There were a lot of reasons why I took piano lessons from the ages of 5-13, none of them related to a personal desire. During the bulk of those years, I was much more concerned about being allowed to wear nail polish. Unlike acting, painting, guitar, dance, volleyball, orchestra, just to name a few, I didn’t ask for piano lessons. But because it was the first extracurricular I ever enrolled in, the one my parents invested in the most, it was the hardest to quit considering sunk costs. We must have spent hundred of hours and thousands of dollars spent on piano without blinking. It wasn’t really a choice–like 90% of the Chinese kids I know, I was shepherded to private weekly piano class, performed in seasonal recitals, and threatened with a bamboo cane. It wasn’t until after a particularly horrible performance that I put my foot down and quit lessons. Then I spent the next decade slowly letting go of all the scales and sonatinas that filled the greater part of a brain lobe–except for a few crowd pleasers that still come in handy once in a while.
The decision to enroll me in piano had nothing to do with passion, but considering the external motivations, was hard to argue against:
Simplicity. As long as you had a pulse, you could play piano, in theory. You didn’t need to train your lungs or develop callouses, and it was a safe, sedentary activity kids as young as three could start learning. Which was important because..
The possible prodigal child lived in the hopes of many of our parents. Starting us as early as possible would help uncover any possible musical genius. Everyone knew a family friend’s kid who won national competitions or played on Letterman, so it didn’t seem like an impossibility. And even if a kid sucks, bad piano is also much less grating than a bad string or wind instrument.
Status. The older generation was discouraged to learn music during the Cultural Revolutions, but in the new country art equalled sophistication. For the first few years, mom and I walked to my dad’s office to practice on an untuned piano someone had abandoned in the lobby. When we could afford a large enough apartment, my parents bought a used, cheap model for the living room. It wasn’t just an instrument–it took the roles of a decoration, a coffee table, a conversation piece and..
A place to converge. Until I was old enough to play at my classmates’ homes, socializing consisted of going to Chinese church, Chinese school, and Chinese homes. At least one piano was always present, and we were moths to a flame. After service or dinner, parents hunted down their kids and made them play.
“Everyone listen! Michael is going to play for us! Play that beautiful Beethoven song! Cut him some slack, he just learned it last weekend.”
Michael would then stumble through the intro of a song he’d barely practiced for a few hours–a song half us had already mastered months ago because they had the same piano teacher. Everyone except Michael’s parents would turn their backs, start discussing holiday plans.
“Okay, enough Michael! Play the waltz you’re really good at.”
The piano was a comforting place to gather. A discipline tool. An easy way to compare children. Of course, kids weren’t perfect. Many stumbled through songs. Most of them stopped playing in high school. But none that I know managed to thoroughly embarrass themselves and create the kind of disease I did at my worst and final recital.
All I had to do was play an old piece I’d known for months, appropriately titled the clown song. But some days, the music is in you, and other, it’s not. I had more days like the latter, and to be fair, I was also a lazy bastard.
I began the piece too softly, my fingers unaccustomed to the stiff, regal keys of the grand piano. It was a forgiving piece, but the clown in my song was definitely a little too loose, too lost. As soon as the fear of forgetting the rest of the song hit me, it fulfilled itself. All muscle memory of the second half the song slipped away, and I came to a full stop.
All I could do was start over and hope the song came back. This time, I played quickly, trying to turn off my brain and let instinct steer me to the end. But as I got to the second half, I froze again.
In all the recitals I’ve attended, I’ve never seen a teacher have to go on stage to remind a student of the next notes of a song, like mine did for me. Once she did, the rest came easy, I can say that I at least finished and ran back to my seat with a modicum of closure.
If only the story ended there, with awkward, half-assed claps from the audience. If only I wasn’t met at my seat by my best friend Kathy, who cracked up and triggered my uncontrollable laughter–the only thing I could do other than burst into tears. If only the laughter didn’t trigger the loud fart I made as the next student walked onstage. But I guess then none of it would’ve felt quite perfect.