The American piano

piano inside

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 –Β 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.”

16 thoughts on “The American piano

    • Thank you, Ayala! I’m so glad I did this too…I can’t believe how much I had convinced myself and even my son that maybe music isn’t in the cards…

  1. Every home should have a piano. We buy the big TVs with too many channels to watch, huge sofas, have rooms just for guests but poopoo a piano because it won’t get use. Shame. One of two happiest days of my life were getting an upgrade to a good upright and an upgrade to a grand. I downsized but I kept my piano. Lovely post.

    • So true – there are few fixtures that can bring beauty and serenity the way a piano can. I’m looking forward to living in a house and living a life that consists of a piano! And grands are just stunning – amazing that you have one.

      Thanks so much for stopping by!

  2. Yes you can and yes we can! πŸ™‚ I think it’s great that Fred is keeping up with it. Perhaps the no-pressure lessons have a lot to do with it too, as it allows him to be driven by his own curiosity and passion.

    Growing up, my dad took me shopping for a piano but ended up buying an organ (or maybe it’s the same thing as keyboard here?) because he liked all the buttons and bells and whistles. Two years of lessons later, I quit. My parents weren’t musical, and I wasn’t really pushed – my dad just liked to show off with that piece of instrument that became more of an object of status than anything else.

    Anyway, long story short: Both My Guy and I love music and lament a childhood that was void of lessons of any kind even though our parents could afford it. And that’s why we’re resolved to make sure our girls will get that chance. I’m glad you’re able to fulfill both Fred’s dreams and squash any doubts about talent and ability with your new piano!

    • Hi Justine, I think it’s great, too, that you and Your Guy will bring music into your daughters’ lives. You know, it’s never too late for the grown-ups either πŸ˜‰

      Thanks for the support! I’ve noticed that since we got the piano, I am taking it more seriously too…not by becoming more intense but just by paying more attention, talking to Fred’s teacher to learn more about piano learning, etc.

    • Thanks, Stacia! I agree. I don’t need Fred to become any kind of star musician but I think music is a special thing to have in one’s life as something to be able to turn to.

  3. I adore this post, Cecilia and that you are fulfilling something to yourself and your son with your support of his musical talents. I once played the piano. My father played and my mother did, so we had one in our home.It was black and felt very grand considering the totality of our living arrangements, but it felt at home. I don’t know how much I remember now of the notes it can play and all those other details that come when you are actively a musician, but I can say that from that experience, I am a better person.

    p.s.I wrote a longer comment but somehow my Twitter login expired and I couldn’t retrieve it. 😦

    • Oh, I think it’s wonderful that your parents played and that you did as well! And I imagine that you can pick it up again if you wanted to. I have no doubt that just having had that music in your life – hearing it, appreciating it, and developing the discipline and skills piano playing requires – contributes in an important way to one’s qualities. That’s encouraging to know.

      Cecilia

  4. So much of this post reminds me of my own childhood. My parents bought a piano for me and I took years of piano lessons. I never practiced enough to really grasp all the intricacies, but the conversations I had with my piano teacher about music and life still endure.

    I am so glad that you are fostering the love of music with Fred. I know he will remember this memory when he gets older.

    • I think that is wonderful that the experience impacted you, Rudri, even if you didn’t practice “enough.” I’m convinced that some music can make a difference, and I try and remind Fred of this when he complains about practices or lessons!

      Cecilia

  5. This is so beautiful! My dad took up cello at 40. He and his brothers were all told they weren’t musical, but one of them now takes paid gigs playing various flutes. It’s never too late. And music is within us all.

    • Thanks, Kate! And WOW – that is amazing about your dad! I imagine the cello is not an easy instrument either (not that there are any easy instruments). I love your story and think it’s encouraging and inspiring. I love what you said about music being within us all…so true!

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