Writing what YOU know.

Anyone willing to share memories of taking piano lessons as a kid? I’m writing a scene for two sisters, ages 15 and 10. They are both beginners. The older one won’t have the patience for practice, but the younger one will take to it and make progress more quickly.

My own experience of learning piano is too modern and adult and cerebral to translate into a 19th century child’s point of view. I know, for example, that I’m combining left brain analysis with right brain pattern recognition and motor memory. That understanding may go into the background of the scene, but it can’t be in the foreground.

So: if you had a very old-fashioned piano teacher, what were lessons like? Did you get smacked with a ruler if you hit a wrong note? Did she hold a piece of paper over your hands so you couldn’t look at the keyboard while playing? What kind of exercises did you do in the very beginning?

More importantly, what were your emotions about going to lessons, whether you hated them or loved them?  I need as much specificity as you can provide. Moments of frustration. Moments of epiphany. The piece that finally ripped your patience to shreds and made you quit. The one that made you catch your breath and think, Yes. I can do this…

If you send something I can use in the book, your name goes into the Author’s Note at the end. (Not much of a bribe, but it’ll have to do!) On the other hand, if you want anonymity, you can email me your story instead of adding it to the comments below.  Thanks in advance! –Mary

P.S. Molly Houston just sent a link to this Eddie Izzard routine about taking music lessons as a kid vs. learning as an adult. Warning for the sensitive: this video is rated L for strong language and MM for Male Mascara.

20 thoughts on “Writing what YOU know.

  1. I took violin lessons from the same teacher that my mother had when she was a little girl. I wanted to be perfect! My Dad would leave the house when I was practicing, and my violin’s finish was ruined near my chin because of the tears I cried in frustration! I played for 22 years.

  2. I remember a grade school piano recital where my older sister and I were supposed to play a duet. We practiced and practiced and all seemed to go well until the day of the recital. As we sat at the grand piano, my sister assertively began the piece . . . but my mind went blank. My sister stopped and smiled encouragingly at me, and she started again. Still, my mind was blank. Our dear piano teacher walked up onto the stage, said some kind words to both of us, tapped out the rhythm, and gave us the go-ahead to begin. Once more, I could not play. I know my sister was disgusted with me.

    I remember slinking off the stage, so ashamed of myself. I cowered backstage for the rest of the recital and refused to come out until all in the the audience had left. My father came backstage, looking for me behind the many black curtains where I was hiding. He took a sobbing little girl into his arms and consoled me with enough hugs and reassurance that I had the courage to go home.

    I doubt that my sister even remembers that recital, but I still recall the sense of faillure and embarrassment that filled me that day.

  3. I started taking piano lessons when I was five. I showed promise and they promoted me to a very professional teacher with whom I studied for 10 years. I had to practice 2-3 hours a day as I was growing up. In the evening I can remember my father in the kitchen cooking as I practiced. If I wasn’t playing well, he’d come out of the kitchen and yell at me something like “D major, Les, it’s a D”. Once I got so mad at him I hit the same key over and over until I broke the piano string. (As someone who still plays as an adult, it’s hard for me to imagine being strong enough to break a piano string just by hitting a note over and over again.)

    I always loved music, so I enjoyed the more romantic pieces I was assigned (I never got to choose the pieces I would play, and they only let me play classical music, no pop, no jazz, and CERTAINLY no improvisation–which haunts me to this day). I especially loved Chopin and Brahms. I would find myself playing certain pieces and seeing images that the pieces evoked playing out in my mind. I tried to share this with my piano teacher one day but she interrupted me and we moved on (guess I was a fairly chatty kid at that point….).

    Eventually I began to experience the “flow” of playing without having to work especially hard at the mechanics of getting the right notes. I could see the chords on the page and feel them in my fingers. Sometimes I’d find myself playing for long stretches without even thinking about the page in front of me, although I had been reading it the whole time. Those are the best musical times for me.

