When I was young—oh, about 7 or 8—I fell in love with the piano. It made the most wonderful sound I had ever heard. I was enraptured every time a pianist was on the television or radio. My folks had a record of piano music that I listened to constantly. I thought there would be no more wonderful thing in the world than to lean to play the piano. One day my mother told me they had a surprise for me, and my dad would be there with it shortly. It was a piano! Albeit a rather battered old upright piano, but it looked wonderful to me! And they informed me that I would be starting piano lessons that very week! I was over the moon with happiness and excitement. Miss Dorothy was my piano teacher. I went to her house every Thursday after school for my lesson. I had two music books and we worked through a song from each every week. I worked hard to make my fingers behave. I learned how to read the notes and understand the notation. I practiced scales for hours until my fingers knew the keyboard well. And I practiced my lessons faithfully. I tried to make each song as perfect as I could. I treasured that time with my piano. Miss Dorothy was pleased with my progress, and told my parents so.
A few months into my lessons, my uncle and aunt and three cousins came for a visit. Of course, we all went down to the rec room. My folks proudly showed off the piano. They asked me to play for them. I was very excited and happy to do so. As I sat down at the piano and opened my music book, my dad said, “Oh no, not those songs. Those songs are no good.” He was holding a paper bag, and pulled from it a piece of sheet music. It was Autumn Leaves—the arrangement by Ferrante and Teischer. Did you ever hear them play that particular piece? They were famous for it. It was all cascading arpeggios and dramatic chords. Their hands moved up and down the keyboard at lightning speed. I had seen them on Ed Sullivan or some such show and was mesmerized by them. They were part of why I wanted to play the piano. And I wanted to play it like they could.
Everyone was looking at me and smiling. My dad opened the music and put it on the music stand in front of me. “There,” he said. “That’s real music. Play that!” I was horrified. I looked at the page and saw about a million notes everywhere on the page. I looked at my family. Everyone was laughing.
Now, as an adult with hindsight, I realize that my father didn’t really expect me to play that complicated piece of music. It was just a joke. But I was eight, and I believed he was serious. I was humiliated and crushed. All of the pride I felt in playing from my lesson book disappeared. I was a failure. I should be able to play better. I should be able to play like Ferrante and Teischer. I ran from the room crying.
My mother chastised my father for teasing me. She told me to never mind. My uncle tried to cheer me up. But I was having none of it. I knew I would never be good enough. My confidence was destroyed.
I took music lessons from Miss Dorothy for several more years. I practiced hard, and still liked to play by myself. I played not only my lessons, but challenged myself to play all kinds of pieces. But I never played in front of people again. Miss Dorothy had a piano recital every year for her students. Each year I would tell myself that I was going to participate and would practice hard. Yet, each year when the date arrived, I got sick. I never performed in the recitals.
I continued to play into my adulthood and acquired quite a bit of music. It was my solace to sit down at the piano and play those wonderful pieces. I played Bach fugues, and Beethoven etudes. I played sarabands and bagatelles and nocturnes. I played popular music, songs from Broadway musicals, folk songs. I usually played when the kids were outside or after they had gone to bed. Music for me was always a solitary activity.
These days I no longer have a piano, and haven’t played that particular instrument for a number of years. But a couple of years ago I started playing the dulcimer which is a stringed instrument native to the Appalachian mountain area. My dulcimer teacher is a friend who has been a folk musician his whole life. He has encouraged me to play with some local folk music groups. I am doing so. Sometimes I lead the group in a song or two. A couple of times, I’ve even soloed. It’s still difficult for me, but I’m getting more confident with each opportunity. And now I’ve added another instrument, a bowed psaltery, to my repertoire. Music is back in my life in a way I never could have imagined. It took sixty years.
Not long ago, when my kids were all together and talking over the “old days’ my daughter told me how she would often hear my piano while she was playing in the yard. She told me how much she loved to hear my music and how much it meant to her. She asked me to give piano lessons to my eight year old grandson. He’s doing quite well. So am it, dear readers, so am I.
“When in doubt, make a fool of yourself. There is a microscopically thin line between being brilliantly creative and acting like the most gigantic idiot on earth. So what the hell, leap.” Cynthia Helmel.