Thursday, May 28, 2009

Freudian Piano Envy

While I was spending some of this morning in session with Drs. Beckwith and Cramer, I came to some striking realizations.

My mother was an adorable child--bright, beautiful, talented, and she had (and still has) perfect pitch. Her mother was a piano teacher, who had every depression-era mother's dream of turning her talented daughter into someone like Shirley Temple. Taking dance lessons and playing the piano were part of the package, and the piano lessons didn't cost anything (in terms of money, that is). When my mother was eight she had a case of rheumatic fever, which left her with childhood rheumatoid arthritis, squelching my grandmother's original dreams. Because her arthritic hands could never be the hands of a pianist, my mother was given flute lessons, and she played the flute into her early 40s, until a hand operation made it impossible to continue. But she could still play the piano because of the lessons she had as a child.

My mother had good intentions. She didn't want to put me through the kind of childhood that she had, so I was not given piano lessons (and she, not wanting to replicate difficulties she had with her mother, certainly wouldn't teach me). My older brother went off to live with my grandmother for year or so, and he came home able to play the piano very well. My younger brother was given piano lessons all through elementary school and high school. But not me. I tried to teach myself, but was not equipped to do so. My father, being a musical genius, taught himself to play the piano. I guess that he didn't notice any kind of a problem with me teaching myself.

I went through a great deal of my life feeling a sense of inadequacy because I didn't learn to play the piano properly as a child. I have certainly forgiven my parents for whatever they didn't do; they were just doing the best that they could do at the time. But like all survivors of an imperfect childhood, I have had to do a lot of personal repair.

Today, as I was practicing my scales (even the ones with lots of sharps and flats), it occurred to me that there is much that we can do to make up for the things that we didn't get in childhood, especially if they are skills that are necessary for growth or development. I would like to feel confident playing the music that I write for the piano (at tempo). And as I become a better pianist, I hope to write better music for the instrument.

Believe me, the process of learning an instrument as an adult (and I have done it a few times already) is pretty much the same as learning an instrument as a child. It just takes more time and a lot of self discipline. When we have lessons as children, the discipline we require comes from the outside. When we learn as adults, our discipline has to come from the inside. Adults are more impatient than children, and we are more self-critical; but we actually progress at around the same pace. It just takes, like most things physical, a little bit longer. Those of us who have obligations to others (like having jobs and families) have to carve out time for ourselves. Responsible parents generally make time for their children to practice, and they often exert pressure on them, as well as reward them for their accomplishments. The only reward that adults get for practicing is the ability to play.

It has taken me a long time for me to realize that using the excuse of not having had lessons as a child for not learning to play an instrument, is kind of like not learning a language because you did not speak it as a child. Yes. It is more difficult to learn as an adult, but the process of learning simply for the sake of learning (and not with the depression-era mother's goal of stardom) is not only extremely satisfying, but therapeutic as well.

Dr. Freud would probably note that much of the music that I use is my brother's piano music. Oh where, I wonder, is that hard-bound urtext edition of both books of the Well-Tempered Clavier?

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