There are few things that say home like the sound of a kid playing piano.
The sound of stilted scales drifting through open windows and into the spring or summer air, the floating notes representing what the kid wished her spirit could do while she had to stay inside, practicing.
I didn’t understand that feeling, not having had piano lessons as a kid. So I idealized what I didn’t have – thought that I could be like cornetist Buddy Bolden and find some sort of freedom in playing … not having to struggle to read the notes, work out the fingering. That, if I got good enough, the music would be free.
So, when I hit my mid 20s, I decided to provide myself with what my childhood didn’t: piano lessons. There are very few times in life when we get to go back and fix what we think our parents screwed up. This was my chance.
It’s a good exercise that, giving yourself what you didn’t get in childhood. One friend of mine took swimming lessons. Another learned how to skate and play hockey. Another became slightly obsessed with buying clothes (she was the youngest and always had hand-me-downs as a kid). We gave ourselves what we wanted – growing up by finally taking responsibility for ourselves and meeting our own needs.
Every Saturday, I’d head to the local music store and do an hour with the piano teacher. She was a lovely woman – and very, very patient. She taught me scales and triads. How to do a little 12-bar blues riff to keep me amused. She encouraged me to keep striving to do more difficult pieces.
Most of all, she taught me to hear music much, much better.
Out dancing I would listen for the beat of the song and be able to find it – and keep it. I became a much better dancer and had so much more fun at it. I was also able to isolate separate instruments when listening to music – there’s the bass line, there’s the piano.
I didn’t practice as much as I should have – the freedom I assumed I could reach by becoming so intimate with the instrument that I wouldn’t have to think about what I was doing, well – it was hard work. I didn’t quite get there.
But when I sit down in front of a keyboard I can still pick out a couple of songs – by memory, by feel. Without the sheet music I can strike a few deep chords; sometimes I’ll pick out a little twelve-bar ditty. And in those few moments those notes, the music, escapes out the windows.