Dear Souls in Earthsuits,
I remember my first piano lesson. I was about 5 years old.
It all started with Alfred’s Basic Piano book, level A. It was red and white and it was one of the most important things I owned.
I grew up out where Jesus lost his sandals. Anytime there was a storm I thought, “This is it…this is the big one…we’re all gonna die!” I was convinced that our little farm house was going to be picked up in a whirl and tossed into the fields. I would gather up the few things that I couldn’t bear losing at 5 years old, (a doll named August, and my piano books) sit in the middle of my parent’s bed, and wait for the cue to run down to the basement. I don’t know why I loved those damn books so much; I never did learn to read music. If I were clever, I would have found a way to keep the piano in the basement, but I guess my mother just wasn’t sympathetic to my adolescent anxiety.
For five years I took lessons from those who tried like hell to teach me to read. In five years, I went through five levels, and four different teachers. Ms. Shipley, Joy Oldfield, Kathy Houghtaling, and Karen Matar just couldn’t teach me to process the notes on the page. It wasn’t their fault, by any means. I found that if I could hear it, eventually I could mimic what they were playing, and there was no motivation to go any further. Regardless of whether I could read what was in front of me or not, I still played the piano…and I played it often.
The piano was located against the wall right between the living room and the dining room. Aside from the fact that it was centrally located and is a generally loud instrument anyway, it was also in a house that was probably less than 1000 square feet. This means that for hours on end, not only did I have the pleasure of plunking on the enchanting instrument; everyone else in the house had the joy of listening.
My mother would try to get me to practice the assigned lessons. She would attempt to persuade me with positive reinforcements, threaten me within an inch of my life, or hoodwink me into opening the book and actually reading what was there. I didn’t want to read it; all I wanted to do was create. Now, those of you who know me and have heard my piano skills may think, “Wow, I bet that was wonderful…listening to you play.” But my mother would stop you at the ‘wonderful’ part.
One has to start somewhere, and I began by aimlessly running my fingers up, down and across every single key. There was no method to the madness… just noise. I found the damper pedal irresistible. I used it relentlessly and continuously, but never correctly. I just wanted to hear the notes ring and surround each other. I wanted to find out which ones went together and which ones sounded like muddy snow on the tepid ground. I could feel the dissonance in my teeth. If the notes didn’t harmonize, I could feel a spinning motion in my molars, and my ears would tickle.
My father would sit in the recliner in the living room and watch baseball; my father would sit in the recliner and watch football; he would sit and watch basketball, Magnum PI, Miami Vice, M*A*S*H, the evening news…all to the tune of my creations. He never once told me to stop. I assumed he wasn’t listening. I do remember the day, however, that I placed my little fingers on just the right keys and the most beautiful chord that I had ever heard sounded from the most beautiful instrument that ever was. I gasped, my head popped up, and my eyes had to have been the size of a small melon. I looked over at my dad, and he was looking at me.
“That was really good.” He said
“Thanks.” I replied
It could have been the fact that there was finally a break in the monotony of mush, but I didn’t care. He was listening! And I’m glad someone was, because it was the proudest moment of my life up to that point.
Once the exploration of every sound made by a piano became less investigation and more comfortably familiar, I began to expand on melodies that I already knew. I could close my eyes, hear what I wanted it to sound like in my head, and make it come out of my hands. I don’t necessarily know how I could do that… it just “was”. My mother thought I was practicing, but I was improvising. My teachers knew it. They were impressed, but not satisfied with the results in theory. I still couldn’t read the notes on the page, but my 6 to 7 year old brain thought it was the biggest waste of time.
By the time I was in high school music was sporadically busting through my fingers before my mind could even process a melody. I would sit down facing the keyboard and it was instantaneous. It was like a drug addiction. As soon as I saw a piano, I had to play it. My fingers would itch like I had a rash, and the only thing that could ease the irritation was to run them across the keys. It was almost certain that whatever came out at that time would never be played again. It was a ‘one time only’ creation, which occasionally astounded even me.
Since then, I’ve come to realize that the piano was and is more than my outlet, it is my life blood. If I am somewhere where I can’t play the piano or if I haven’t played in a matter of days, I am discombobulated and disheveled. I cannot function. It can decelerate my heart when needed or accelerate my heart when needed. I know the difference between smiling on the inside and smiling on the outside; the outside can be deceiving, but the inside is scrupulous and will never be counterfeit. It can make me hold my breath longer and it can force me to breathe deeper. It’s the only thing I do that makes me expand into little particles and fly. When I play the piano, my world becomes a sensory playground; everything is bright, everything is crisp, everything is fresh… everything is right.
And It all started with a red and white Alfred’s Basic Piano book …that’s why I love them.