When my mother-in-law died several years ago, it was decided we would be the proud recipients of her piano. Recognizing the futility of protest — none of us played, it’s not exactly inexpensive to move a piano halfway across the country, never mind that I had no space for the darn thing — I accepted the gift graciously. Some things you do in the name of family peace. And then later claim it as wisdom.
For a while both kids messed around with it, banging on the keys and trying to drown each other out with simultaneously awful versions of chopsticks. My son quickly lost interest. But my daughter, then in 5th grade, began to spend more and more time picking out simple tunes, trying to make real music. So we signed her up for piano lessons.
I decided before she even started that I was never going to tell her she had to practice. If she wanted to do it, fine. If not, end of story.
She had an amazing teacher, a man who had once been a concert pianist with a major symphony and who simply expected the best without demanding it. And it turned out she had a true gift for playing the piano [see above re: wisdom]. Not to mention a determination to get it right that was truly awe-inspiring. There were times I practically begged her to STOP ALREADY because she’d played the same section of notes over and over and over again for an hour and a half and showed no signs of relenting.
Yet she kept at it. She loved it. And she got to the point where she could play an entire song without making a mistake. Yes, it was a simple song, but still. A triumph that sounded a lot like, um, The Star Spangled Banner. And then came the classics. Longer songs with more complicated sections requiring more repetition and even more endless hours of the same notes played over and over and over . . .
You have no idea how much you can grow to despise a song until you’ve heard the individual notes of it played badly and repeatedly for hours on end. This went on for years. YEARS, I tell you. But it made her happy.
When she was learning Variations on the Kanon by Pachalbel, she had George Winston’s sheet music of the piece and she’d take my CD “December” and put it in the CD player so she could play along with him. It was painful. All these years later, I still know Every Single Note of that song. And then came the day she played it all the way through, without stopping, matching him note for gorgeous note. It was so beautiful, so emotionally evocative, I almost wept. Okay fine, damnit, I stood in the next room and cried like a baby.
More songs followed, including Debussy’s Reverie and Clair de Lune. (The linked video of Clair de Lune has fascinating graphics.) And yes, I know Every Single Note of those songs as well. She now plays them beautifully. But this was accomplished only by her putting in hours upon endless hours of hard work and tedious repetition and hitting all the wrong notes on the way to getting them right. Each new song was like starting all over again. She’d take the first dozen notes or so and play those until they shimmered with perfection. Then she’d move on to the next section. And she kept on in that fashion until she had mastered the entire piece.
The point of all this rambling is that somewhere along the way, I realized learning to write is very similar endeavour. You start by determining whether you have a basic aptitude and liking for it. Then, if you’re lucky, you take lessons from a master. You learn to perform simple short pieces. Then you tackle the more complicated stuff, practicing the same few sections over and over and over until everyone around you wants to scream, “Just play a song, already!” But you’re not content performing a simple tune. So you wait, biding your time, continuing to practice each stanza repeatedly, paying attention to the nuances of every note and listening intently to how they all fit together to form a whole. Because you know you are creating a masterpiece.
And you know that once you’re ready, once you can hit each note clearly so it resonates with confidence and passion, people will stand in their kitchen, holding a forgotten spoon dripping spaghetti sauce onto the floor, tears of joy streaming down their face at the sheer beauty of your music.
So I’m practicing. Frustrated and despising my efforts yet enduring the tedium because I recognize its necessity. Writing and writing and re-writing . . . until repetition becomes proficiency and perhaps turns into artistry and I can hit Every Single Note. Clearly and with passion.
Be patient. Mastery takes time. One day soon, you will listen to my song and weep.
With any luck, they won’t be tears of bitter disappointment.