Fear and Melodrama (Or, Adventures in Piano Lessons)


“Each of us must confront our own fears, must come face to face with them. How we handle our fears will determine where we go with the rest of our lives. To experience adventure or to be limited by the fear of it.”    

Judy Blume, Tiger Eyes



I love that quote. The challenge of facing our fears not only offers us the opportunity to grow, it often leads us to our next adventure. Or at the very least, sneaks in skills that come in handy later in life.


To wit: I took piano lessons first grade through seventh grade. While it gave me good musical footing, it was never “my instrument.” I could play a piece decently once I had it memorized, but struggled with the skill of reading music without constantly glancing down at my hands.  And practicing scales and dexterity exercises was akin to thirty minutes of drip torture. 


One of my piano teachers, Mrs. Bean, held lessons in her home. She was a nice woman, and I remember being fascinated by her manicured fingernails. (How can she play with such long nails? I wondered.)  Perhaps she was inspired by Renoir’s “Lady at the Piano” which hung on the wall overseeing many little fingers tripping over the keys.


The lessons were fine. It was getting there that terrified me. Back in the day, there were no leash laws in our town. Dogs came and went as they pleased. Most were friendly, but there were exceptions to the rule—the rule-breaker in this case being a terrier that lived four doors up from Mrs. Bean. Each week, I’d grind my bike to a halt at the end of her street, plant my red Keds on the pavement and take a full five minutes to get up enough courage to ride past the canine-of-death. Finally, I’d take a deep breath and pedal for all I was worth. And right on cue, the fanged fury would rush out at me, jaws snapping at my feet until I cleared the property line.  


This continued for weeks until, one day, I decided enough was enough. This time when the dog rushed up, I kicked it in the mouth* and pedaled like crazy. My heart was racing as I slid to a stop in Mrs. Bean’s driveway. I’d done it! (The dog never bothered me again.) 


Another scary down-side to piano lessons were the end-of-the-year recitals. Like the terrier, this dreaded event bided its time—lying in wait before rushing out and turning me into a bundle of nerves. Each year, I humiliated myself in front of bright-eyed parents and earnest-looking students. 


Early on, recitals were held in smallish rooms on smallish pianos in the music building at the local college. Later, they were moved to the large, high-ceilinged college chapel, where our footsteps echoed as we made our lonely way up to a grand piano situated several steps above the main floor. (Lest there be any doubt about evolution, at this point my latent humiliation grew wings and began reciting Shakespeare.)


My friend Alice had begun lessons at the age of three, and was a natural. She’d sit at our old, mostly-in-tune upright piano and riff easily on Mozart and Chopin, do fancy things with “Chopsticks,” and never seemed to be troubled by nerves when she performed. As the star student, she always went last. My position was closer to the top of the lineup, not far behind the pre-schoolers.


I hung in there until the seventh grade, when I spectacularly slaughtered “Hungarian Rhapsody” by Liszt. While I started strong, my performing nerves kicked in after thirty seconds, causing my fingers and brain to disconnect. The rest of the song was a host of wrong notes, multiple starts of phrases, and worst of all, silence as I removed my hands from the keyboard in a dire effort to regroup.


Well. After I slunk back to my seat in the second pew, I decided my piano-playing days were over. A few months later, I started playing the guitar and found my voice as a singer-songwriter and—miracle of miracles—my performing nerves. (Mostly.)


I didn’t give up piano entirely.  During my angsty teenage years, I still played in the privacy of our living room. We had a music book called “Hits of the 1970’s,” and I relished plunking out sad songs and singing lyrics such as, “One last bell to answer/ One last egg to fry/One last man to pick up after/I should be happy, but all I do is cry…”


I once heard someone say that bad things don't happen to us, they happen for us. I have a theory that those experiences contributed to making me a more empathetic writer...particularly where fear, humiliation, and melodrama are concerned. Guess those piano lessons provided more than a musical foundation. When I visit my 91-year-old mother this month, I’ll give her a hug and say, “Thanks, Mom. How did you know?”







*(Not hard, folks. Relax!)




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