, when I inherited it.) At any rate, that was in 1959, and I was five years old.

My mom was taking piano lessons from a man who played piano with a local jazz quartet, and she spent hours practicing, until she could play "Whispering" backward and forward. She also played everything she had sheet music for, and she had a huge collection she'd been amassing since the 1930's. I'd sit next to her on the piano bench and turn the pages, and my dad would sing. He sang like Bing Crosby, but that's another story. By the time I was six, I knew a ton of Big Band and WWII songs. When the piano was vacant, I'd sit down and pick out stuff. I think the first thing I picked out on my own was "Moon River." She decided I was a prodigy and promptly signed me up for lessons with her teacher. He taught Jazz, Swing and Boogie bass, and I mostly played by ear, picking out a tune with my right hand, playing one of his bass rhythms with my left, and figuring out the key signature by whether it sounded good or not. As it turns out, I mostly played in E-flat Minor, because that's my mom's favorite key and the one that sounded "right" to me. She couldn't have been in love with C Major, of course. Actually, the first two pieces of music I learned to play from sheet music were both by Henry Mancini.

I was enjoying playing the piano immensely, and I was a teeny-tiny kid, so I expect I looked pretty damn cute playing the hell out of the theme from "The Pink Panther" and "Baby Elephant Walk" with my blond braids flapping. All that changed a couple of years later, when my mom figured out that I really couldn't read music ... I could just play it ... and she ended my Boogie-Woogie career and signed me up for classical lessons with Janice McCurnin. Mrs. McCurnin was ancient (probably about the age I am now) and she always had bright red lipstick stuck to the tartar on her teeth. She set out to break me of my bad "playing by ear" habit by making sure I never had another piece of music in front of me that I might have heard anywhere. One of my most vivid recollections of Mrs. McCurnin was the way she would take hold of my wrists while I played scales and pull my hands up and down the keyboard so my fingers had to fly to keep up. Oh, and we had to stop whatever we were doing and run to the window whenever a cardinal landed in her yard.

I took lessons from Mrs. McCurnin every Saturday for the next 10 years. Two lessons, actually. I took a one hour theory lesson with half a dozen other miserable children, followed by a one hour private lesson. Then, of course, there were the recitals. I hated piano recitals. I would be playing along, and then it would happen. I'd hit a wrong note and I'd hear my mother clear her throat from the back of the room, and I'd know I was going to be doing a lot of extra practicing for awhile. The other reason I hated recitals was that I couldn't play what I wanted to play. Mrs. McCurnin had very specific ideas about what constituted "girl" pieces and "boy" pieces. Girls played the "Moonlight Sonata" and "Claire de Lune." Boys got to play "The Great Gate at Kiev" from Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" ... a totally bitchin' piece of music with lots of big crashing fortissimo octave chords. I snuck around and learned the thing behind her back and then presented it to her one Saturday, but she nixed it and set me to learning yet another sonatina.

Every year I also sat for the music adjudication at the University of Arizona. We would take the best of the pieces we'd learned that year and play them for one of the music professors, who would give us constructive criticism and a graded certificate. Those are still in the piano bench, too.

When I was a senior in high school I complained bitterly that I couldn't play anything "fun" and I couldn't play by ear anymore, so my mom signed me up for a second lesson each week ... with a lecherous middle-aged jazz pianist by the smarmy name of Don LaVar. (It occurs to me, as I write this, that my mom had a rather suspicious connection to all the middle-aged male nightclub pianists in Tucson.) I learned a little bit about the LaVar Method and a whole lot about dodging Don LaVar.

My mother's greatest hope was that I would become a concert pianist. My greatest fear was growing up to be a piano teacher. My determination to avoid that fate kept me from truly embracing the piano, and it became an arduous task I knew I would have to perform ... like vacuuming the living room and pulling weeds out of the gravel ... until I left home. My mom and I fought bitterly about this. Her position was that I was NOT, NEVER, NO WAY IN HELL going to quit taking piano lessons. My position, which she quoted back to me for the rest of her life, was summed up at the top of my voice one day with the words, "You can make me practice, but you CAN'T MAKE ME LEARN!"

I was well into my thirties before I laid my hands on a piano again. When I finally decided that I wanted to play for myself and my own enjoyment, I bought a beautiful Yamaha piano ... an ebony upright grand ... and I played it all the time. I dragged out all my old piano music, borrowed my mom's sheet music, fell in love with everything I'd ever played all over again and learned everything else I'd ever wanted to learn ... including the formidable "Sonata Pathetique" (another "boy" piece that had been withheld from me). I played everything fortissimo I could find. I discovered that I actually loved playing the piano ... but I could not, by force of will or with hours of practice, play by ear. That gift was totally and completely gone.

