why it is interesting and significant that i own a piano

When we were negotiating for this house, through realtors, the former owners asked if we were interested in keeping their piano. I had noticed the old upright as soon as we walked in, and I immediately said an enthusiastic yes. (They also had a beautiful grandfather clock, but they weren't interested in leaving that!)

A friend asked if either of us play. I said, short answer, I used to. Here's the full answer.

Piano of childhood

I grew up with a beautiful baby grand, a gorgeous instrument that had been my grandmother's, and was then my mother's.

My mother played Rodgers and Hammerstein show tunes, and classical music, and some random things like Cole Porter and the easier Gershwin tunes. I loved to sit beside her on the piano bench and turn the pages, and sing along to the show tunes. South Pacific and Oklahoma were favourites. Her big Rodgers and Hammerstein song book had an image from the movies for each song. I can easily see them in my mind.

My siblings and I each took piano lessons as children, then at a certain age, we were allowed to decide whether or not to continue.

I started lessons at age 6. In my school, you could play an instrument in the school band or orchestra in 5th grade -- with the exception of violin, which you could play in the 4th grade. I opted for that, but I didn't enjoy it. The teacher was an idiot, and even worse, I discovered there was a stigma in school about playing the violin. (No idea why, but carrying a violin case in school made you subject to ridicule.) When I started violin, I quit piano. So after quitting violin, I was done.

Piano of teenage years

In high school, I hung out with musicians, and a friend of mine would always play when he was at my house. He wanted me to play, too, but I wouldn't. He told me about his piano teacher, who he said was super cool, and was really helping him develop musically. I decided to take lessons on my own.

This was a Big Thing. I had a job -- something my father was vehemently opposed to and tried (but failed) to prevent. Which meant I had my own money. Which meant I had a measure of independence. Which is why my hyper-controlling father didn't want me working.

I was also depressed. I didn't care about school, and although I was already political, I hadn't yet become an activist. I had friends, but was lonely. I was adrift, or that's how it felt.

I saw piano lessons as a chance to focus. Something to do that was only mine. A gift I would give myself.

The beginning of my junior year of high school, I started lessons with my friend's teacher, Beth. I had forgotten how to read music, but it came back pretty quickly. Beth wasn't into tedious scales and insipid beginning songs. She turned me on to Chopin and Mozart right away. (My mother listened to a lot of classical music, so I had some familiarity.) I worked hard, and I really enjoyed it. I was never more than passable, but that was hardly the point. It felt good. It revived me a bit. (An interesting note: I was not allowed to practice if my father was home. He literally forbid it.)

With the exception of my friend Chris and I, Beth's other students were all little kids. That made us special. Beth had an annual event where she took all her students to see The Nutcracker at the New York City Ballet. Chris and I attended and helped Beth with the kiddles. We were all dressed up, and we were kind of adults. It was so much fun.

Chris and I confessed to each other that we had crushes on Beth. She was beautiful and seemed so poised and elegant. I have no idea what she looked like in any objective sense. But our lessons were often the best part of my week.

I played for two years, through junior and then senior year. I stopped my lessons after I graduated high school. I had some vague idea that I would continue playing in university, but I never did. As it turned out, I never played piano again.

The piano that was mine

It was always understood that I would inherit the piano. I was the one in the family who appreciated it the most and who was most attached to it. Over the years, I thought about it now and again -- how we would transport it when the time came, if we'd have a place big enough to accommodate it -- but since it was going to be an inheritance, I didn't like to think about it too much, and I was in no rush to claim it.

Then my mother, at 84 years old, after living in the New York-New Jersey metro area her entire life, decided to move to Oregon!

My brother and sister-in-law had pulled up stakes and relocated from New Jersey to 50+ acres of land in southern Oregon, much closer to their adult children. And when the first child of the next generation was born, and my mother became a great-grandmother, she decided to join them. She moved to an amazing retirement community, very near all her west coast family.

And she gave me the piano. Not physically, but she told me now was the time. She said it was mine either to sell or to keep.

One of my nephews is a musician, and I decided to give the piano to him.

