When I was about 7 years old, I asked my parents for a piano and piano lessons. It was a bold request; we had just moved from our house in Pittsburgh’s North Hills to a newly constructed colonial on the outskirts of Greensburg, Pennsylvania, placed lovingly by my parents at the foot of the hill leading up to my paternal grandparents’ home. We had visited the house through all phases of construction, peering over the muddy pit that would become our basement as it was excavated, to playing tag in the spindly wooden uprights which would define our bedrooms and bathrooms.
I don’t know where I got the idea for piano lessons from. I had heard my mother play Clare de Lune when we visited her parents’ home in Wilkes-Barre, PA, and I remember being surprised that someone as capable and strong and sensible was also so expressive, so lyrical, so sad. She lost herself in the keys, and the sound of her playing filled their house with a melancholia that was tangible. I don’t know why I remember it as sad, because I think she was actually happiest then in those early years of motherhood, but my auditory memory is one that stills me to a sadness. Mom wasn’t the only one to play that piano; my Uncle Lou could bang out happier music, which underscored our sing-alongs. My cousin, Doug, too, had a propensity for playing that was astonishing. He really was adept. Perhaps I was jealous of his skills. Who knows.
Anyway, for whatever reason, my precocious seven-year-old self got it into her noggin that she was going to be a virtuoso pianist and when we moved into the finished Greensburg house, one Christmas morning, there, in the linoleum-floored family room adjacent to the kitchen and laundry, was a dark, upright piano. I was enthralled, and spent hours playing the piano, and learning the songs that my piano teacher, Mrs. Gardner taught me. She lived in a house in the center of Greensburg, right across the street from a a friend of my father’s from Yale. It happened that Dad was a squash player with this friend, Joe, and Joe had recently constructed a squash court behind his house, right down the street from Mrs. Gardner’s house. So while I was being taught by Mrs. Gardner, Dad was working up a sweat across the street. Sweet deal for both of us. Every Saturday morning we went to our separate labors.
The inside of Mrs. Gardner’s home was dark; her concert piano ebon, it’s black and white keys angled so that as I sat on the bench, my back was to the window on the front of the house facing the street. She was really old. Remember, this was my 7-year-old perspective, so she was probably my age now, or maybe even younger. But she had been a concert pianist, so I was told, and now, her hands were gnarled with the arthritis which had forced her career to a close. Her training was strict and rigorous. I was a little terrified of her and her methodology. She told me that my fingers should also be tightly clenched, the fingers functioning as little independent hammers to strike the keys during the endless scales that she gave me to practice. She wrote the fingering with a stubby pencil above the notes, afterwards, laying the pencil to rest on the music stand of the piano. And she used little gold stars to reward me if I came and performed the scales or the simple pieces well. Oh, how I lusted after those gold stars, or the little piano stickers. They incentivized me to a ridiculous extent. Sometimes when I would sit on the bench of the piano at home, having been cajoled there by my patient mother folding laundry to my left at the machines, and I would think about those little gold stickers and the pleasure of Mrs. Gardner’s approval. It took so little then to make me reach for a goal. My parents did a good job teaching me how to strive to better myself.
Today I have a piano in my living room, adorned with pictures of my family and friends, my new granddaughter held lovingly by my son and his beautiful partner. I haven’t played the piano for weeks, and before that, for almost a year. There are no gold stars in the books in the piano bench. There is a copy of Clare de Lune, which I occasionally struggle over; it’s more about making contact with my mother, who has gone on to the great piano concert hall in the sky, than my piano practice.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other goals that I’m reaching for. You may have followed my current physical challenge of 56 yoga or spin classes in 57 days as a 56th birthday present to myself. It hasn’t been a solitary journey. I have had lots of support along the way, and lots of gold stars from my instructors at #YASDTLA.
Special thanks this morning to Mike Nobrega for giving me the gold star I needed to cross into the final 5 days of my challenge. I’m offering you a free ride and yoga class any morning next week at 5:30AM Monday-Friday to start your own challenge, or help me finish mine!