“Catherine, why have we never heard you play the piano?”
Piano playing has always been a great hobby of mine. Sitting down to play is relaxing and challenging all at the same time. It oddly serves as a connection with my family too. However, playing the piano is not something that I easily share with others. And this is why …
I was in the 5th grade.
When I was 5 years old, I began learning how to play the piano from my grandmother. Grammie had a true gift; she could play by ear anything that you asked her to. That gene did not come my way, but I was a good student. 🙂
My grandparents started to spend more and more of the winter months in Florida. Their absence forced my mother to bring in a more formal piano teacher for my sisters and me.
Enter, Mrs. Waite.
Mrs. Waite was a prime example of the older woman piano teacher stereotype. Strict, straight and serious. She had this ability to see through you when you didn’t perform up to her standards, which always seemed to be beyond reachable. I don’t think I ever saw that woman smile, and whenever I played a wrong note, I half expected the ruler to come out to wrap me on the knuckles.
The year we worked with her was memorable. My mother dropped me off Wednesday afternoons for my 45-minute lesson. I marched up the walkway to the piano studio, situated behind Mrs. Waite’s sister’s house. It was cold and dark and lifeless. I dreaded it every week.
At the end of the year, the expectation was that all of her students would play in the recital at the old Annicchiarico Theater in Concord. Your best clothes were required, and you had to memorize two piano pieces and play them.
I was nervous about the memorization part. I had never done it, and Lord knows I was not born with my grandmother’s gift of playing by ear. I was always quite happy just to read the music off of the sheet. It was safe that way.
Nevertheless, I worked very hard and had those two pieces memorized like the back of my hand. It didn’t come easy, but I felt fairly confident going into the recital.
The day came. All of Mrs. Waite’s piano students were seated up in the front row, family and friends scattered behind. I was seated next to our teacher.
Program in hand, it was a matter of waiting for your turn. Everyone sounded so good; I was nervous. I could feel the butterflies in my stomach. An army of my family sat behind me; they knew I could do it. Did I?
Dressed in my blue Junior Deb dress and black patent leather shoes, I climbed the steps up on the stage. I took my place on the piano bench and got situated, placing my hands on the keys to begin to play Spanish Fiesta.
There I sat. For the life of me, I could not remember my piece. I remember deliberating a bit in my mind about skipping to the second piece to get me out of my jam. Reacting quickly, I re-oriented my fingers to play A Journey to the Arctic.
Nothing. The heat started rising out from the collar of my dress and up into my face. I must have been bright red under the lights of the stage. I was mortified. It felt like I was up there for an eternity before I rescued myself. A C-chord, and then I got up swiftly as the tears started to come. Quickly I descended back down the stage stairs and sat myself down in my seat next to my teacher.
Ice. Mrs. Waite didn’t say a word to me. Not a hug, not a pat on my leg, a sympathetic look or a kind word. There was nothing. It was terrible. I wanted to run back to my family in the audience and hide deep in their comfort. It was the longest end to a concert ever as I desperately tried to hold back the bulk of my tears.
Exit, Mrs. Waite.
After that recital, I never saw Mrs. Waite again. My mother terminated the lessons with her, and we found a young piano teacher who never made us play in front of an audience.
Since that day, the playing has been for me. I play for myself. I enjoy it immensely, and despite what a terrible experience it was, my love of playing the piano has never diminished.
Today, I have the privilege of owning two pianos. My grandmother’s and my great-grandmother’s. Both pianos I played on as a child. They are very special to me. That’s where the family connection comes from. Every time I sit down to play one of them, I think of my family — the women who came before me and played on the very same keys that I play on.
My friend’s question has made me think. Maybe it is time for me to start tackling my fear of playing for people. Most folks love to sit and listen. It’s a gift I should share.
Piano playing is an art that is getting lost. What used to be a popular hobby for kids and adults is becoming rarer. Pianos are big and bulky, extremely hard to move. And with an emphasis on kids playing sports and the pull of electronics, time is becoming obsolete to fit in all of the learning and practicing required to play it.
For me, I have always had a pull toward playing my piano. And play, I still do for myself. But slowly, with time, I am going to try to play for others.