Monday, March 17, 2008

HC: My New Obsession

Okay, I admit it: I'm an obsessive human being. Luckily, my obsessions run to the nondangerous. I don't smoke or take drugs, or overdo alcohol. My new obsession is black and white and shiny. It's not overly intellectual; it only knows the alphabet up to G, but it's (one of) the coolest things ever invented. It is my piano.

I've lived with this piano for over 18 years. It was part of my husband's trousseau. He's played since he was 5. Both of my children took lessons and my daughter still does. She and my husband play really well, and I sort of figured we don't need another piano player in the house but...

I read a lot about Alzheimer's disease. I don't want it. One of the best ways to fend off AD is to exercise your brain by learning new things. So, after living with "the big black thing in the corner of the room" that I loved to listen to but didn't understand at all, I started taking lessons.

And I love it.

It helps tremendously that my teacher, Carole, is a great friend. She's been coming to my house for years now, to teach the kids. I usually sit and listen to the lesson, and I’ve heard Carole say "no" maybe once, I think. She all about the positive, about the love of learning, about learning to love the piano, and music. I don't think Carole understands the meaning of the word "strict." She's warm, embracing, inviting, encouraging, all good words blended together.

While I adore music, I've never been great playing it. I've toyed with harmonica, violin, recorder, and flute. I abused my love of music and innate sense of what the next notes probably were, so I could play things without actually learning what each those little black dots on those lines were. Not any more. I am learning the notes. I find it really hard and confusing, and that's good because the pain of learning means my brain is getting exercise.

It's SO confusing to me that an "A" for your right hand is a "C" for your left. I sometimes imagine the notes from the treble clef going into my eyes, through my brain and down my right arm to my right hand fingers while at the same time the notes from the bass clef are going into my eyes, through my brain and down my left arm to my left fingers! No wonder it hurts! But it's really interesting and exciting to become friends with the piano. I can even play two baby songs by heart, so I can show off on someone else's piano.

Carole, the wonderful piano teacher, is also my friend and spiritual advisor. She feels, and I’ve come to agree with her, that whatever is going on in your life is mirrored by how you play piano, and vice versa. She says it all much more eloquently than I can but, in essence, it works out to...the same way you can work through difficult parts of a piano piece, that’s the same way you work out problems in life. Go through the hard parts slowly, with love, without judging yourself. Understand that there are days when you won’t play well, but it’s still worthwhile to sit at the piano and try. I wish I could word things the way she does. It all comes down to letting go, enjoying the process, and being nice to yourself.

I was in a horrible mood the other day, and it was threatening to be a long, drawn out dip into depression. I didn’t feel like talking, watching a movie, doing anything. So I sat down at the piano and practiced the pieces I want to know by heart, and just practiced practiced practiced. I did this for about half an hour and when I stopped, I felt better. I had worked at something, which feels good, I had played the songs I enjoyed, and it makes me happy just to hear them, and just the physical act of pounding (gently) on something got out some of my tension.

Did I mention it’s just fun! I have a book of broadway show tunes, simplified. I can almost play Castle on a Cloud from Les Miserables, and Whistle a Happy Tune from The King and I. I’m not booked at Carnegie Hall yet, but I’m learning more every time I sit on the bench. The notes are less foreign, and I spend a little less time thinking “Every Good Boy Does Fine” and “All Cows Eat Grass.” Little by little, it gets clearer and clearer.

Taking an instrument as a grown up has its pluses and minuses. The minuses are obvious: learning when you’re older is just harder. Sometimes my hands feel arthritic and achy from playing. Sometimes if my hands feel tired and achy, the playing helps me feel better. I never know which will happen. The biggest plus is, I’m a grown up and have chosen to learn the piano. My mother doesn’t have to force me to practice. I practice because I enjoy it and want to get better at it.

With Carole’s guidance, and the help of the two piano players in my house who are always available to answer questions, my piano and I are destined for a long and happy life together.

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