To my surprise, I hear 'Play it loud, Mom!'
I'm waiting for my piano teacher to finish up with her 1 o'clock student, so I can go and sit at the Steinway and have my lesson. Like so many others, I took piano lessons all through childhood and teenager-hood, and then went off to college and on to better things. But ever after, I would wax sentimental about piano lessons, insisting that if only I had my own piano, I'd find a teacher and take up where I'd left off.
Then, a year ago, my grandmother's piano arrived on a truck from Missouri. (A 60-year-old Mason & Hamlin spinet, out of tune, but still giving a warm, full sound. The piano bench was stuffed with sheet music from the 1940s and '50s.) My husband, Peter, who had heard my piano- lesson laments for too many years, promptly called up our town's music school and bought a gift certificate for a semester's worth of lessons.
This seemed a fine idea: The lessons were pretty expensive, but our kids were too young to start playing, so for now I'd be the only piano student in our house. I signed up a weekly sitter and off I went.
My piano teacher turned out to be warm and funny - and, she said, no need to do those scales or finger exercises anymore. But here's the thing: After all those years of pining for lessons, each Thursday afternoon I'd get this prickly sensation that I was wasting my time. That instead of sitting with my teacher in a practice room downtown, I should be elsewhere - at home with my three little kids, out exercising, or back at the computer, working.
Of course I've had this feeling before; it's just one of the conditions of parenthood (or maybe motherhood): Wherever you are, you really should be someplace else, doing something else for somebody else. But that was just part of it.
Mainly, I was terribly rusty! My fingers felt wooden and plodding, and playing in front of my teacher, nice and easy-going as she was, made my stomach churn. And - surprise, surprise - I was no longer the teenager with nothing but time to work out fingering, memorize pieces, get ready for recitals. Instead, fitting in those daily practices required tactical maneuvering, since whenever I sat down to play, someone would rush in and "helpfully" start playing along with me. I settled on night-time sessions, but I worried that the piano would wake the kids, or prevent them from drifting off.
Six months, I told myself. If I can't shake that time-wasting feeling, then I'll end the lessons. And so most nights I practiced - very quietly - after we'd tucked the kids in bed. Slowly, one at a time, I worked on a Bach sinfonia, a Chopin mazurka, some Duke Ellington pieces. My Ellington didn't exactly swing and the Bach didn't trill along, but I kept at it.
Then, during a lesson, I played a short Schubert piece that I'd been working on. The opening section was heavy and stately with big chords, and my teacher gently chided me that while I had the notes down fine, I was playing timidly. She talked about contrast and color in music.
"Try giving it some oomph here," she said, of a passage marked "ff" (fortissimo), for extra loud. "Let your arms and shoulders get into it."
I told her about keeping my evening piano practices ultra-quiet, so as not to rile up my not-quite-asleep children.
"I bet your kids won't mind too much if you play a little louder," she said with a smile. "They might even like it."
So that night, I tried my teacher's suggestions. I let my arms and shoulders really press those fingers into the keys. Schubert's chords were suddenly truly big under my fingers. It sounded good! It felt good, too. I played the whole piece through, this time sensing the music's contrasts, then sat quietly. My 5-year-old daughter, Beatrice, broke the spell with a bellow from upstairs: "Play it again, Mom! Play some more!" And so I did.
Wouldn't it be nice to conclude that since that night I've become an adult prodigy?
I'm not quite there yet. In fact, some Thursdays, I still get a hint of that time-wasting feeling, and sometimes I still feel a smidge nervous when playing for my teacher. But then I remember that while my piano style may be on the stiff side, I've managed to slip some color and verve into the pieces I've learned - and I've learned quite a few.
But the best surprise (here again, I shouldn't have been surprised, but I was) is the way my nightly practices have become part of our kids' bedtime routine. If I'm not already practicing after they're tucked in, one of them calls down, "Play the piano, Mom!" Once I start playing, believe it or not, I usually hear this: "Thanks, Mom!"
And sometimes I get one final request from upstairs: "Play it loud, Mom!"