    Also, with respect to practicing, I’ve discovered a phenomenon that a lot of my musician friends have also experienced: you can sit down to practice something after having played it many many times and find that you are having a bad day and just can’t get it right. And conversely, you can sit down after not having been able to play a piece very well for a long long time, and suddenly you find that you are flying through it with precision and feeling and it’s all there inside you. You hit these good days and there’s no explanation as to where your heightened powers are coming from, they’re just there, you sound great. And then the next time you sit down, you’re back to how you sounded before.

    And finally, I also have an experience much like the lady above related, about sitting down to play a piece at a recital and forgetting it utterly. I was alone on stage and had to re-start and re-start and re-start, plunking around on the keyboard and not finding the right notes. In my memory I was finally able to find my keys and play the piece (not sure if this is really true or not), but I’ll never forget those moments of nakedness, alone on stage, failing in front of a crowd of onlookers. Now that I think about it, I quit taking lessons not long after that concert, changed my college plans from majoring in music to majoring in literature, and never took formal lessons or played another piano recital again. Wow.

    Today I have the always-out-of-tune baby grand that I used to practice on as a little girl sitting in my grown-up living room. I still love to play, although I don’t do it very often any more, and I have added a lot of non-classical music to my collection. But on the days when I’ve had a glass of wine and I get out my favorite Chopin Nocturne and begin feel the flow again, sometimes I can play for hours. And that’s the best.

  4. My strongest memory is being hungry for approval. I was constantly watching my teacher in my peripheral vision as I played to see her reaction. My heart would race with every compliment and nod and smile of encouragement. She was different than my parents, who were impatient and heavy handed and I quickly learned not to be scared to mess up. I remember the first time I didn’t practice during the week (I was forgetful until something became a habit) and I was terrified of getting in trouble. My heart raced as I tried to plink out the tune I was supposed to have learned and as I finished I think I literally scrunched my face up to steel myself for the berating I was going to get. My teacher, however, (her name was Renee, which I thought was the most beautiful name in the world) just asked if I had practiced. I squeaked out a meager ‘No.’ and she just patted my back and explained that I had all the power to learn piano, more than even she had to teach me. I was amazed. Me? Powerful? She explained that all the instruction in the world would not matter if I did not practice so it was my choice and she would never be angry for making that choice, whatever it would be.

    I remember her giving me something to play and bringing in the other instructors to see how quickly I learned. It was pure ecstasy, I am quite sure I was glowing. I’m also sure it was a very simple song and my lovely teacher was just trying to encourage me.

    As I progressed into more complicated songs, however, I became increasingly frustrated with the difference between my practice keyboard at home (a cheap, skinny keyed Yamaha synthesizer thing) and the real upright piano at the studio. I have very small hands even as an adult, as a 12 year old I had to sit on a phone book to properly reach the keys and the distance between notes I had to play seemed like miles. The real piano’s keys were also heavier and bigger and took a much bigger stretch to reach complicated chords. I could nearly master something at home but struggle to play it at my lessons. My teacher understood but my parents had no intention of purchasing a real piano so I just did my best, all the while feeling defeated. I was forever hitting two keys at once or missing a note when one of my fingers couldn’t reach where it needed to. While Renee insisted that I could work through it, that defeat conquered me and I just stopped giving it any real effort. My excuse was my small hands and lack of a real piano.

    For all the expectation I had of being an excellent musician, for all the daydreams and fantasies of playing a grand piano in a ball gown for a crowd of adoring fans I was frustrated to realize that the seven year old in the practice room next to mine could play much better than I. I was crushed when I found out she just had a practice keyboard as well! I was so embarrassed now that my biggest excuse had been blown away in the wind and I convinced myself that I just sucked and I wanted out. I decided I would rather try my hand at horseback riding.

    That was the end of that. I connected to the horses and loved and excelled at everything my riding teacher could throw at me.

    I haven’t touched a piano in almost twenty years.

