Friday, October 26, 2012

Nothing Wasted

(Generic stock photo of piano keys--but they're pretty)

Yesterday, we got Uncle Oswald (our 94 year old player piano) tuned. The technician was also kind enough to clean him out (he had layers of white powder ((perhaps cornstarch?)) under the keys, as well as plenty of dust), and she even went so far as to pull out banks of keys and adjust the playing action.

Needless to say, I've been anxious to play.

My darling daughters, however, have not been so anxious to let me. In fact, they've been running me ragged. While I did play one song yesterday, I got to the end of the day today and realized I still hadn't gotten to really sit down and enjoy the new tone and touch of our beautiful piano.

I put the girls to bed, and then sent my husband off to bed as well, because he has to be at work early tomorrow. And then I realized I was all alone, and the house was quiet. (Do you know how rare that is?! I finally understand why my mom would get so excited to be left home alone.)

I was a little worried that I'd wake everyone up if I played, but I decided I didn't care. I needed to play. I pulled out a book of New Age-style piano music by Paul Spaeth that I fell in love with as a teenager, pushed the soft pedal, and began to play.

The music that came out of that old instrument went right through me. There's nothing small about the sound from one of those old uprights, even when holding the soft pedal. The low register in particular echoes and expands and moves right out of the wooden casing of the piano and up your hands, through the pedals into your feet, through the floor, the bench, your bones.

My fingers slid, stroked, and ticked on keys made of actual ivory, keys that have seen more years than even my grandfather, who's 92 this month. Every time I touch this piano, I wonder what music it's played; how many living rooms it's sat in; what dramas it's seen; how many owners it's outlived.

But tonight, my thoughts weren't on the piano's history, they were on mine. I won't go into my full piano history here (I tried to write an essay once about what it meant to me to give up my dream of being a concert pianist and why I did it, and it was 5 single-spaced pages long and still didn't manage to convey what I wanted--I don't want to subject you to reading that), but let's just say that for several years I've struggled to figure out where I stood in relation to playing the piano, and I've lost a lot of technical ability, and so when I would play it was often a bittersweet and frustrating experience.

But not tonight. Tonight I was filled with joy for the blessing that piano has been to me over the years. I was overwhelmed with gratitude for my mother who made me practice when I was younger, who pushed me to a point that when I decided I actually wanted to learn a song, I had enough background to go and figure it out, which eventually led to me taking lessons again and competing. I was grateful for the opportunity I had to learn from fantastic teachers who stressed technique and wouldn't accept less than perfection when it came to a competition piece. I'm grateful I learned to sight-read well enough to just sit down and enjoy playing, even when I haven't taken the time to practice.

One of the reasons my perspective has changed is that I'm teaching piano lessons now. And the more I teach, the more I realize just how much I learned with all those hours of practicing (2 hours a day for most of my pre-teen and teenage years). As I teach a seven-year-old about basic phrasing, I flash back to playing "Invention #1" by J.S. Bach, and chasing that pesky melody as it switched from hand to hand. I think of the difficulty of learning to play one hand louder than another so that the melody would shine through better. As I count eighth notes for a nine-year-old and discuss how to count in 6/8 time, I remember learning how to play eighth notes in one hand while playing triplets in the other, one of the last really technical things I remember learning before I quit taking lessons when I was 16.

And the more I remember learning, the less wasted it feels. I've realized that's one reason I've had such a hard time letting go of my piano regrets all these years: it felt like by not continuing to study piano, by letting my technical skill slide, I was wasting everything I'd worked so hard for. I didn't realize how much of it has become a part of me. I didn't realize what a gift it is to be able to sit in church and play nearly any hymn I'm asked to, even if I'm not familiar with it. I took my playing for granted, until I started teaching and realized just how many things have to happen between my fingers and my brain to make music come out of those keys.

As I sat and played tonight, I saw the wonder of it, and so I was grateful. I didn't mind the sour notes, I just fixed them, and was grateful I knew how. Instead of getting frustrated when my fingers slowed and tired, I saw how much they'd done, and was glad they'd gotten a good workout.

It was a glimpse of a bigger perspective; a view of the process, the results, and the future, even, as I pass the knowledge along through teaching; and it brought peace. It made me wonder what it would be like if I could see the rest of my life in the same way. I wonder what kind of peace I'd find if I could see more clearly the steps I've taken to become who I am, the person I actually am instead of my own flawed and critical perception of myself, and the person I'll be in the future.

Perspective is even harder to maintain than it is to gain, but I've glimpsed, tonight, that my efforts aren't wasted, even when my path turns. I'll just tell Uncle Oswald to remind me of that next time I struggle with thinking I'm working toward one goal when the Lord has a different one in mind.


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  2. What a neat story- it's fun to get to know more about you through your opinion on your piano. :-)

    1. Thanks, Christina! It's good to hear from you. I tend to use writing as a means of discovering myself, so reading this blog is probably a good way to get to know more about me. Of course, it would be better if I wrote more often, but I'm working on that. ;-)

  3. I love this, Shannon! And it's a beautiful followup to your last post. I am envious of your skill, too. One of my major regrets in life is that I stopped being serious about the piano as a really young teen (for a lot of reasons, including that I was much more serious about violin). I have always been naturally gifted and I know I could have been really good if I'd really pushed myself. As it is, I'm pretty mediocre (and definitely can't play hymns by sight!).

    What you say about playing being bittersweet for all those reasons is SO true of how I feel about violin now, as well.

    Oh, and I'd never heard of Paul Spaeth, but looked him up, and maybe I need one of his books too! ;)

    1. It's interesting to have this post follow the other one so quickly; I wonder if writing about one issue made the other one easier to deal with as well.

      I'm jealous that you can play TWO instruments! I used to play a little Irish tin whistle, but never very proficiently, lol.

      The Paul Spaeth book I have is "Cobalt Blue," and I only ever play a few songs out of it, but those songs I love. ;-) Some of the songs are simply too big for my little hands--too many octaves/filled octaves aren't good for me--and I've never bothered to go through and learn them around that, because it irritates me to play only one note when I see a chord. Anyway, the music in that book is all stuff he wrote in high school (and it came out when I was in high school), and as far as I know, the new album coming out in a few months is his first full album since then. I hope they release the sheet music as well.

    2. Hey! I play tin whistle, too. :)

      Yeah, RIGHT after I left my comment teh song I was listening to on his website suddenly got full of very large-sounding chords, LOL. I can't do those well either. Fellow small hands!


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