In 1977, my parents bought a piano. It is an upright, made by Wm. Knabe & Co., and at the time they bought it the same model was an official rehearsal piano of world-class operas. My mother took some piano lessons–some of my very earliest memories are of lying face-down on my bed, with my fingers pushed into my ears, because my mother was playing the piano and not paying attention to me.
When I was seven, my babysitter’s children began to take piano lessons. When I tried to imitate them, on the piano at home, my mother decided that I should start piano lessons–and I did. For ten years, every Monday night was piano night. My mother would drive the 17 miles home from work, pick me up, and drive the 17 miles back to town for my lesson. We always had dinner at Cracker Barrel. It was Our Night out.
Practicing was less bucolic. Early on, I got so frustrated with my fingers that I would actually slap my own hands when I messed up. I cried over the keyboard I don’t know how many times. The first time I attempted a Bach invention, it took me a year to get it right (I was about nine). I was supposed to practice for 30 minutes every day; sometimes, when my parents would go out and leave me at home alone, I would lie that I had practiced while they were gone. Once I asked my dad how he knew that I had actually practiced, and he looked right at me and said “you wouldn’t lie to me.” I went to my room and–yes–cried.
I got a lot of attention over the piano from my grandfather, who also liked to play. At any family gathering, I would eventually find a way to the piano and begin to play (to show off), and he would then find his way to me and sit, listening. He had Readers Digest books of popular songs, and I would play them and we would sing together, me alto, grandpa bass. The last time we ever did this was on a beautiful October day, the sort that we have just had two weeks of, here. He died two weeks later.
In high school, I lost half of my friends to marching band, which I was stubbornly unwilling to join. I kept the other half, and made new ones, by joining the high school orchestra as their pianist. In my freshman year we had 14 members. By my senior year, I had migrated to double bass, and there were 50 members, and we got a 1 at the regional music contest. I cried, of course, along with everyone else.
When I went to college, piano seemed to be over for me. My piano teacher, who had become a real friend, and whose house I had spent an hour in every evening since elementary school, went out of my life. Daily practice went out of my life. A few times, when I was home, I would sit at the old thing and try to play the sonatas I had used to know by heart, and was only a little sorry that my fingers had slowed down too much. I had never been a 100% willing participant in the whole lessons-practice-recital cycle, and I didn’t mind too much when it all seemed to fall away.
Now I am through college and grad school. I’m spending a year as a postdoc, while I try to get a real professorship. It’s the first time in my life that the next step hasn’t been absolutely clear. I don’t know if I will get a real job; if I do, I don’t know what part of the country it will be in. It’s a pretty rotten, sad, scared feeling, and I have (can you guess?) been crying a lot, the last couple of months. I feel disoriented, and I really resent the homeless kind of feeling that the situation gives me.
This morning, my cousin and his wife and their baby son backed their pickup into my driveway. In the back of it was my mother’s piano–my piano now. He and the neighbor boys managed to hoist it into the house, and park it in an empty corner of my living room. I gave them all lunch (the biggest cooking production I’ve ever put on) and sent them all home happy.
The piano really changes the look of the room. I mean, really. It looks furnished now (Anthony Powell would say, pianos do furnish a room.) It looks all grown-up.
I sat down at the piano. I had absolutely no idea what was going to happen. I opened a book of Mozart sonatas to a random page–as it happens, to the Turkish march, first movement. I played the first few bars of the right hand. I played the first few bars of the left hand. Then I put them together. And it wasn’t bad–not at all. My fingers are quite definitely stiff and my wrists have gotten weak, but all that will improve with a very little practice. I played some more. I turned to the fun movement–the fast one. I sight-read the first few lines of it, with no problem. I’m slow, but accurate.
I think that the piano is going to be a big comfort to me. I feel like the house is friendlier, with it around. After all, we have been through a lot together–probably fully half of my childhood tears and about 1/50th of my childhood hours were spent with it. It’s been around since before I was born, in every house we lived in. And now it’s mine, and ten years of lessons–let me tell you–apparently never leave a person entirely, and I am able to sit down and play whenever I have a stray moment. I think I’m finally back home.