Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Rebuilding a Dream, Note by Note

“Let’s start at the very beginning,A very good place to start” - Maria in Sound of Music (“Do-Re-Mi” song)

It’s like I’m starting all over.

If you’ve been reading this blog for any time, you know I have a very special relationship with playing the piano. You know it got me into college. You probably know I abruptly walked away from playing during my second year in college, although I haven’t been terribly explicit as to why.

I guess it was a combination of things. I was starting to shut down, emotionally. Playing was my main emotional outlet, and to be graded and judged for my emotional outlet, to be required to practice 3-4 hours a day, and on top of that, to be required to accompany other musicians (something I abhorred) was all too much.

Me with my niece Leigha. I was home after my freshman year in college.
Worst of all, I was intimidated by other musicians who could sight read far better than I could. Sight reading was my greatest weakness as a pianist. It took me forever to learn a piece, but once I could comfortably get through the whole piece of music, I had it memorized.

That didn’t matter at school, though. The practice rooms at school were crammed in one wing. Two floors of tiny rooms with paper-thin walls, all with windows so you could see who sounded awesome and who sounded horrible.

No one sounded worse than I did when first learning a piece. I wish I were exaggerating, but in a small music school with only one area of thinly-walled rooms for practicing, you know what everyone sounds like, whether you want to or not.

Most people sounded at about halfway to performance level when they practiced. But I always sounded like I’d just learned how to read music that very day, until I had a piece “under my fingers”, at which point I had the thing memorized.

I hated anyone listening to me practice. It was something I hated about practicing when I was growing up, too. My mom and grandmother always loved listening to me practice, and I hated that. I wanted to be left alone, so I could fumble and struggle as much as I needed to, without anyone around to hear it.

And in college, I was surrounded by lots of sets of ears who were half-listening to others around them while practicing. It was so competitive that it overwhelmed me, and my need to play piano got lost in the shuffle of intense competition, pressure to sound perfect in practice, and the even greater pressure to sight read perfectly.

I quit. 

Cold turkey.

And I switched out of the music school (and then told my parents. I don't recommend that approach). 

I would say that I never looked back, but that would be a lie. I looked back plenty of times, wondering what really went wrong, why I failed as a music student, and why it seemed so impossible to sit down and play the piano.

The old 1900s piano I bought back in 2002.
I thought about playing on an almost daily basis. In the beginning, I had no piano, and that was my excuse.

But then I met a man and we ended up buying a house together and then getting married. Very soon after buying the house, I bought a piano.

It was a sad, run-down thing from the very early 1900s that needed a ton of work. It had all original parts, and that was a big part of the problem. The case needed to be completely refinished—the wood was so dry and cracked that no amount of lemon oil would help.

The strings needed to be replaced. The hammers needed to be replaced. The felts… and even some of the key action needed attention as well.

The only great thing about the piano was that even with the rough condition of the wood case, it still looked great. And, it had all original real ivory keys.

I was excited at first, but that excitement quickly dwindled when I got the piano tuned and the tuner said it wasn’t really going to sound any better once he was done with it, because of all this work it needed.

Each time I tried sitting down at that piano, all I saw was a giant to-do list, and all I heard was a sad box of keys in disrepair. The case looked good enough, but what was going on inside was a whole lot of discord.

(Yes, one might equate that to the life I was leading...)

I could never just sit and play. I could never just “be” with the keys. There was always a nagging inside. This instrument was begging me to take care of it. 

I played that piano only a handful of times from the time I bought it, in 2002, until March of this year, when I moved out of the house and into my apartment.

In talking with my best friend, it occurred to me that the piano was a giant to-do list, and that I craved simplification and authenticity in my life. I thought that a digital piano made more sense. Since I now live in an apartment, I could always put on headphones or turn the volume down so no one would hear me.

The only challenge was finding one that sounded close enough to a real piano and felt enough like playing a real piano that I would really love it… and really want to play.
I found myself researching digital pianos.

