Photo credit: Fred
Over thirty years ago, when I was about Fred’s age, my mother took me around to a couple of piano retailers. I had somehow gotten chosen to take piano lessons through our school’s music program, and after a year or so of lessons, my mother thought that to make any improvement I was going to need a chance to practice at home.
Eventually, and to no surprise, my mother told me that we weren’t going to be able to afford a piano after all, or even a keyboard for that matter. And it wasn’t just the piano, but a house large enough to accommodate a piano and the private lessons that I would need once the music program ended when I entered middle school. I knew it was a pipe dream anyway, but it moved me that my parents – recent immigrants who wouldn’t even treat themselves to an occasional coffee – would even consider the possibility of piano lessons for me.
I don’t remember feeling overly disappointed about stopping piano, as my interests in playing music barely had a chance to germinate. Whether it was a way to rationalize our inability to afford music or actual belief, the refrain “We’re not a musical family [and thereby have no talent or potential]” came to play over and over, so much so that I never picked up another musical instrument again, nor did I ever expect or plan for my own child to play music.
Then one day we were at a friend’s house for a playdate. Fred was three years old at the time. While the other children were playing, Fred caught sight of my friend’s piano, and walked over and planted himself on the bench. He grabbed a pizza take-out menu, placed it on the music rack, and began “playing” with both hands. He kept his eyes intent on the menu, following the “notes” dictated by the different pizza and side order options and periodically flipping to the next page of the fold-out menu to continue with the piece. Emotion took hold of his small body as his entire posture took on the shape of his impromptu pizza masterpiece.
We adults all gathered around this toddler “virtuoso” and laughed and applauded. In the years following this episode, Fred would gravitate toward pianos and keyboards at friends’ homes and at electronics stores and experiment with the keys.
When he was eight, I finally decided to find him a piano teacher. He will never be really good – I’d convinced myself of that at the time, and told all my musical friends that we are not a musical family – but since he seemed interested, I thought it would be nice for him to learn to play, and to make music a part of his life. We got him a $250 keyboard using credit card reward points and found a graduate student in music who was teaching twice a month. This more relaxed schedule suited us and the expectations that I had for Fred.
Fred’s been playing for a year now, or technically a half year, since he only meets every couple of weeks for lessons, and has performed wonderfully in two recitals. Sometimes (often) he complains about having to practice, but there are times when we can’t get him to stop. He enjoys taking familiar pieces and playing them in a half dozen different ways, making his own “Chinese” versions and “Halloween” versions, or creating his own pieces inspired by commercial jingles. Once, a couple of musically sophisticated friends – the type of near-prodigies that I always imagined the children of real musical families to be – laughed at Fred’s rustic pencil-scrawl compositions. Sadly, my normally assertive boy did nothing to defend himself and I knew it was because deep down he believed himself to be inferior. But I no longer believed this of my son, and while I typically stay out of friendship squabbles, I stepped in this time to stop the ridiculing. No, we had come too far to be shamed back to square one.
This weekend, we bought a piano.
When I was younger I’d always known I would one day own a car, a house. No matter how modestly one starts out, a car and a home are always an accessible, equal opportunity part of the American Dream. When I put my signature on our piano purchase this weekend, it dawned on me that the dream I never dared have was suddenly realized: more than just ownership of a magnificent instrument, it was the lifting of barriers through the generations in my family that said “We can’t.”