When my son was eight years old, we made a deal that he would take piano lessons until he was sixteen or could play all the songs in a simplified hymnal, something I guessed would take three or four years at the most. By then I figured he’d love music and would want to continue to play.
Not so much.
I made the fatal rookie mom mistake of underestimating the power of the truly unmotivated. I once caught him practicing the piano while standing next to me in my office. He’d recorded himself practicing weeks ago and simply had the piano playback the tracks.
That was the first and only time I regretted buying a digital piano.
Now sixteen, a month ago he told me he was ready to quit. With a gun pointed at his head, I think he can manage a couple of hymns and a classical piece or two, but it’s obvious he’s not going to be tickling the ivories for pocket change at a piano bar or subbing for the church pianist anytime soon.
I was seriously bummed.
You see, I always wanted to learn to play the piano.
The closest I came was in fifth grade when a band teacher starting coming to our school twice a week. Only two kids from each 5th and 6th grade class could join the band. Since it met during regular school hours, teachers had to approve who could miss valuable class time. I begged my teacher Mrs. Goo to let me go. I said my parents insisted that I be in band. I promised to bang the erasers to rid them of chalk every day before lunch, that I would stay in from recess on band days to read and do extra math, and the kicker, I would never ever ask another question in class again. Eventually, a boy no one liked and I got chosen. I think Mrs. Goo was secretly relieved to be rid of us a couple of hours a week.
At the first band meeting the conductor said if we played the sax, clarinet, or oboe we had to buy reeds. If we played the trumpet or trombone we’d have to buy a mouthpiece. Drummers needed to provide their own drumsticks. I raised my hand.
“Is there an instrument that doesn’t cost anything to play?”
“The flute,” he laughed. “The school has a few you can use.”
Score! “I want to play the flute,” I said.
“Hell, no,” my father said.
“There’s no rental fee and band is during school so I don’t have to go early or stay late. I can still ride the city bus with Heidi.”
“Band? Like marching around on a field? What about uniforms? I’m not paying for that.”
“It’s free,” I said.
“Fine,” he said. “You want to look like an ass marching around in the rain, that’s up to you.”
To keep the peace I practiced before my parents came home from work and saved all my babysitting money for three years to buy my first flute, a crappy Artley that I was so proud of in eighth grade. I played all through high school, marching in the rain at football games and teaching at summer band camps. As a freshman, I earned a chair on a competition symphonic wind orchestra that traveled all over the United States performing at places like Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, Rockefeller Center, the Rose Bowl, Disneyland, and the White House—all major multi-week adventures when you’re a bunch of teens traveling from Hawaii. Jazz, classical, baroque, pop, movie scores, ballads—I played them all, including ballroom waltzes and be-bop oldies for the Waikiki tea time crowd at a fancy hotel. By the time I was a high school senior, I could sight read and play just about anything a conductor threw at me.
But as a freshman in college, I psyched myself out and didn’t even audition. Since I wasn’t a music major I didn’t think there was a place for me to play. Life went on with less and less musical joy in it until I turned around and realized I hadn’t sung in a choir or played more than a token note on a flute in more than 25 years. It didn’t seem possible.
The lessons are already in the budget, I thought. But so what? I’m the boss of me now.
“Okay,” I told my son. “If you really don’t want to play, you don’t have to. But I’m talking to your teacher about taking your spot.”
“You can’t do that!” my thirteen year old daughter shrieked. “It’d be too embarrassing!”
“Oh, for me because I’m old?” I asked.
“No! For me because you’re old! Moms don’t take piano lessons! What about recitals? No way!”
Yes, way. With three lessons under my belt, I’m already tackling beginner’s Christmas music with simple three and four note chords that I fumble my way through. According to my teacher, it’s actually easier to teach an old dog new tricks, especially when the dog is used to pounding on a different kind of keyboard for hours on end and can already read music.
After all, somebody’s gonna have to play the piano when the kids are gone. Might as well be me.
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