I narrowed the list down to several that sounded appealing, and off to Guitar Center I went.

I played every piano they had multiple times, across two visits. (I assure you, that's a lot of pianos.) I fell in love with one that hadn’t even been on my list before: the Yamaha Arius YDP181, or the piano now simply named Arius.

I was amazed at how much it felt like a real piano. The weighting on it is incredibly accurate.

But even more amazing was the sound. It sounded real and it felt real.

I knew this was the one.

I crunched the numbers and put it on layaway.

On Saturday, just a few days after my birthday, I went in to pick it up. I ended up getting 15% off the entire purchase, thanks to a coupon I had gotten in the mail. I asked the sales guy who had sold me the piano if he could help me get it to my apartment and up the one flight of stairs, and I’d give him some cash.  He obliged, and together, we lifted this human-sized box from my car and up the one flight of stairs.

The box weighed about 130 pounds, by the way.

The box stayed on the front porch, and I opened it up, and piece by piece, and hauled it inside, put it together, and plugged it in.

I identified a new fear, too.

I bought this thing (and it wasn’t really THAT cheap, either)… I hauled it upstairs, put it together, and it fits so perfectly in the space I’d left for it… but…

What if I never played it?

All day yesterday, I sat in my apartment, doing very little. I occasionally gazed across the room at the piano, wondering if I was ever going to really practice and try to learn some new pieces, relearn some old pieces, and get back some of the dexterity and technique I once had... or if I was just going to let it become a piece of unused furniture.

Well… I think I broke through that fear today.

My new Arius.
See... I live alone.

And finally, it occurred to me that no one ever has to hear me practice. No one but me will ever have to hear how bad I sound, how terrible my sight reading is, how my fingers fumble with the wrong keys and the wrong fingerings.

I do feel like I’m starting from scratch. I’m practically relearning how to read music, having to count up from notes I know on the page just to make sure I’m not playing an E when I should be playing a G… it’s bad, y’all. Really bad.

I dug out some old music that I’ve played a thousand times… and I dug out some new stuff that I’d had for years but had literally never opened, even to thumb through the pages.

I’m relearning scales and arpeggios, starting with the good old key of C. I’m quickly becoming friends with my metronome.

It really feels like I’m in some distant, far-away land where I used to be fluent in the language, even if I had to think about it a lot at first… and now I’m searching for any word I might remember.

But the wonderful part is that I know no one has to listen to it. Even I don’t have to listen to it, because I’m concentrating on finding the notes, not paying attention to how I sound.

I have never lived alone with a piano in the house. This is the first time, ever.

I am so glad… so glad to have this time to myself, to reacquaint myself with my old friend… on a brand new set of keys that will never have a giant and expensive to-do list associated with it.

I smiled so much while practicing, today. Amazed at how much I remember, and equally amazed at how much I have forgotten. I’d forgotten how to break down a piece so I can learn it, but after thinking about it for a while, I remembered. I remembered how to do a turn and a trill, without having to look at the notes. I have muscle memory and can place my hands on certain keys without looking at the keyboard, and yet, I can’t look at the bass clef and tell which line is for E and which line is for G (or is it one of the spaces?) without counting out, “Great Big Dogs Fight Alligators” for the lines (G-B-D-F-A) or “All Cars Eat Gas” for the spaces (A-C-E-G).

I truly am beginning again. Starting at the very beginning.

A very good place to start…


  1. *hugs* Congratulations. I hope this is nourishing for you.

  2. Way to go girl!!! I just sold my piano last week and feel a deep hole. You gave me hope that in time I too can find her electronic twin so I can play again. But deeper than that, that we play for the joy of our souls now, not money, not approval of an audience, or anything else. Simply for the joy of playing and what it does to our soul.

    Love you Linda Lee and your boldness, your humility, your search for that amazing woman once smothered by the expectations of our culture that you're determined to uncover and live in tact!

    Play away friend....play away!!!