THE SUMMER I TURNED 7, we lived in a rented country house. The owners left behind a grand piano, which stood in the living-room corner. My brothers and I tapped out "do-re-mi," and accompanied one another on "Chopsticks." By summer's end we'd learned intros to popular radio songs.
That summer stands out more than any other from my childhood. No wonder I was thrilled when my 7-year-old daughter wanted piano lessons. I'd always wanted lessons, too, and was happy to give her something I never had.
After the first lesson, the teacher wrote out practice instructions. My daughter announced, "I'll practice every day, and get even further than that first song."
The woman corrected her. "It's important to learn properly. Don't get ahead in the book."
On the way to the second lesson, my daughter said, "There are so many rules."
"I guess you need a few to learn music," I said, not liking her frown. I thought she'd be having fun with piano lessons. Instead, she'd followed the rules and played the same two-note song all week.
After the session, she hopped back into the car. Grinning, she flipped open the music book. "This time I get two songs to practice."
"Great," I said, glad to see her spirits up. "I wish my parents had let me take piano lessons."
Over the next few lessons, she seemed happy, playing new songs I recognized - "Charming Billy" and "A Tisket, a Tasket." In two months, she'd progressed to the back of her first book.
One morning, her piano teacher called. "Your daughter is skipping ahead in the book. She needs to practice the assigned songs, over and over and over."
"Is it that big a deal?" I asked. "She's learning to play, and she's having fun."
"Having fun is not the goal."
"But fun is the goal for us," I told her. "We're not aiming for concert halls."
Sensing that this wasn't going to work, I told the teacher we wouldn't be back.
That afternoon after school, I sat down with my daughter and asked: "Do you like your piano lessons?"
Her eyes welled with tears. "The teacher makes a sound like a buzzer when I miss a note."
"But what does she do when you get it right?"
"She tells me to practice more so I'll 'always' play it right," my daughter said.
"She has a lot of rules," she added, and I remembered dismissing that statement on our way to the second lesson. My
daughter's lessons were nothing like my memories of playing "Chopsticks" in the living room of that country house.
"Why didn't you tell me?" I asked.
"I'm lucky you gave me lessons," she answered hesitantly. "You always wished your parents had let you take them."
I pulled her close, wishing I could take back my words. I didn't want my daughter to do things that made her unhappy just to please me. "Here's a rule for you," I said, smoothing her hair. "Don't ever be afraid to hurt my feelings. OK?"
She nodded, and on the way home she asked, "Do you think I could get a piano teacher who doesn't have a bunch of rules?"
"There will be some rules," I said. "But I'll find one who likes to have fun."
Later that week, we went to a tiny music studio owned by a friendly man. On the phone, he'd understood my reason for seeking lessons in the first place.
"Some kids take piano because their parents make them," he said. "If your daughter's skipping ahead in the book, she wants to play. That's the kind of student who's fun for me."
During three years of lessons, this man let my daughter make up songs and "jam" for the last five minutes of each session.
By the time she was 10, she read music well and was ready to stop lessons. Now, at 13, she plays new songs from sheet music.
Recently my daughter, with slim, graceful fingers and painted nails, pecked out the rhythm to a familiar song.
"I wish I knew how to play," I said as I listened to her.
She patted the bench. "I'll teach you." Moments later, she left me to practice. I mastered the beginner two-note tune, then moved ahead in the book to find "Row, Row, Row Your Boat." I called her back to listen.
"Mom," she said with a sly grin and a shake of her head. "Remember when you told me never to be afraid to hurt your feelings?"
I nodded, remembering that day we'd talked after school.
"Well," she said, sliding onto the bench beside me. "Don't feel bad, but maybe you should stick to singing along."
I laughed, pulling her close. After all, sharing time at the piano in our sunny living room has made some of the best memories ever.