I sold that piano to pay for something else I needed more at the time and didn't have another one until 16 years later, when my mom moved into an assisted living facility and passed hers down to me. The last time I really played it was, coincidentally, four years ago today. I had put together a medley of my mom's favorite music ... the songs she'd played while I sat next to her on the piano bench when I was five ... and I'd practiced it harder than I'd ever practiced anything so I could play it at her funeral. Shortly after that, I met Ev, and a year or so later I moved and left my mom's piano with my son in Mesa.

We have a little digital piano now, that Ev gave me for Christmas a couple of years ago. I sit down and play it when no one's around. Someday I'd love to have one more "real" piano ... and I'd like it to be a baby grand.

Oh, and if I had it all to do over again? I wish like hell I'd been a piano teacher. Imagine being able to work at home, on your own schedule, and earning a living teaching kids to play music that would stay with them forever. What a gift that would be.




Thank you for that. It's a great and colourful story. I often have the same arguments with my daughter. She wanted to learn piano and is still excited about it off and on after 8 years of lessons, but she also moans and complains and periodically wants to quit.

She also only wants to play "fun" stuff, which I can understand, but I reckon it's also good to get the fundamentals. Like learning a language without learning the grammar. You may be able to speak it pretty well, but you'll never have all the nuances and skills with the language you would if you'd done all the grunt work too.

I've told my daughter a million times that I'll never let her quit. I do vary her teachers every couple of years, though, just to give her exposure to different styles and to help keep her from getting bored.

I see this as an investment in her future and my big life gift to her, so that whenever she needs to earn some extra money she doesn't have to sling burgers -- she can teach or play somewhere or accompany someone. Not to mention that being able to make music, I think, is an awesome talent.

Her main passion is visual arts and that's what she hopes to do with her life and I'd love for her to be able to make a living at it. Having the piano skill, will I think, help her to live that passion. As you say, she can choose her hours, work from home and earn a living if the art thing doesn't make her rich right away.(!)

Again, thanks for your post. If you keep your eyes peeled you should be able to pick up a baby grand at a reasonable price as older people downsize and move. We've been offered two nice uprights over the years for free if we could move them and/or had room for them.

Keep playing and loving it -- it's the best tribute you could give your mom from what you say of her.

Kwach said...

I recently discovered that there are almost always free pianos on Craigslist. It seems that people buy houses with pianos in them and don't know what to do with the damn things, so all they want is to have them hauled away. Some of them are very nice!

If there were any advice I'd give you, it would be not to limit your daughter's expression. I'm a good technical pianist, but I feel like some of the best of my talent was trained out of me. Just about anyone can learn to read music and hit the right notes. It's not all about the grammar, that's just nuts and bolts. It's what we cobble together with them that counts.I started out with a gift for music, but I ended up a frustrated garden variety private piano plinker. If she's creative, which it sounds like she is, nurture her creativity in whatever way it manifests itself.

My parents were good Republican folk who believed the important thing was earning potential. My father often told me that people shouldn't expect fulfillment from their work, they should expect to earn a living and probably have to do something they don't enjoy in the bargain. There were several things I wanted to do with my life, but none of them met my parents standards, which came down to, "you can't make any money doing that."

I resented them for not seeing who I was and encouraging me to do what I loved then, and I still carry some resentment for it now. Sometimes it's more important to do something you're passionate about than it is to be infinitely employable.

I hope you (and she) can find a way for her to enjoy the gift you're giving her and not feel like it's a burden.



Ah. A condundrum. I'm absolutely not a republican and it is my most fervent desire that my daughter spend her life fulfilling her passions and enjoying every minute of her life and furthermore get paid for doing so. To that end I want to give her options. I know too many artists who have to spend the bulk of their time working at "unskilled" minimum wage jobs to pay their rent and by the time they drag their butts home at the end of the day, all the creativity has been beaten out of them. One friend even got married just so she could stop obsessing about where her next meal was coming from and concentrate on her art.
I know what you're saying about the piano lessons, though, too. But, she can't teach without getting her grade levels and she can't get those without following the curriculum -- unfortunately. I think she's finally old enough to understand that. And we do have discussions with her teachers about letting her play things she enjoys as well. Sigh.... I hope in the end it all works out for the best.

Good luck on your piano hunt. Careful with those "free" pianos. Sometimes they're in such rough shape that it costs thousands just to get them back in playing order. Take an expert along.