I’ve said all this before.
I don’t recall my piano teacher harshly. She was not mean. She was patient, calm, and methodical. And she got a lot of good technique into me, enough that it survived an almost 20-year hiatus pretty much intact.
But piano lessons for me were never about music. I played the notes right, and the pieces I liked the most were the ones that I could play best. Thankfully, I enjoyed and still enjoy using my hands so much that that was enough for me for a very long time.
But after I hit a certain point, my teacher looked at me and said that it was time for me to pick a composer and specialize.
I said Chopin.
What the hell else was I going to say? Chopinchopinchopinchopin was all I ever heard from the adults around me, ever.
I didn’t even know other piano composers existed.
So when she asked me, “What composer do you want to specialize in?” I sat there and replied, “Chopin?” Right answer! said her expression in reply.
And my family drove to the music store and picked up the inch-thick Schirmer tome of Chopin, and I tried so hard to get excited about it. When you are young, you figure that maybe if you fake excitement, you might actually feel it.
No dice. In the car, I looked down at that album like a child bride that’s getting hitched to a 50 year old in an arranged marriage and realizing that this would be the next few decades of her life, and I felt dead inside. Oh, crap. This was my life at the piano from now ad infinitum. Shit. I don’t want to do this.
I started college soon after, which seemed like the time to stop lessons. I walked away from them and never looked back. I never saw my teacher again, and it never occurred to me to wonder what her emotional reaction was at my very lighthearted and un-angst-filled departure.
And again, it wasn’t like I disliked lessons. I liked them enough — but music had nothing to do with them. I listened to tons of music for pleasure, mostly classical and after a while rock. Thankfully, at that time, rock was really ramping upward in the late 70s to its zenith in the 80s, when singers and bands became as good as they would ever get.
But that had nothing to do with piano. Piano was right notes and wrong notes, and the noise that came out of the instrument was incidental, a diagnostic tool to let me know that I had moved my hands in the correct fashion. I asked — once — my teacher to teach me a Billy Joel piece, “My Life,” the sheet music to which I still have. She did it, but she gritted her teeth the whole time, and I knew it. That was the one and only time I worked up the nerve to choose a piece for myself, and her reaction was as if I asked her if I could smoke a cigarette. I never asked her again.
Back to Chopinchopinchopinperfectbeingchopinchopinfuckingchopin.
My hands, her music. Why wouldn’t I walk away from lessons without a look back?
And when I went to college, and it hit me that I had the entire library at my disposal, the first thing I thought was —
Hey, you know what they must have?!
— and I raced up there with a pocket full of quarters and proceeded to photocopy the entire Schirmer album for Scott Joplin.
That was the first time aside from Billy Joel that I sat back and felt that Wow! feeling at the sound that came out of the piano. That was me! Wow!
If I had gotten that album instead of that stupid Chopin thing, there would have been no way in hell I’d have stopped lessons.
But I can imagine the naked disappointment on my teacher’s face had I said, “Scott Joplin” instead of the Superior Being that she all but knew I was going to say. I might as well as told her that I was lesbian, pregnant, and smoked pot.
So now here I am whacking away at “Bethena” and writing my own things, and arranging other things. Playing Grieg, Ginastera, Haendel. It took me a while to figure out what music was as well, and I grew up surrounded by it, loving it. As long as it wasn’t me playing it. There was music, and there were piano lessons, and they had very little to do with one another.
That is one of the reasons why I think I can’t put down the viola. It’s my first experience at learning an instrument where I am unambiguously in the driver’s seat.