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  • The Prodigal (piano) Player

    When I first decided to take piano lessons, I had no idea that participating in the semi-annual recital was part of the deal. I would have never signed up if I had known.  I figured, as an adult student, I'd be slipped under the rug until ready to be unveiled as the second coming of Beethoven.  But one day, my daughter was in her lesson and I was making work calls in the hallway, and when I re-entered the studio for my turn, she and our teacher informed me of the grand plan they had concocted.  A Christmas carol duet at the December holiday performance.  


    A duet?


    A recital?  



    I was then handed the piece with a complicated two-handed accompaniment with chords, slurs, varying dynamics, half notes, eighth notes, sharps and flats.  That would be my part of the deal. Catherine got the one-handed melody with zero hand change positions. Of course she did. I made a mental note to self to never, again, leave the lesson room in advance of recital time.

    "You'll be fine", Paul assured me.  "Yeah Mommy, you'll be great", 10-year old Catherine chimed in.

    Oh right.  I'll be fine if the audience is partially deaf or under the age of 4.  But I've been to this "piano party" before as a proud parent.  I've seen the 12-year old prodigies who could put George Winston to shame.  Yes, no thank you.  I'll plunk away at something simple like Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater in private please.

    The irony of playing with my 10-year old when the last time I was in a recital myself was when I was 10 years old is not lost on me.  You see, I am the prodigal piano player.  Last March, I returned to the keys after a 32-year hiatus. And let's just say that 32 years is enough time to completely freak oneself out about doing it again.  

    My childhood piano teacher, Maureen Silverman, had the patience of a saint.  She sat straight-faced with my sister and me as we blatantly lied about how much we had practiced.  I feigned a lost assignment notebook weekly and recreated my homework list omitting all classical pieces and trying to convince her that she had only assigned me to diligently work on the theme song to St. Elmo's Fire, or Ice Castles, the only songs that mattered in my young mind.

    One day, my mother quizzed us after her work day, as to where we returned our books after our fictitious practice session. My sister proudly proclaimed, "we put the books back in the piano bench, Mommy.". Our mom then marched through the living room, theatrically opened the lid to the bench and revealed to us what she had already known for a week that not only had the bottom fallen out of the bench (and all music books had been relocated to a nearby dresser drawer) but that she knew we had been fibbing about how much we were practicing every day.  

    Caught in our web of musical note laden lies, I quit piano shortly thereafter.  I made a brief reprise in high school, promising to practice, take it seriously, "Yes Yes I really want to take piano lessons again", only to quickly dread the weekly assignments and quit, yet again.  I tried guitar in college with a way too lenient teacher and a way too robust social life.  I learned some Eric Clapton. Concerts consisted of alcohol infused sing-alongs in a dorm room with my besties who were too inebriated to notice that I just knew 3 chords.  

    The assignment for the piano party with my daughter was God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.  I didn't bother asking why we couldn't just do an easy ditty like Jingle Bells.  I figured my lesson karma was coming back to bite me and it was time to actually rise to the challenge of consistent dedicated practice. 

    I spent the better part of two months obsessing about this performance, worrying that I'll disappoint Catherine, embarrass myself in front of my community and, worst of all, worried that all of this worry would make me quit something that I was finally loving every week.  I learned the piece measure by measure.  I took it slowly.  I recorded Paul playing my part.  I recorded Paul playing Catherine's part. I played along with both recordings.  I recorded Catherine playing Catherine's part. I adjusted my own rhythm to match hers.  

    Catherine was excited all along to perform alongside me.  She didn't worry one iota about whether or not she would disappoint me.  She practiced on her own, she practiced with me.  She was completely un self-conscious. She latched her sweet little arm with mine (which was a tad challenging as she only needed one hand to play her part while I needed two).  She smiled, wiggled, and bumped butts with me as we navigated sharing a way too small piano bench.  She hit the ptsd inducing metronome button on our keyboard and just kept going if she made a mistake. I became a real diva insisted that I needed warm up exercises, my own chair, a little space and a quieter metronome.  

    Finally, we'd nail the piece at home.  She and I would high five, hug and go about our business.  Each Wednesday we'd show up at the lesson and I would go into a panic.  I'd stare at the keys and forget EVERYTHING that I knew.  My timing was off, I forgot notes, one tiny mis-step from Catherine meant a downward spiral for me as I could not get my act together.  I tried mindfulness, deep breaths, pulled out my best yogic tools and still faltered at just the audience of ONE.  It was disastrous.  The teacher half-jokingly suggested quaaludes, a pre-concert glass (or four) of wine or a visit to the local dispensary.  I was getting in my own way he gently stated.  Yes, I was yet any kind of mind-altering intervention would only cause further humiliation, I have many years of evidence to back that assertion up.