  5. I knew I didn’t want to be there. I sensed my teacher was just as bored as I was. I wanted to be outside, or reading, or playing with my stuffed animals, or making more home-made cutout dolls. I sensed that my talents and interests lay elsewhere. I felt bad because my parents had paid for private lessons. And, oh, practice – avoid, avoid. I didn’t even like the sound of the piano – it sounded like all instruments and none to me, as a 9-year-old. Now that I’m grown up, I appreciate music – but for listening and dancing, not playing. I even like hearing the piano!

  6. Yes to the ruler – half time under and half over the top… but gentle (and back in 1967).

    The first proper exercise was to strengthen muscles for digits minimus, annulus and medius, and change the muscle biochem…. 345 in right, 543 in left, four times, starting on C, then up a note… for an octave and then reverse the other way. Years later, still had to do it for 4 octaves back and forward (along with Hanon “The Virtuoso Pianist” warm-ups to prevent injury – but that was when I was up to qualify-for-conservatorium standard – although i got into the med faculty).
    With your background, you might understand just how much that exercise hurt the forearms, particularly the extensors, the length of the entire muscle belly.

    Try it, simple exercise, no musical ability required… most non-players say “that’s easy”, then half an octave later “that’s starting to hurt” and pretty soon after have to stop.

  7. Thank you, everyone! I’m getting wonderful memoirs about lessons — many of them emailed, because I forgot to turn on COMMENTS, and also because some readers are more comfortable sharing things privately.

  8. Dave, I just looked up the Hanon exercises, and that’s a perfect reference. His book was published in 1870, so his method would have been available in 1877 when my character will be bored senseless by the exercises. Thanks!

  9. I took piano from Sister Waldemira in the mid-1950’s. Children’s angst had not been invented in those days, so I put up a good front. I did not practice unless my mother insisted, so, amazingly, I never progressed, despite several years’ investment in the process. Sr. W. was an older woman (I now realize that “sisters” were actually women) who was probably in one of Dante’s levels of Hell listening to the likes of me. She mostly slept through my lessons, which I preferred to her tapping on the piano as I picked out the notes. I’m sure she would have rather kept time on my head, but she was actually quite sweet. To brighten her day, as I walked to my lesson, I would fold my single dollar, (the fee for my half hour) in half, then fold each end down to fold in half again. In a perpendicular direction, I organ-folded the dollar, then spread my origami into a “W” for Waldemira. I never remember a reaction to my art, but perhaps this saved me from the reprimands I fully deserved. As a mother, for some reason I encouraged my children to take up instruments. My eldest chose the piano. His teacher, like mine, was a lovely older woman with infinite patience, and he responded with all the lack of diligence I had shown. However, after a few years of little progress, he caught fire in a simplified version of Beethoven’s “Fur Elise”. This spurred him to start practicing almost daily until everything started to fall into place. I was a little in awe as he mastered a few more simplified classical pieces. I finally asked him if he felt a part of the continuity of pianists who had made Beethoven and his peers immortal in their music. I don’t know if I have ever seen a stare with less recognition in all my years of parenting. Ah, well, he sounded good.

  10. Mary – glad the Hanon mention was useful – If you want to hear what the Hanon is like, (pretend you are a parent hearing it on-and-on-and-on), the exercises are published in abbreviated form (just the pattern you’d transcribe), but there is a recording on the bottom of each page you can play. eg, exercise 2 is at http://www.hanon-online.com/part-i/exercise-n-2/

    Also check out Czerny, a little earlier, although I never did any exercises he published (if he did), just etudes.

  11. You have a lot of really good thoughts already, but I have to ask, is there a sibling involved? Any kind of power struggle with the parents.

    I know a lot of my motivation as a child was keeping up with my older sister and also doing enough to keep my parents happy without bringing on bragging about my skill. It was a tightrope.

  12. Hah! Caty, I took lessons from Sr. Waldemira too. I wouldn’t say I remember her as being sweet, but she was definitely patient with me.

    I loved practicing but never got to be any good. By the time I would get to a lesson, my scales and pieces had no errors. Unfortunately, they never really sounded like music either.