I knew he would appreciate it the most, and he would play it with his daughter, my grand-niece. The piano could move west with my mother's belongings, it could stay in the family, it could stay loved and appreciated. Allan and I would be able to make our life decisions without having to consider the expense and logistics of moving a baby grand.

Just like moving to Canada, and going to library school, and moving to the west coast, as soon as I made this decision, I knew it was the right thing to do. Everyone was very surprised. My nephew was stunned, and it took my mother a bit to get used to the idea. The decision made me a bit sad, a bit wistful, and my nephew was concerned that I would regret it. But just because something makes you a little sad doesn't mean it's a bad decision or the wrong choice.

The end, or not

So that was the end of my piano story. Or so I thought.

Now in a life full of improbability -- I'm a librarian, we live in a tiny town on Vancouver Island, we own a home -- I once again own a piano.

The former owners left a slim book of sheet music for us. I can't read it at all. I awkwardly played a C scale, but I can't remember any other scales, and I can't play left and right hands at the same time. A total beginner again! But I'm going to try.


Amy said...

Your first chapter is much like mine. I started young and then wanted to be in the band in fourth grade so took up the clarinet. But my parents said I could only do the clarinet if it didn't interfere with the piano, so I did both. I hated practicing both, but at least the clarinet had a social aspect to it (it wasn't as geeky as violin, I guess). I was terrible at clarinet, but pretty good at the piano. In 8th grade we moved to a new house, and my parents purchased a baby grand---just for me.

But such bad timing. I wanted to be with my friends. I wanted to play rock and roll, not classical. I hated practicing. So I put up a stink. I think it was in ninth grade that I quit. My parents were so disappointed. It was my first and in some ways my only teenage rebellion. (I quit clarinet the following year because I hated the high school band teacher.)

For about four years I had no regrets. Then sometime in college I watched people playing and wished I hadn't quit. But it was too late. I was busy with school and had no piano. So I never played again...

Until Harvey's parents wanted to get rid of HIS little spinet. We had bought a house, had two little kids, and so we took it. The first summer we had it I dug up my old music (I have no idea now where I'd kept it) and practiced every day. I never got back to where I had been, but I could play some of the easier Mozart sonatas, some Beethoven, some Bach. I loved it.

Alas, school started again, and between work and two little kids, I had no time. I really haven't played again. It made me too sad to have to start again.

Sorry for the long comment---but your final lines made me want to share my story because I do believe you can teach yourself again. Somewhere in your brain is the muscle memory and the cognitive memory, and it will come back to you. So start practicing! :)

laura k said...

Never apologize for a lengthy comment!

I honestly don't think I have muscle memory of playing. It never came naturally to me. And I'm sure I can't teach myself.

But there are so many resources now. I'm sure there are apps or even an old fashioned CD series that I could work with.

We shall see!

I'm sorry it made you feel sad to think of starting over. No desire to play anymore?

Amy said...

I have lots of desire to play---and I had said that when I retired, I would start again. But here it is five years since I retired (!), and all I've done is play chopsticks and pick out simple tunes with one finger for my grandsons.


Good luck! I hope you are able to be less of a procrastinator than I am!

laura k said...

I haven't completely decided if I want to yet. I'm very careful with my time. I don't want to start unless I can commit, and without losing track of other goals, like getting more exercise, spending more time outside, reading more, and doing puzzles. I'm also going to be a union steward.

So unless I can contain piano within a time structure, I'm not going to do it. So... we'll see!

laura k said...

I am going to research some apps and physical programs.

Amy said...

If only you could find an app for motivation and time-management! :) Keep me posted.

laura k said...

There are plenty of those! Although I'm skeptical. :)

With God's Help said...

I love this post so much! I too took violin in high school and for me music was one of the best parts of high school. I remain friends with two classmates who are very talented violinists!

I feel that my home should always have a real piano, versus a keyboard. Even before any of my kids were taking lessons there was one in the home that they could tinker around on. Having quit piano lessons as a teen, I really hope that my kids will continue much longer. So far they seem to enjoy it.

laura k said...

Thank you! It's so nice when a post I just quickly write and put up resonates with readers.

Keyboards! That is said with disdain. As in, bah, keyboards!

