Piano “Lessons”

I grew up with a father who was naturally talented when it came to music. His childhood was spent in the economically-depressed mountains of Eastern Kentucky. At a young age, he picked up a guitar and sang with his older brothers. He only saw a piano once before being sent away to a Christian boarding school at the age of 13, where he fell in love with the keyboard and the beautiful sound it produced. At one point when the newness wore off, he told his piano teacher, Miss Reed, a stern single lady, that he was quitting. She promptly relayed his wishes to the fiery little lady who was in charge of the school, Miss McConnell, who threatened to send him home. He knew his parents would never stand for that, so he agreed to keep up the lessons.

He started teaching me piano lessons when I was five. I remember wanting to play, but my attention span was short, making practice excruciating. Mom would set the kitchen timer to 30 minutes, and when she wasn’t looking, I would take off a couple of minutes (okay, maybe more than a couple). As I got a little older, he would have Bible college students teach me. One teacher was instructed to push me to learn my notes, and I got significantly better that year because she was firm but patient. (Thanks, Denise Adkins, and later on, Patsy Major and Aneta Morey!) At best, I was progressing at an satisfactory rate. (Even when he would yell, “Sharp, sharp,” or any other correction from the other room when I was practicing. Talk about frustrating!)

Things changed drastically in 9th grade. One teacher had moved away, and I didn’t want to take lessons at school, particularly when the school year began with the accident and subsequent death of my only sibling, Chris. I was devastated and used piano practice as an outlet for grieving, playing with force when my parents were out of the house, through sheets of tears. It was survival and an important activity in my grieving process. But, Dad was my teacher that year, and lessons were sporadic, because he was broken and grieving himself, and I was perfectly fine with it.

When 10th grade started, Dad insisted I take lessons during school hours to have consistency. When I looked at my schedule, who do you think was the only available teacher for that study period? That’s right! Miss Reed! The same stern, no-foolishness teacher who taught my dad many moons before. I begged to get out of lessons that year, just imagining how tough she would be. But, there was no convincing Dad. And so, I showed up, greatly fearing what drastic measures she might take to get me in line. And my worst fears were confirmed. She would slap my wrist up, directing me to lift between phrases. And she would put her hand to her ear to inform me that she couldn’t hear me counting out loud. Horror, I tell you. (I think she and Dad were plotting this torture, or she was paying him back for wanting to quit years before!)

At any rate, I survived long enough for her to present me with choices for a recital piece. She played through several numbers, waiting for me to choose, but none were any challenge, so I waited, spotting the Nocturne in Eb by Chopin at the side. When she finished the others, I pointed to it and asked about it. She shook her head and tried to give me a little sample, explaining that she wasn’t sure her attempt was a good representation. When she stopped, I immediately told her I wanted that one. She proceeded to tell me she wasn’t sure I could do it. My reactive thoughts were what drastically improved my playing that year. I remember thinking, “I’ll show her. I’ll do it or die trying.” (Very threatening, right?)

And I did. It was probably my best performance. Ever. And to think that it was because she made me mad. When I think of it now, I wonder if she did it on purpose. I mean, as a teacher, that is what she wanted, right? When she questioned my ability, I took it as a challenge and it motivated me to do my best. (Again, I wonder if she and Dad were in cahoots!) And then I wonder how many times since then I have experienced someone questioning my abilities or motives, and allowed their words to discourage me and cause me to throw in the towel. But why?

I’m not certain why I have let others have that kind of power over me or why it has taken so long for me to figure it out. Late bloomer, I guess. Maybe I need to write in red lipstick on the bathroom mirror: DO IT OR DIE TRYING. It might be the only way I remember not to let other’s negative expectations take up too much space in my head. I’ll take that challenge, thank you, with Caramel Macchiato ice cream on the side!

Thanks for reading my ramblings!

P.S.  Additional thanks to Beth Finney for leading me on to better hymn playing in the two following years.

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