One of the goals on my Becoming a Classic—for Ourselves and Others list is to play the piano at least once a week. I played this week. Here is what I felt, remembered, and realized as I played. Perhaps my experience will be relevant to you, whatever the creative endeavor you might like to resume.
I played the piano for perhaps an hour and found joy and longing in doing so. The session began in a review of the songs I need to know for our community’s production of South Pacific. Then came the “Maple Leaf Rag,” a relatively easy Beethoven sonata I first learned when I was thirteen or fourteen, and Handel’s Largo, which is also the melody for Handel’s aria “Ombra mai fu.”
When I left my apartment later in the afternoon, two of my neighbors were talking in the hall. One said, “We enjoyed the concert.” Then she added, “You don’t do that much, do you.” As I was playing, I both regretted not having played more in recent years and understood why I haven’t.
I haven’t played the piano much because playing reminds me forcefully that I haven’t kept up with my music (Playing reminds me that I haven’t played!) and that I never fulfilled whatever musical promise I showed as a child. In truth, though, I am not suited to a career in music, to the long hours of practicing, to focusing on a single pursuit. I am a wandering explorer of varied life experiences rather than an expert, a specialist in one field.
As I played this week, I revisited memories flowing over me, recollections riding on the music:
- Twelve years ago, shortly after she moved to the apartment we would later share, sweet Mother loved looking at photographs of her newborn great-grandniece Sadie as I played Handel’s Largo.
- Over many years, Mother played the “Maple Leaf Rag” and other Scott Joplin pieces with skill and joy.
- On July 21, 1998, as I waited for a friend to pick me up so that we could drive to Philadelphia and my first Andrea Bocelli concert, I played the “Maple Leaf Rag” over and over, and with increasing speed and volume as the time grew later and later.
- A somewhat older girl named Julia gave me my first formal piano lessons. My parents stopped those lessons and signed me up for the Wilmington Music School when they realized that Julia didn’t want me to learn much on the piano—out of her concern I might become competition for her.
- When I was in junior high, I usually practiced the piano before dinner with my parents.
- In our first little house, before I started school, I was banging on the piano one afternoon when Daddy arrived home from work. He thrilled me by kindly telling me I was playing just what was written on the music in front of me.
- When I was fourteen, I waited with painful anxiety to play a Beethoven sonata—the one I still play—for a contest at the University of Delaware. I received an honorable mention. The year before I’d received an actual award. I still feel rather ashamed—as if I didn’t try hard enough—over the honorable mention. I eventually gave up piano lessons in large measure because I didn’t want to pursue the contests and competitions my piano teacher had in mind for me. I also wanted more time to be with friends. I tried briefly to major in music in college, but again the will was not there.
- At summer camp and, later, after dinner when I was living in the French House at the University of Delaware, I often played show tunes on the piano, proving that at least for brief spells, I was capable of playing the piano just for fun.
And as I played this week, I meditated as follows, showing myself that maybe I can overcome some of my hang-ups after all:
It’s okay that I didn’t keep up my piano studies to become a professional musician. I clearly lack the temperament for such a life, whether or not I might have had the potential. Studying the piano has given me a deeper connection to music and a pastime I still enjoy—that is, when I throw out the regrets and sense of insufficiency and simply play. Playing the piano stirs countless memories, from the bittersweet to the painful to the blissful and beautiful; memories are to be welcomed as a life garden. I am blessed that piano music is woven through my life, sometimes creating a bold pattern and sometimes present only in an almost invisible thread. I honor the piano’s gifts to me by playing with pleasure now as inspiration strikes. I dishonor its gifts by still imagining I must find a way to achieve some lofty level of mastery.
Is there a pleasure from your past that you would like to rekindle?