    On the big day, I went skiing.  At Paul's suggestion, I did not practice.  I did not obsess.  I distracted myself with fluffy snowflakes and schussing steep mountain sides.  I did insist that we show up to the recital early. I wanted to make sure I had played on the concert piano one time before the big moment.  I forced the family to wait outside in the cold until the doors were unlocked, we were in our recital best, not our ski gear.  When finally permitted entry, Catherine and I sped played the song as the music teachers set up the cider and cookies in the next room.  Then we quickly climbed into the audience in time for the rest of the students and their parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and grandparents to fill in the seats.

    When it was almost our turn, I felt my palms begin to sweat.  Are you kidding me? It's hard enough to play with dry hands let alone sopping wet and slippery ones.  I felt panic begin to creep in, and couldn't quiet it down.  I snuggled up next to Catherine, kissed her on the cheek, received her adorable smile and realized, in that moment, that for her, this duet was always about connection. Connection with me. Connection with music.  Time well spent together, mother and child.  A challenge that we had overcome together.  Learning together.  Persevering.  Shimmying day after day onto that tiny practice bench together.  Latched arms. Big smiles. Big laughs.  I had forgotten that we were doing this for FUN.

    The point of being here was not for me to be plucked out of middle-age obscurity and sent to Julliard.  

    This was deliberately called a piano PARTY for crying out loud, so that no one got too nervous or panicky about participating.  I had to remind myself that it was the Methodist church of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, not Carnegie Hall.  

    We climbed onto the stage, I stared out at the parents that I knew, neighbors, colleagues, friends. It's a small town.  I pretty much know everybody.  Catherine announced our song, we sat down, took a deep breath (or 5!), exchanged loving smiles and began to play.  We hit all the notes, we paid attention to our dynamics, we matched each other's tempo and we finished with a bang and a big sigh of relief.  Two minutes of anticipated torture turned into 37 seconds of playful transcendence.  Our playing was not something divined in the heavens, Sony records was not waiting in the wings, but in that moment of sweaty palmed panic in the front row, I realized that if the outcome I was going for was connection, then there was actually no way to eff that up.  Or better stated, the best way I could eff that up was for me to keep thinking that this was a singular experience about me needing to impress others. That thought was a very effective way to lose all connection with Catherine, with the music, with myself.  

    Here's the thing, this concert was not just about connection for me.  This is where I previously got all muddled up in my egoic state.  When I committed to taking piano lessons, I committed to getting in the game.  I had been on the sidelines of my own life for way too long, completing the grunt work of the grind rather than diving head first into what sounded like fun.  I was tired of carting my kids around to fantastic sounding activities that were made for kids only, I was tired of waiting in the lobby, watching through the glass, pining away for an existence for myself that didn't feel decidedly responsible or adult.  Printmaking classes, hip hop, bookmaking, ice skating, snowboarding, skate boarding, archery, you name it, my kids do it ALL.  And I support them through each and every step.  But lately, I've realized that my own soul had been dying a slow death for quite a few years.  I put myself on the bench long ago, living more vicariously and less directly most days.  And that kind of stage-mom trajectory isn't good for anybody.

    Spontanaeity for a lot of us looks more like binge watching a new show on netflix or boozing too much on the weekends at dinner parties.  I've been guilty of both, yet don't want either of those anymore (except maybe Empire.  OMG I looove watching Empire!).  What I do know is that I want music back in my life AND I want an adulthood do-over; one where I can just laugh at my silly self consciousness, flail around and just do it all anyway. 

    When I'm old and grey (or lightly dyed brown), no one is going to beg to sit next to me at dinner and hear my wild escapades where I watched Orange is the New Black for 6 hours straight.  No one will want to hear me regale them with stories of how I had grand plans and big ideas to make a dent in the universe; yet mostly just made a dent in the couch cushions.  

    So this recital was more than just the sport of humiliating myself in my small community,  It was about connecting with my actual 10-year old while forgiving my inner 10-year old. All the while letting my 42-year old get out and play for a change.  And that was my best piano "lesson" ever.


    PS What about you?  How are you resolving to be more playful in 2016?  Share with me in the comments, share with others IRL and let's all flail around and have some fun next year!