The Girl Who Plays Piano

The story goes that there was an old beat-up piano in my kindergarten classroom at St. Mark Catholic Elementary School. Every minute of free play time that I got, I sat down on the rickety stool, my feet dangling above the floor, and practiced the simple songs some teacher at some point in the past had hand-written on foolscap using coloured dots that corresponded to the faded dots mapped out on small, curled-at-the-edges rectangles of masking tape on the loose and cracking ivory keys.

In Grade 1, I got permission to skip morning recess outside so that I could spend 15 minutes in the empty kindergarten room playing the same old songs (Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, Mary Had a Little Lamb, Frère Jacques…) and figuring out new ones on my own.

In Grade 2, my teacher called in my parents–who claimed they had no idea I could even play, let alone that I’d been at it for two years already–and suggested that they buy me a piano and sign me up for lessons.

I have only vague memories of being in my own little musical world seated at that old piano (although as I’m writing about it, I still stongly feel the thrill and the strangeness of being small and alone in a quiet, empty classroom, with no other students and no supervising teacher). And I don’t honestly know how much of the story has been exaggerated over the years, the way family anecdotes become family myths. But from that point on, “Jenny’s the girl who plays piano” became as much a defining part of my identity as “Jenny’s got brown hair” or “She’s the one with freckles.”

Other kids had sports…I had piano. I played a lot and I played well. I had weekly lessons through the school year and often took extra theory lessons in the summer. I practiced because I had to, and then I played because I wanted to.  I participated in talent shows and recitals. I passed my exams with honours. I competed in the annual Kiwanis festival. Eventually, I started writing my own songs, bought synthesizers and a digital piano and tried my hand at mixing and recording.

I stayed on with my piano teacher until the end of high school. By that point I had passed Grade 10 piano and was spending more time on popular music than classical, and was no longer training for exams. Since I didn’t want to study music at university and had no desire to teach piano myself, asking my parents to continue paying for lessons made no sense.

Without the structure of lessons and practicing, I played the piano less and less. Yes, I brought my synthesizers and digital piano with me when I moved away and I sometimes played for my roommates or just to relax. I still played Christmas carols for friends and neighbours at my parents’ annual Christmas Eve party on the sturdy old upright they’d gotten for me when I was 7. When my friends started getting married, of course I played at their weddings. And my first instict, when I received a life insurance payment when my mom died, was to purchase the baby grand I’d always dreamed of owning.

But somewhere along the way, the less I played, the more the part of me that identified with the piano changed too. I would no longer say, “I play piano” but “Sure, I can play piano.” It was no longer something I did; it was just something else I could do. But didn’t.

I’ve been weeding through my stacks of music books and sheet music this morning and feel like I’ve been visiting with someone–or someones–I used to know.

  • I remember a little girl excited to get her first crisp “Teaching Little Fingers How to Play” music book who was confused but enthralled to learn that music was a written language and not simply coloured dots on a keyboard.
  • I remember a child terrified to play her memorized piece in front of the whole school for the first time who, upon playing it flawlessly, becomes impatient for the next chance to play to an audience and applause.
  • I remember a teen smashing her fists on the keys in frustration after hours of struggling to master Bach and then getting right back to it, determined that in the end she’d be able to play it effortlessly.
  • I remember a grown woman crying and saying good-bye when her childhood home was sold, and her dear old upright along with it.

And my fingers remember too; better, even, than my brain.

Beethoven. Liszt. Debussy. Chopin. And yes, the dreaded Bach. I played them all this morning, struggling at first, intimidated by the jumble of notes on the pages that I couldn’t believe I ever knew how to play and thought I couldn’t possibly still pull off.

But the minute my brain shut off, my hands took over and I made my way through. Not flawlessly. Not effortlessly. But I played.

I’m no longer “the girl who plays piano.” She’s just one of many someones I’ve been but will never be again.

But I can play.

And I think I will.

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Lured Back to the Dark Tower

Do you reread books?

I think I reread more as a child…My beloved Bobbsey Twins books that lined my bookshelves. The Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace, which I checked out of our tiny local library every chance I could get. Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang, which I could probably recite for you word-for-word, here and now. The poetry of Shel Silverstein and Dennis Lee. My all-time favourite, Mandy (by Julie Andrews Edwards). And absolutely anything with Anne (yes, of Green Gables).

But as an adult, I often feel that with so many new books and authors to discover (and very limited time in which to discover them), I don’t want to “waste” my time rereading something I’ve read before.

There are exceptions of course…

  • I first read Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent following a miscarriage and was comforted by its particularly female essense. Years later, as a mother, I was pulled back to it by the maternal comfort it offered. I’m sure it’s a story I’ll want to reread again in the future, as I see it as always having something thoughtful or wise to say about women and the bonds they share throughout life.
  • Every once in a while I feel like I was born in the wrong century. No one but Jane can fill that void, and my mangled, dog-eared copies of Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma are a testament to how many times over the years they’ve help me escape the modern world.
  • While hubby would most vehemently disagree, I think Life of Pi was a brilliant novel and it holds my record as being the only book I’ve ever finished and immediately reread from start to finish.
  • When I mistakenly bought MaddAddam, thinking it was the second book of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian trilogy, I set it aside without reading it and forgot about it. When I finally got around to purchasing the actual second book, The Year of the Flood, too many years had passed since I had read the first book, Oryx and Crake, for me to fully remember the storyline, so I started the series over again. THEN, when I realized that the plots of the first two books take place in parallel, I read The Year of the Flood with Oryx and Crake open beside it for reference.By the time I finally got to MaddAddam, I had read Oryx and Crake three times and The Year of the Flood twice. And I’d read all three again in a heartbeat.

But a trilogy is nothing compared to what I’m rereading right now: Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series.

I started the series around the time the second book came out; it was 1987 and I was a tender 17. (The original The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger had been released in 1982 and although I was already a dedicated fan of King’s early novels in my teens, somehow I had never gotten around to this one.)

I then continued reading the series as the books were released: in 1991, 1997, 2003 and finally the last two in 2004 (from my teens through my 20s and into my 30s), but thanks to King’s arguments and afterwords, I always felt I was coming back to a familiar story and was never compelled to reread any of the installments.

That is until I came to the last line of that last, seventh book. At which point I had tears in my eyes and goosebumps all over my body and vowed that some day, with this new, earth-shattering knowledge in mind, I would reread them all.

Of course in September 2004 when I read that last line I was also dealing with my one-year-old son and soon to be pregnant with my daughter. The ensuing decade didn’t leave much time for reading anything, let alone REreading thousands of pages I’d already read.

But now (finally!) the books are becoming a movie! What better reason to revisit Roland and his ka-tet and relive their quest for the Dark Tower?

The minute I found out, I pulled out my dust-covered tomes and started rereading. At this point, I’m halfway through the fourth book, and since starting the series over, I have discovered there is an additional Dark Tower book, The Dark Tower IV S: The Wind Through the Keyhole. (Considering this one was released in April 2012, the same month that my then six-year-old daughter was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, I’m not surprised it slipped my notice). Although officially the eighth book of the series, plot-wise it takes place between books IV and V (as a story within a story within a story), so that’s where I plan to read it (Note to hubby: my birthday is in less than a month and it’s on my wish list!)

What books have you reread and why? Which ones have you always wanted to reread but haven’t (and why not?)?

And now I’m off to reread a few thousand more pages…