After quitting piano at age eleven, I was determined never to return to it. My experience of playing had consisted of tears, procrastination, brief pleasures, stormings-off, unnecessarily long stretches of time where I thought I was professionally excellent, more tears, and Mom telling me "That's great!" after an unspectacular performance so over-earnestly that I continued with my dreaded lessons. I was always a bit cocky with my teacher, who had no strict upper-hand, and I found different ways to use up the mandatory forty-five minutes that dogged me every week - joking, poking the keys while she was talking, continued conversations about the portraits of fruit on the walls of her house, etc. It's a miracle I ever managed to play anything at all, but I was at just the sort of age where I could pull something off even if I hadn't practiced it at all, and my parents continued to praise me. At one point Mom was so convinced of my talent that I was sent to the prestigious Blair School of Music downtown, where I took lessons under the iron-faced Ms. Middleton. Ms. Middleton did such things as use a metronome, have me call her by her last name, and lecture me to tears when I didn't practice. Mom worshipped her. Unable to push anyone around anymore, I promptly quit piano.
Our old piano was useless for many years, and the few times that a friend would come over and bang on the lower octaves for the hell of it, it was clear that it had grown to be earsplittingly out of tune (although perhaps the earsplitting quality was the work of the friends and not the piano). I was happy to play in my school band and forget my harrowing experience with the piano, but after a while I did itch to fiddle with the pieces I'd learned now and again. I ploinked out familiar songs, however out of tune, even spent five minutes or so with old sheet music trying to remaster what I had forgotten. In the end, I had four or five solid pieces that I played whenever I was waiting for the microwave to beep, or before I left for school in the morning. I drove my family to madness playing them over and over again. There were still the pieces that I couldn't remember from my lessons, and the pieces I had never quite finished - among these, "Martha My Dear," in which practically every note was a chord. It was Mom's favorite Beatles song. She would sigh in delight every time I attempted to play the intro, which was mostly why I gave up on ever trying it.
And then the coronavirus drove me and the rest of my family into quarantine, and my parents and sister were positively dead with the number of times I played "Tarantella," "Alouette," and "Linus and Lucy" over and over on the badly tuned piano. I was bored then and had no real hobby - I had even been driven to such ills as John Green novels and multiplayer Minecraft. My mother read an article in The New York Times about how teenagers should set different kinds of goals for the summer - a competency goal, a gratitude goal, an empathy goal. As with everything she read in The New York Times, she took it very seriously and followed its instructions, speaking to me about different goals I could set. I agreed to a competency goal because I could see that I had no choice, and though I was vague about plans for a "gratitude goal" my inner incredulity was so great it was hard not to burst out laughing at the thought.
Mom suggested becoming competent in piano again, probably more for her own interest than mine, because hearing me play anything other than "Tarantella," "Alouette," and "Linus and Lucy" would be a mind-numbing relief for every member of the family. That was fine - I wanted to play "Martha My Dear," because I had always liked that song, and if I could please Mom enough by playing it she might drop the notion of a "gratitude goal."
I procrastinated a while, because doing hard things is anything if not easy to avoid, but eventually I plucked up the nerve and dug the sheet music from the piano bench. I sat down and tried to play.
The notes were good and easy at first, and then they were difficult, and I overstayed my welcome on the easy notes so that they dragged and the careful rhythm ceased. Dad dropped by and told me it "sounded good," and I responded, furiously, that it didn't, and playing now reminded me why I was never good at piano in the first place. I could keep no rhythm! The bass clef was ridiculous - like someone had tried to write in the treble clef while intoxicated; who could ever discern it? The instrument itself was designed to watch me fail! I thought of a million angry comments, even after he had left. Playing seemed impossible now.
It took me another day to try again. I played the right hand part over and over, and then the left hand part over and over, as one is supposed to do to learn piano music. The trouble was playing them together. With gritted teeth, I attempted to juxtapose the right and left parts - one, two, three, four times, and they still did not fit. The notes at last slid together on the fifth attempt. Upon finally playing the part correctly, I did what any good pianist ought to: sat on the floor, cried my heart out at how hard it had been, screamed in agony at the thought of having to do it again. Another day passed.
The next day I could play it perfectly. I marveled at my luck. I suppose it's just my age, I reckoned narcissistically, as I sat with a smirk on my face and my fingers curled performatively over the piano keys. I self-assuredly started to play the next part, but it was not so easy as the first had been. I developed a certain corner of the floor that was dedicated to angst-crying.
I mastered the page that same day, after an hour or more of practicing. My self-satisfied smirk was gone. I felt positively leaden with exhaustion. I slid through my day with puffed purple eyes, lying on the sofa and avoiding my chores.
Every day I traipsed back to the piano. The piece was a mess at first. Every phrase was hesitated, dynamics nonexistent. Incorrect chords sloshed around in the mess pile of bass lines and melodies. Correcting it was like taking a pair of tweezers and attempting to clean out the sea of muck.
I finished the piece in May, every note perfect. I was so proud of myself. I had even avoided the "gratitude goal."
I played "Martha My Dear" every day with "Tarantella" and "Linus and Lucy" and "Alouette," and my family drove their heads into the walls.
Inspired by "The Unexpected Solace in Learning to Play Piano" by Christoph Niemann, which I read in The New York Times Magazine. If you have access to it, I highly recommend - it's hilarious and lovely and will make you laugh tears if you've ever been a piano player.