This is my childhood piano: A Baldwin spinet that was already seven or eight years old when my parents bought it. I was about nine when it came to live at our house, so we’re roughly the same age. It was long both the instrument of my torture and my delight. Maybe I’ve written here about playing the piano before–if I have, please forgive me. I have a terrible memory. It’s selective, and sometimes plays tricks on me. I honestly can’t remember if anyone told me as a child if they liked hearing me play on the piano. That doesn’t mean they didn’t say it. My memories of childhood are often melodramatic, with me as the hard-done-by star. (See? Even then I was making up stuff.)
But there’s one thing I do remember. I remember not liking to practice very much. The worst part for me was knowing that other people could hear me make mistakes. In piano practice! Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? I was pretty sure at the time that I should be able to sit down and play without mistakes the first time I saw a piece of music. Never mind that no one else in my family played an instrument or read music. We never listened to recorded classical music or went to concerts. (We did see Mac Davis at the Kentucky State Fairgrounds when I was about 11. It rocked my world. Seriously.) If you have a child (not a Mozart-like genius child) or sibling who started playing an instrument at a young age, you know that the first year or so can be a time of utter musical hell. Sure, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star is adorable when it’s massacred the first five or six times, but after twenty or thirty times you want to stab a fork in your eye. (This will probably come as a shock to my opera singer of a daughter who has been playing the piano since she was ten. But she rarely reads this blog anyway!) I was hyper-aware of every misplayed note as a child, and still am.
The other thing about practicing that I disliked was having to sit down at the piano on a regular schedule. I never could bear a schedule. I like unpredictability. Whimsy. A certain degree of chaos. (It’s part of the ADHD package.) If I expected myself to know the music immediately, I also had to be able to sit down and play it at any given time. Without warning. Fortunately, I was usually required to play right after school because that was really the only time that was available. Maybe when my mom was fixing dinner, too. But when everyone was home in the evening or on weekends–particularly my dad–I was very self-conscious and felt like I was making too much noise. Even though I never practiced enough, in a way that after-school schedule worked for me. It was my accidental safe time, and whatever progress I made, I made then.
I still resist a schedule. I’m excellent at setting schedules for other people. Take this very moment. It’s midnight and I’m writing this piece. But an hour and a half ago, my fourteen year-old came into the kitchen all brushed and flushed and ready for bed. He kissed me goodnight at 10:30, his regular summer bedtime. During the school year he’s in bed at 9:15. Never misses. Why? Because he has parents who understand the need for schedules.
Me? Sometimes I think I need a parent standing over me, telling me when to go to bed. When to write. When to start dinner. I rebel against the schedule every day. I am my own worst, most neglectful parent.
There are things in my life that I really want to be good at, and I want so badly to be good at them that I’m willing to take the risk of other people hearing/seeing/reading what I’m doing–even when it’s less than (almost) perfect. I’m willing to do these things for days and days and years and years in a row so I can get better at them. I’m thinking mostly of writing here, of course. For me, at least, decent writing doesn’t grow out of unregulated chaos. It grows out of a semblance of order: a blank background on a laptop. A quiet house. A regular writing schedule. More than five hours sleep a night. And I’m willing to let other people know I’m doing it. They may not hear the words I’m putting on the page, but they know exactly what I’m doing. Maybe making a fool of myself, making lots of mistakes.
Regular practice makes everything better. Although I’m not a swim parent, one of my favorite bumper stickers reads: “I can’t. I have swim practice.” That says it all, doesn’t it? The principles behind those few words are dedication and commitment. A singularity of purpose. I love that!
I wonder if this all makes me sound like a beginner? It think that maybe it does. I feel like a beginner every time I sit down to write even though I’ve been doing it for nearly 25 years. About six months ago, I took up the piano again, and oh do I feel like a beginner every time I open a music book. But…I love them both. I love the practicing of both. I crave it, even if half of me–the rebellious kid inside me hates to sit down, hates that people can hear me/see me–sometimes gets in my way and tells me there’s something else she’d rather be doing or even should be doing.
It means taking baby steps every day. It means making a commitment every day. It feels like a small miracle every day that I get out of my own way and engage in the practice, rebel against my own worst instincts, and take the risk to sit down and do what I love to do.
What do you love to do so much that you’re willing to say–every day–“I can’t. I have to practice?”