My kid sister had an interesting question the other day: If our grade-school piano teacher had let us choose our own music, would we have continued with lessons?
Would we, she asked, have kept playing if the teacher had let us pick songs by Elvis or Carl Perkins or Crosby, Stills and Nash? The question, by sibling email, came on a day when Nancy and I attended a granddaughter’s piano recital and when my kid sister and her husband prepared to watch two grandchildren play recital pieces. Pondering the question brought back painful childhood memories, and it really didn’t take long to send back an answer.
I took four years of piano lessons, from third through sixth grade. My big brother, big sister and little sister took lessons from the same teacher, for varying lengths of time. The two girls actually learned to play quite well. Brother Jim and I? Well, we like music as well as the next person, but we were anything but good students of the piano. Neither of us liked to practice, and neither of us practiced much. We arrived for our weekly lessons unprepared and uninterested. And we nearly passed out from nervousness at the annual spring recitals in the city auditorium as we waited to walk onto the stage and pound our way through our assigned musical selections.
Jim and I can’t be the only kids in the country who took years of lessons but never applied ourselves. Well, of course we can’t. For example, my younger son’s grade-school piano teacher called their weekly times together “sessions,’’ not “lessons.’’ He didn’t last long, either, although he plays guitar like, well, ringing a bell. Tossing a football around on a playground, sledding the steep hills in the gulch by the swimming pool or playing work-up baseball with the neighborhood kids on the vacant lot had it all over sitting indoors at the piano after school. Don’t you suppose Beethoven and some of those other big-name composers occasionally wanted to skip piano to joust or whatever kids did in early times?
Jim and I probably took lessons as long as we did only because it mattered to our folks. Mom played piano like nobody’s business and Dad could really handle an accordion. But, see, they grew up liking it. I don’t know how Dad learned to play, but Mom never had a lesson in her life. She just climbed onto the piano stool when she was about three years old and played. Piano to her was like math to that Matt Damon character in “Good Will Hunting.’’ She looked at the instrument and understood it. I barely understood my weekly assignments.
The reason my sister asked whether choosing our own music would have encouraged us to keep taking lessons was because her grandson’s music teacher offered him that option. He wanted to quit but kept going when she said he could decide what to play.
At our granddaughter’s recital the other afternoon, it seemed as if many of the students chose their own pieces of music. They seemed to enjoy playing. They seemed comfortable at the keys of a piano in front of an audience. Sure, it was a forgiving audience of family members. The risks were low, and there was little to forgive. The students played with confidence, skill and visible joy. I don’t recall even one time in the four years I took lessons when I played straight through my recital piece without mistakes, pauses and grimacing. Music should be fun, uplifting, relaxing. These kids treated it that way. I never managed that.
I’ll have to remember to check in with my sister to see how her grandson did. For his recital, he chose a piece by “Coldplay.’’ Yeah, I don’t know who that is, either, but that doesn’t matter. It keeps the kid interested in piano, for now, at least. Maybe he won’t grow up to be that guy who sees someone playing a piano and thinks, “Gosh, I wish I’d kept taking lessons.’’
That, in so many words, is what both Jim and I wrote when we answered our sister’s question. That’s kind of sad.