Several months ago, I decided on a whim that I would get good at the piano again. I dug through stacks of music until I found a piece (“The Minute Waltz”) that I played several years ago. I sat down, struggled through a few measures of it, and decided to look it up on YouTube.
When I heard it, I was miserable.
Although I’m sure I never played it as well as the pianist in the recording, I did at least know that once upon a time my fingers could actually move that fast.
I regularly get jealous of child prodigies, but envying my semi-talented younger self was significantly more unpleasant.
The piano was for many years a source of contention between my mother and me. She made me practice for a half an hour every day. I couldn’t imagine a more awful torture.
She told me that I would thank her one day, an assurance that gave me very little comfort. I did garner occasional moments of enjoyment from playing the piano, but it was mostly tedious and frustrating. Finally, when I was 11 or 12, I convinced my mother to let me switch teachers. (My former teacher had been extremely nice, but it had been years since I’d really learned anything from her.)
My best friend had told me many horror stories about her strict piano teacher, but for some reason I decided to go to an introductory lesson. Probably, I was inspired by the beautiful classical pieces my friend played while I still clunked through “Faber and Faber Piano Adventures.”
I quickly decided that she had exaggerated about her teacher’s bad temper. The lady I met was sweet and friendly, and when she sat down to play the piano, I was enchanted.
Then, at my first lesson, she promptly informed me that I was doing everything wrong. I added an extra 15 minutes to my daily ordeal.
But strangely enough, it wasn’t an ordeal anymore, despite the fact that my new routine involved dozens of repetitions of finger exercises.
After a few easy pieces I was assigned in order to fix my poor technique, I finally learned to play “Fur Elise,” a piece that seemed to me the Mount Everest of piano music. When I finally perfected it, my teacher cried.
My judgment is probably clouded by nostalgia, but I think that after a year with my new teacher, I was quite good. More importantly, I truly enjoyed playing.
But as my skill grew, so did my teacher’s expectations. Wrong notes became disasters, and I couldn’t deal with the stress of being yelled at during every lesson.
I begged my mother to find me a new teacher, and she eventually acquiesced. The stress of playing all but disappeared, but I missed my old teacher’s passion. Slowly but surely, I deteriorated and eventually stopped taking lessons.
I haven’t given up the piano completely; I still manage to play in chamber group and feel fairly competent in teaching my three students. When I get a chance to play, it spurs a desire start practicing regularly again. A desire that is, unfortunately, difficult to act on what with all the bother of being a junior.
So, finally, I can say with much reluctance that my mother was right in forcing me to continue with the piano for so long. The period when practicing was the most painful was also the time when I learned the fastest. As much as I lament my loss of skill over the last couple years, I comfort myself by believing that playing an instrument is a bit like riding a bike.
Some day, when I have a bit more free time on my hands, I am determined to relearn “The Minute Waltz.”