  13. I grew up going along to my older sister’s piano lessons. She studied with the wife of one of the string players in the Cleveland Orchestra and I remember being extremely impressed with the building and the apartment where the lessons occurred. When it was time for me to get lessons my folks had found a fellow named Franklin Benjamin (!) who would come and teach us at home. Part of me knew we were coming down in the world. No longer the cultured dame in her nifty salon.
    I was gifted with a very good ear and found that I could play the pieces that Mr. Benjamin proposed for me because I had already committed them to memory from having heard my sister at work on them. My sight reading suffered but my teacher didn’t pick up on it. I believe that I enjoyed the lessons. I know I enjoyed the approval my folks would show me in this endeavor. And coming from a home where compliments were infrequent I continued way beyond the time when my real involvement with playing the piano required lessons. I had discovered improvisation and “playing by ear” as something to acknowledge as a gift. And had fallen in love with W.C. Handy and the blues.
    I have a tale of a recital. We were gathered in a rented space with a stage and it was a blustery day. It turned out that there was a tornado watch while we were all in the hall and when we emerged we heard about the destruction of Flint, Michigan by a big tornado that had jumped across the lake – missing us and hitting them. Poor Flint. If it isn’t one thing it is another.

  14. I was eight years old when I started piano lessons. I had one glaring issue – I was used to playing by ear and did that rather well. When the piano teacher tried to impose reading music and structure on me, along with Draconian finger placement, I rebelled.

    I got away with asking him to play a piece through so I could “hear how it sounds when it’s perfect” (flattery worked). He would play the piece, I would listen intently and then play it back with maybe a few errors.

    Eventually he busted me. When I refused to learn how to read music, etc. he quit!

  15. I got an upright piano as a surprise one Christmas when I was 11. I was dying to take piano lessons. This was the 50s – my teacher was a young Jewish woman (she told me she was a “Sabra” which meant nothing to me). She believed that all of her students were going to be famous and taught accordingly. I played the Hanon, along with the Bach inventions. Our form had to be perfect (ruler and all) and no slumping whatsoever. My fingers had to be curved exactly right or the ruler would come out. She would make me play a piece with her hand either under my fingers (curving them appropriately) or on top of my hands doing the same thing. She had a metronome which I considered to be a tool of the devil. She believed that all music after the 17th century was “of the devil” and useless in teaching piano.

    I also had to sit with my back to the piano and tell her what chord she was playing. Other than that – she had a grand piano in a trailer which I found weird. She insisted on recitals in front of parents. My memory of that was that I had to play a Diabelli march with another child and we were so scared that, as my father said afterwards, all those little soldiers would have been falling over themselves trying to keep up. We played it very fast just to get it over with (that metronome stuck in my brain even then).

  16. My sister and I took piano lessons from 2nd grade through high school. I was 3 years older and like your story, the poorer piano student. Our teachers were nuns since we went to parochial school. My sister would practice every night, while I would wait till the night before and cram in what I should have been practicing all week. In high school we had yearly spring recitals. We had to have our piece memorized, wear white gloves and bow before sitting down at the piano. Try taking off gloves when your hands are shaking! Sophomore year, my piano piece was O Sole Mio (one I liked being 100% Italian), so I go through the ritual of bowing, taking off my gloves and sitting down.

    Half way through the piece, my mind went blank and I played the first half all over again. People in the audience were waiting for the rest of it, but I got up, took my bow (totally embarassed) and left the stage. Afterward, my mother sensing my shame said, “well, Cookie, you were the only one that smiled when she took a bow”. That made me feel better, because even if I was a lousy pianist, I still had a good personality!!

    In senior year, I decided I had enough of piano recitals. So I went into my lesson, looked at my teacher, a nun who rarely smiled and announced that I was not going to be in the recital. She looked at me like I had just committed a mortal sin in her presence and said I would not get any credit for my 4 years of lessons and that would not look good on my college applications. So needless to say, I was in the recital. The only piece I still play is O Sole Mio and in case your wondering about my sister, she just bought a grand piano!

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