Funny thing about the violin carrying a stigma and my abadoning it in the 5th grade. I am mad for all fiddle music -- Irish, bluegrass, country, blues, zydeco, almost any rock that has a real fiddle or violin -- and the only classical music I truly love is chamber music.

allan said...

I took violin lessons in (I think) fifth grade. I don't know why I took these lessons, but things did not come easy and I was not particularly motivated. i don't think it lasted more than a year. I remember the teacher's last name was Fink and two female classmates also had lessons with him. My paternal grandfather's family was quite musical. He played clarinet and sax, his brother played violin, and their mother played piano. The two brothers managed a eight-man swing band that played a lot during the 1930s. I don't think my father was musically-inclined.

laura k said...

My maternal grandfather was a musician, before he met and married my grandmother. He played in an orchestra that played the music for silent movies, and also in a band that entertained in the town square (or a city park) in Rochester, New York. He played trumpet.

No one alive today ever heard him play. When they married, my grandmother reportedly threw out or gave away his trumpet. Being a musician was an unsuitable career for her husband.

There was a big flurry of ooohs and aahhs when my nephew (the one in this post) took up trumpet. Nephew can play any interest -- sax, guitar, piano, whatever.

Sadly, the musical ability gene did not express itself in my DNA.

Amy said...

How sad that your grandmother made him quit. That must have really been hard and sad for him. :(

laura k said...

Yes, it seems horrible. I don't know how my grandfather felt, though. He was an immigrant, and supporting his family would have been his number one concern.

I would think he might have wanted to play trumpet for his own enjoyment, but I really have no idea. He never talked about his feelings, certainly not with his grandchildren.

impudent strumpet said...

They gave you a piano!!!!!!!!!!! Whoa!!

My parents had to sell my childhood piano when they sold our house. Not only did nobody have room for it, but it would be really inconsiderate to the neighbours to play a real piano when living in an apartment. (I know people did historically, but now that electronic keyboards with headphones are readily available it would be ruder.) Like the house itself, I miss it, but it doesn't fit into my life.

I later found out that the piano was a romantic gift from my father to my mother! She learned to play when she was a little girl (on a neighbour's piano) but her family didn't have the budget or space for a piano after they immigrated to Canada. So after my parents got married and bought their first house, my father surprised my mother with a piano! I never knew he had that kind of lavish and romantic surprise in him!

I'm kind of surprised that you thought of using an app to re-learn piano when you would have learned using books/sheet music the first time around. Having learned on books myself, my first thought would be "Obviously I need to get a very beginner's book and work my way through until I'm fluent again."

(Not saying learning on apps is wrong or would be less effective - I have no idea either way - it's just interesting to me that you thought of that.)

laura k said...

That is one beautiful, romantic gift!! Amazing.

I thought app (or a CD system) because I need a teacher. A beginner's book won't be enough. I need someone telling me where to start and what to do.

DavidHeap said...

A beautiful gift to your nephew, and I totally get feeling simultaneously sad and that it is the right this to do -- keeps it in use and in the family. Sometimes you might get to hear him play it, which would be a joy.

I am writing next to an upright which one of my sons used to play (neither of us do) and wants me to hang onto (not clear for how long....): I periodically encourage him to find another place to store it before we move (he also has a baby grand in his grand-parents' basement, long story...).

I *really* love the idea of taking music lessons as a teen-age rebellion (more kids should rebel in such ways....) and can only shake my head at the thought of a parent (any adult, but especially a parent) forbidding a child from practicing piano (or any instrument). Have heard other stories from friends about musician being an "unsuitable career", but forbidding recreational music as a hobby? That is over-the-top controlling.

Musical experiences of all kinds mark us in (mostly) good ways, even when we don't continue into adulthood (there is no room in my life now for tuba-playing, but I recall the many hours spend in band & orchestra practices, and still appreciate bass lines in a particular way).

laura k said...

Thanks for that David, that's so nice.

My father was insanely controlling (also just insane). Anything he couldn't control, he tried to forbid. Also anything that gave us a measure of independence. Which is even weirder when you consider he fostered independence when we were younger children. But once we hit the teen years, everything changed.

He was angry that I learned how to pump gas at self-serve stations!