When I was five, my family walked across the street to our neighbor’s house for a party. The homeowners were a young couple. The man’s name was Neil. I only vaguely remember what he looked like, and less about his wife on that day. I don’t recall going back afterwards, although we may have, children’s memories being what they are.
What I do remember is that Neil had a piano, and he let me sit down and play it. In a matter of minutes, Neil taught me to play one part of “Heart and Soul”, and he played the other. Then we switched parts. Those minutes must have appeared completely inconsequential to observers. They were not. The making of music with black and white keys reached right into my heart.
Before I go on, please know that I did not become a professional musician. Don’t wait for me to tell you when I hit the big time or about all the lives I’ve touched. It didn’t happen that way for me. This is just a story of a girl and a piano, and how an encounter with Neil and his piano cleared an enchanted, winding path that I still revisit from time to time.
After the Heart and Soul experience, my parents made a stretch investment. They sank $400 into a gently used Winter piano and signed me up for group lessons at our community college. But I hated practicing things like, “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. What was a bonnie anyway? In class, the short electric keyboard heard through headphones didn’t sound anything like the piano at my house or at Neil’s house. I wanted to play songs that sounded big and had lots of notes. I wanted to make real music.
My teacher, an accomplished Romanian concert-pianist, tried to keep me on one-handed scale exercises and one-clef songs. Finally, though, she broke the news to my parents: I had too good an ear for my own good, and not enough discipline to follow her lessons. They were wasting their money. And so, for the next six years, we dusted, polished, and walked past a silent piano in our living room.
Then in seventh grade I met new friends at a new school. They played piano…really well. Watching them play, I longed to make music again, and declared myself ready for lessons. My parents’ response can be summed up as, “Been there, done that, done pouring money into this.” They reminded me that I should feel free to break out any of the several books they’d bought last go-round, and start practicing. It was a reasonable and understandable response. And I took the advice.
After seeing the musical “Annie” and loving all the music, I got the score, and set about teaching myself to play. I broke out the old books. I learned the notes, scales, and how to read the symbols. I had a good memory, so I wrote notes to guide me, learned a few measures, memorized them, and moved on to the next measures. I spent hours each night at the piano. Eventually, I had taught myself to play most of the songs comfortably. So I asked again: Could I have lessons?
My parents agreed to give it another go with private lessons from a friend’s teacher. Each week he would put new progressively difficult sheet music on the stand, and tell me that frankly…truly…honestly…he thought this piece was beyond my skills…but maybe I could give it a go. The psychology worked. By the following week, I had learned and memorized the piece, and we’d start the same dance over again.
This continued for several years, during which I learned my favorite pop songs, show tunes, and all manner of classical including Chopin waltzes. I still didn’t have the patience for music theory, sight-read poorly, and didn’t get a thrill from public performance, so I was never going to make any money at this thing. Still, I experienced incalculable hours of enjoyment, escape, and accomplishment during that time. It was something of an addiction. When eventually my teacher shared that he had taken me as far as he could, we tried to find an advanced teacher, but could not.
Without new weekly challenges, my mind became occupied with other high school concerns. The passion remained, despite playing only occasionally. I nixed the opportunity to go to a college where the admissions officer sneered when asked of the possibility of taking music electives. I chose a college that had a recognized music and drama school. I’d agreed not to major in music as a condition of my parents footing my very expensive college tuition, but there was no way I was spending four years at a school that didn’t see its value. And while I didn’t take lessons, I did visit practice rooms from time to time.
In my senior year, that Winter piano moved to my college apartment. It has followed me to four other homes since and is still one of my favorite possessions. I’ve played other pianos in many places over the years, including a digital Yamaha in our home that can make anyone sound like a one-man-band. The most amazing experience was playing a Bösendorfer grand piano left unlocked for a concert by some happy accident. It was big. Its sound was bigger. I had a lump in my throat from the beauty of it.
Still, the sound and feel of my Winter is warmest. The sound of my Winter is the sound of my life. It has spent so many hours with me for pleasure and for comfort. I played Christmas carols by twinkling tree lights, and welled tears of joy hearing my children practice on the same keys I loved so well. I played to heal when I was devastated, tears streaming down my face onto keys. I played when I was frustrated, and life was complicated, and nothing made much sense. Many times after playing, my head rested gently on the music stand, one hand on a key block, the other tracing the grain in the polished golden wood or fiddling across keys without any pattern or point. Those were moments well-spent, and gratitude for distractions or memories remembered.
A few years ago, after decades of my own version of carpool karaoke to anything that came on the radio, I decided to take voice lessons. I was not a natural. Still, by some good fortune and destiny, my teacher introduced some theory as part of our lessons. After decades of not caring, I was finally interested in how musical phrases came together to convey different emotions, and how the patterns and structure of a piece could feel predictable or unpredictable to a listener. It was fascinating. Although I wasn’t able to continue the lessons and focus on theory, I may resume some day. I have a feeling that when my nest is empty, I’ll again look for comfort in the keys. This time, I’ll be interested enough in theory to experience playing in a new way.
Would I ever have stumbled into this had we not gone to our neighbor’s house that day? What if we’d gone, but Neil hadn’t stepped over to help me play? Every day we meet people and have seemingly innocuous interactions. Sometimes we don’t know whether or how they touch our lives. I’m sure no one at that party understood that they’d witnessed the exchange of a gift that would keep giving throughout my life.
And what if my parents had simply gone home from that party and thought of it as an entertaining evening? Instead they discussed how they could nurture me, looked through classifieds to get an instrument, found teachers, and drove me to and from lessons for years. What if they’d sold the piano when I was seven, impatient to use the space for other things and recoup at least some of their losses given my allergic reaction to structured teaching? Surely I wouldn’t have taught myself those songs from Annie, or went on to learn so many others.
We can never know how our everyday actions may shape the future for one or for many. But if we lead with our heart, lean in with our soul, we do make beautiful music together.