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Tuesday, January 4, 2011

My Song

"We live like ill taught piano students.
We don't hear the music,
we only play the right notes."
-R. Capon

I started taking weekly in-home piano lessons when I was seven years old. My teacher was Barry, a proper South African man with a short afro that was always dyed a strange, unnatural orange hue. Barry constantly told tales of being a child prodigy who had performed for The Queen of England. (I never saw evidence backing up his claims.) On the other hand, I was quite the opposite of a child prodigy, and I blame it on the fact that I was more interested in pranking than practicing. Yes, for some reason, even though he was thirty-five years my senior, I found Barry an extremely easy target for practical jokes.

The pranks started out simple. Like a sweet, well-trained child, I would offer our house guest Barry a drink each week, and while I was alone in the kitchen, I couldn't help but put a few pinches of salt in his water glass. I would wait in anticipation for his expression after the first sip. He would usually smile politely and set the cup down, never to revisit it. I also had a fake plastic ice cube that had a giant bug in the center of it, and I would throw that in his glass every once in a while to change things up. (I now realize that the ice cube trick can only be used once, but at the time I thought it was a brilliant, new idea that would get him every time.) The pranks got much more elaborate as I entered my pre-teens. I can't mention them all here, but I'm pretty sure Barry may still believe that he has a plethora of unpaid parking tickets and a warrant out for his arrest...

I loved the idea of playing music but I hated feeling confined. I resented having to sit down and practice songs written hundreds of years ago that I didn't feel any connection to. There was no room for any of me in it. The song was already written and there is a definite "right" note that I was expected to play and everyone knew if (ok-- everyone knew WHEN) I hit a wrong note. (These wrong notes happened all too often during my awkward piano recitals in front of a ridiculously stuffy, uppity audience of about 1oo people. I actually have consciously chosen to block out those bad memories for sake of my well-being, but I do have one fond recital memory. The great majority of Barry's students were Seventh-day Adventists, a Christian denomination that recommends vegetarianism and expects adherence to the kosher laws. Yeah, well, my family brought meatballs to the after-recital potluck. No one touched the pile of them, but instead looked both horrified and disgusted as they passed by our dish. Whatever, their loss. And my brother's gain. I think he ate about 43 of them.)

I'd like to pause to give a quick shout out to Barry. Barry, looking back you're a good man for never firing me as your student even though I never practiced...oh wait, you were getting paid, weren't you? So that's why you kept me as your student for almost a decade. You were cashing in, I see. I'd like to take back my shout out now, thank you. Taking advantage of my parents a bit, weren't you sir? How would The Queen feel about that, huh, Mr. Alleged Child Prodigy?

Really though, no hard feelings. I'm not discounting the foundation that these piano lessons set for me because the time of learning and structure was necessary and didn't go to waste (although my parents would probably argue that a lot of their money did). But you come to a point, not just in music, but in life, when you have to stray from the melody line a bit. Because really, what do you get out hitting all of the supposed "right" notes all of the time? You get a calculated, boxed-in kind of existence with no room for inspiration. And there is such freedom in the improvisation.

I don't know about you, but I would rather write my own song. I would rather feel it and play the music the way I hear it, compose lyrics for it and make it mine. All mine. And sure, it won't sound like a Beethoven symphony, but the beauty is, it doesn't have to. I'm not a German composer from the 1770's with horrible hair and an even more horrible first name. (Who names their child Ludwig? Honestly.) Indeed, I'm just me, and sure, I don't know exactly what it will all come together to sound like, but I know for certain that it will be a melody that my heart can recognize and a song I can happily sing along to. It will end up sounding like me.

So, I say, start practicing your song now, or else you'll get to the end and it will suddenly hit you and you'll ask yourself, "Wow, what just happened? I played everything right but I didn't feel a single thing. The song is over and none of it was me."