I like to play the piano.
I hate having to play the piano.
This condition has existed for nearly 60 years, so I doubt it’s going to clear up. Early symptoms appeared when I was five years old. One of my most vivid kindergarten memories — next to the time I ate the crayoned cut-outs of fruit that we made — was the day a blind man visited and played “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” on the piano. All of us clapped really hard when he finished. This impressed me. I wanted everybody to clap really hard for me, too. Plus, how hard could playing the piano be? He was doing it with his eyes closed! I asked if I could have piano lessons.
My parents were thrilled that I had asked. (I suspect they would have made me take piano lessons anyway. That’s what parents do). In the fall that I started first grade, they signed me up with the same woman who had given my father piano lessons: Miss Leighty. And there began a triangle of torture for Miss Leighty, my mother and me.
It turned out that I actually had some aptitude for the piano and I could learn pieces quickly. It also turned out that I hated to practice. Week after week, year after year, the same cycle. From September to April, Miss Leighty would give me technical assignments, i.e., scales, arpeggios, triads, chords. I wouldn’t do them. When she assigned real pieces of music, I’d get them to a state that was good enough for me, though hardly polished, and I’d want a new piece. Week after week, Miss Leighty would be disappointed, my mother would be embarrassed, and I just learned to live with it. Every May brought the annual recital. Just as I would do later for term papers, at the last minute I would work like mad. I’d memorize some Beethoven thing and pull off an impressive performance (if I do say so myself). The audience would clap really hard. And as we would leave the recital, Miss Leighty would hand me some music, saying, “Maybe you would like to do some Chopin over the summer?” Not likely. This went on until I left for school.
The thing is, during the summers I would play the piano a lot. Just not any piece of music Miss Leighty gave me. I’d pull out all the music in the piano bench: single sheet music of “Gotta Travel On,” anthologies of American standards, or “Songs We Sing from Rodgers & Hammerstein.” I’d even look at my dad’s collection, “Masterpieces of Piano Music,” pick a couple of those masterpieces that looked easier and just learn them on my own. I entertained myself for hours. I really liked playing the piano!
When I went off to college I took piano music with me, including “59 Piano Solos You Like to Play.” I liked playing those solos for 20-minute sessions about three times a year. A friend of mine caught me one of those times and asked if I would play Christmas carols at her party. No, as that would mean I would have to play the piano (translation: practice).
The condition persisted through the years. Visitors would come into the living room, see the piano, and ask, “Do you play?” Yes, I do. “Would you play?” No, I won’t.
Of course, when I became a parent, I made my daughter take piano lessons. We found a lovely teacher a five-minute drive from our house. Annie settled in to her piano lessons for eight years. She would practice on Sunday for her Monday lesson. And who was I to try to get her to practice more? Like mother, like daughter, this went on until she left for school.
Once Annie left, I began to feel sorry for the piano. It’s a great, actually grand, piano and really should be played. I thought, maybe, at my age, my condition might be in remission and I would take lessons again. Annie’s teacher was willing to take me on.
Turns out I still hate having to play the piano. But I have learned how to manage the condition, with the understanding of my teacher. I now enjoy doing the technical exercises — they are easy and they keep my aging fingers agile. I prac…, I mean, play, only when there is no one in the house. When I say a piece is good enough for me, my teacher lets me move on to a new one. And best of all, no recitals.
I do kind of miss, though, the sound of people clapping really hard.