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.