Whenever my mother talks about my piano lessons she has one story she likes to tell over and over again. I've heard it at least two dozen times at this point and it has never changed (unlike the majority of her stories). In her mind it is a story of how much I dreamed of being a pianist before I could even read, to me it is a story of how much I wanted to be exactly like my sisters, I guess you can decide:
(Apparently) when I was three years old I used to watch with mouth agape and eyes wide whenever my sisters would practice piano. I would listen them struggle through their first scales and work through elementary lesson books like it was Rachmaninoff's prelude in c# minor. Then, whenever the piano was free I would run into the study and "compose" contemporary experimental sounding pieces. Soon I was (apparently) begging my mom on a regular basis to please please please sign me up for piano lessons. All I wanted were lesson books of my own. She would then tell me that I was too young for lessons. I wasn't allowed to take piano lessons until I could read. Well then can I learn to read? would be my next question. Once you are four years old. (This next part is her favorite). I became so obsessed with these answers that on the morning of my fourth birthday I ran into my parents' room before anyone was awake, shook my mom and asked "Now that I'm four can I learn to read so I can play the piano??"
Well of course I finally learned to read and soon I was on my way once a week with my two sisters to our routine piano lessons. I had my own books and a little journal with my assignments written in it. Dream come true! Over the next 8 years or so I developed a love-hate relationship with this giant instrument. I hardly practiced, hated metronomes and yet I still managed to pull off those stupid gold cup awards. Starting in eighth grade I started going to Piano camp at the University of Illinois and I switched to a new piano teacher: Jean Vitale. After that point I never looked back.
I still didn't practice much and metronomes are an acquired taste but I honestly loved playing the piano. I loved analyzing pieces and getting into arguments with my teacher about how things should be played, down to the tiniest trill. I loved learning anything loud or fast or beautiful. I just loved all the possibilities that could come out of this big wooden box with metal inside.
I would say this relationship climaxed my senior year of high school. This is the year that I earned my fourth and final gold cup, played a senior recital and had hour long discussions with Jean Vitale about life, Gershwin and the possibility of being a music major. She thought that the way I looked at music and pieces was absolutely perfect for teaching, and that if I didn't pursue this it would be a waste. Despite my better judgment, this argument almost swayed me. I even went as far as playing a couple of college auditions at small schools before I realized I could never make this passion a living. It would ruin piano for me and I valued success and power too much to settle for being a pretty good pianist that played odd jobs and taught lessons. Truth is, I was good but not good enough to be a concert pianist, and anything less than that would be a disappointment in my mind. I ended up settling on a math degree at a big school hoping to keep piano as a healthy hobby.
A couple of months ago Jean Vitale died. She was very old and had very fast acting cancer. At this point I hadn't seen her or really thought about her in months but it still hit me pretty hard. When I really thought about it I realized that she was the person I had been the closest to to ever die in my life. She was eccentric and harsh, but she was a mentor. I had valued her opinion above most and had spent hours sitting on her piano bench discussing composers and high school and car accidents. When I went to her visitation I was greeted by her daughter who pulled me aside to tell me just how much I had meant to her mother. Jean had talked about me all the time and I had really had an affect on her by the time I graduated. I had no idea what to say. I just nodded, mumbled a thanks and walked away. In the background music was playing an upon further concentration I realized it was a recording of her former students at recitals. Eventually a recording of me playing Grieg's prelude in e minor, second movement (the one she told me would never be concert ready because I never practiced and the begrudgingly agreed to let me perform). The weirdest part of this was that no one else had any idea that I was the person on the recording. I was standing there at this visitation, listening to myself play the piece this dead woman had taught me and everyone else just thought it was background music. This is when death became real to me.
Nowadays I play piano a couple times a week. First I try things from memory and realize I can't remember anything past the first page. Then I take out the music and slowly work through the runs and chords I used to have in muscle memory. I still get joy from this but I wish I played more. I rarely think about Jean Vitale but when I do I wonder whether I made the right choice with my major. Then I remember that the world isn't run by sensitive bullshit. But I suppose my one hope is that that never ceases to disappoint me.