Practice, Practice, Practice

This piece is up over on Volume One's website as part of their huge "Music Capital of the North" issue, but here you get bonus multimedia content. I've lost track of my piano teacher over the years, but once again, a big thanks to her. Playing the piano has been a huge source of comfort and pride for many years now.

Every Good Boy Does Fine

I took piano lessons the old fashioned way, in my teacher's dim basement. With sheet music tucked under my arm I biked to her house, then let myself in through her garage door. I sat on a floral couch in the unofficial waiting area farther down the wood-paneled room while the kid before me finished up. It was my teacher’s personal space, with a bar and family photos, and I felt like I was trespassing until my turn to sit at the piano arrived. Our lessons were a flight of mnemonic devices for remembering notes and “One-ee-and-ahs” until the music was so familiar that I can sit down, 20 years later, at any piano anywhere and play “The Pink Panther Theme,” or “Linus and Lucy,” or, if you give me a minute, Chopin’s Prelude in E Minor.

My son’s lessons look a little different. While I was convinced I was the only unfortunate child forced to bear the agony of piano lessons on beautiful summer days, Gordon takes lessons in an old dentist’s office, where he is joined by kids of all ages popping in and out of converted exam rooms for instruction in all sorts of instruments. The building throbs with a constant symphony of growth and learning, violins from one end of the hall, piano and guitar from the other, and in the middle, an earnest young girl whose weekly progress on Annie’s “Tomorrow” is as measured as a staff on a page.

My piano teacher certainly looked the part. She was a middle-aged woman back then, with big glasses and conservative clothes, with impeccable posture and pristine handwriting that still decorates the piano music Gordon now uses. His teacher is not Mr. or Mrs. anything, it’s just Paul, and before Gordon started taking lessons, he and I visited YouTube to watch footage of his new teacher play in several of his different bands.

I liked my piano teacher, she did a fabulous job teaching me the piano, but, man, I wish I had Paul for a teacher. Sometimes he and Gordon jam for part of the lesson, or through the door I hear Paul pull out his guitar to accompany Gordon’s hesitant, one-handed, novice songs.

Of course, Gordon is as unexcited for piano lessons as I was. On the ride there, he often explains that he has a hard time deciding which is his least favorite day of the week, Sunday – because we make him collect all the garbage, unload the dishwasher, and take a shower – or Tuesday, because we make him go to piano lessons.

I accuse him of being overdramatic and comment that what he actually needs is acting lessons, but I understand. At his age, the pride inspired by playing a piece well never compensates for the frustration of learning new songs and watching his fingers refuse to cooperate and fail to produce the sounds he expects. The parts of his brain that handle those connections have yet to develop. For now he just needs to trust me that progress will occur until one day it will all have been worth it. And absent that trust, he still has to do what I say, at least for a few more years.

This past spring Gordon participated in the first concert of his life. When the recital sign-up sheet went up earlier in the year, he declined because he felt he was too young and too nervous, but then he changed his mind. Perhaps one of those brain synapses sprang into existence on some random late winter day, or maybe Paul was more persuasive than me.

On the day of the performance, Gordon was nervous and antsy all morning. While we waited for the program to start, he couldn’t sit still and bounced around the school’s little theater until I threatened to rescind my offer to go out for pizza after the show finished. The rows of chairs filled with the other students, some accompanied by several degrees of relatives, others by just Mom and Dad. The performers were of all different ages, playing all different instruments.

When it was my son’s turn, he walked fast to the front of the room and rushed to introduce himself and played his song, which required both hands, just about flawlessly. His smile and bow told me that he knew he had done well, and he noticed that his was one of the harder songs in the recital, even though several of the other kids were older than him.

He is still a long ways from grasping the idea of hard work as investment, or recognizing the unnoticeable, glacial progress that will accompany his lessons as long as I make him go. But his apparent pride as he sat back down must have made his piano lesson Tuesdays better than his Sundays, at least for a little while.

His performance is on YouTube now. Maybe someday his students, or his fans, will look him up, and maybe they will get excited about learning the piano, too.