I began taking piano lessons when I was six years old. My teacher, Ms. Lombardo, was a large, lumbering Italian woman who favored flesh colored stretch pants, and whenever she leaned over to turn the page of my sheet music, she exuded that spicy scent that clings to your sweater when you go out for fondue. Ms. Lombardo could play the piano, guitar, organ, and accordion with equal expertise, and her teaching methods were meticulous. She wouldn’t teach me a new set of songs until I’d gotten all the details right on the first set—not just the notes, but the pedal work and the beat; my staccatos had to be sharp, my ritardando had to be rich with emotion, and my fortissimo had to be played with such force that the tips of my fingers ached when the song was over.
But even though I sometimes found Ms. Lombardo’s teaching methods tedious, I loved to play the piano. I loved perfecting each song I learned. I loved the way my dog, Woody, would come clicking into the room whenever I began to play and lie across my feet, so I couldn’t use the pedals. I loved the pride after competitions when my dad put his arm around me and said that all the kids knew how to play the thing, but I was the only one who knew how to make it sing. I loved hearing my mom absently humming the songs I was practicing that week while she cooked dinner. But most of all I loved the way I felt when I played a song well—there was nothing to think about but where to move my fingers, and when it was going really well, I didn’t even have to think about that—everything happened automatically, and the only awareness I had was the satisfaction of creating something beautiful.
Every year, Ms. Lombardo entered her students in the Illinois Music Association competition, which entailed endless months of perfecting and memorizing one song. At the competitions, everyone came away with something—a trophy for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place, or a ribbon. The ribbons, too, had categories: superior, excellent, very good, and good. In eleven years of competition, I never saw anyone get any award below a superior, no matter how badly they butchered their song. My brother used to say, “How bad can you possibly be to receive a ‘good’ award? Do you have to bang your head on the keys and take a bow?” The award system was musical grade inflation, which rendered the superior ribbons utterly meaningless. It was for this reason that I practiced so hard for those competitions. Why spend all that time practicing if all I was going to get for it was a synthetic blue piece of toilet paper?
And my efforts paid off: I got a trophy every year except one—the last year I ever competed. I was seventeen and had moved into the most advanced competition level. I’d never been so nervous in my life, and as I waited for my turn, flanked on either side by stoic kids in lambskin gloves, my heart pounded wildly and sweat accumulated beneath my armpits. When my number was called, I began my piece, a Beethoven, which was presciently titled, “Farewell to the Piano.” But my fingers didn’t move automatically this time; I had to think about every note, and five measures into the song, my mind went blank. My hands hovered over the keys for one horrifying moment while I willed the music to come back to me, but it didn’t. I had to stop, walk over to the judges’ table, look at my music, and start all over again. I struggled through the song, fighting back tears, and when the prizes were handed out and I got my superior award, my dad put his arm around me and said, “Well, I still think you made it sing!”
This last competition proved to me something that I had already suspected. The reason why I won the trophy every year was not because I was better than everyone else, but because I tried harder. All I had to do was watch Bruce Springsteen, my musical hero, on TV and see the way he didn’t so much play the piano as party with it, producing sound with his whole body, eyes closed, fingers moving intuitively, and suddenly all my practicing and my metronome ticking and my “Stairway to Heaven” sheet music seemed ridiculous. To me, there was something so pathetic about being good at something only because you tried hard. I would never be a real musician, I realized, because all the effort in the world couldn’t mask a lack of natural talent.
When I left for college, I gave up the piano completely. It was like ending a relationship with a guy who you know is no good: I missed it terribly, but I told myself that it was all for the best, and after a while, I moved on. I fell in love with other hobbies: writing, for instance. John Irving novels. Dollar drink nights at my favorite campus bar. And eventually, I reached a point where I could walk past a piano, or watch someone playing one, without wanting to cry.
My self-exile lasted for twelve years.
It was only broken last Christmas, when my dad, after an inspired trip to Best Buy, gave me an electric keyboard. He assembled it in a corner of my apartment where it remained, untouched, for two months. And then, in early February, Chicago was blanketed with one of its worst blizzards in history. The city shut down for two days before the streets were cleared, and I was marooned at home. Boredom, more than anything else, is what made me wander over to the keyboard.
My hands hadn’t touched piano keys in over a decade. For unnaturals like me, playing music isn’t like riding a bike: I took one look at “Farewell to the Piano,” its measures crammed with complicated runs and Italian phrases whose meanings I had forgotten—andante, sempre legato, molto retinuto, and my musical aspirations became much simpler than they had once been: all I wanted was to play as well as I had when I was seventeen. Perfection, at this point, was impossible. In fact, my perfectionism was what had held me hostage for all those years. I had abandoned something I loved simply because I couldn’t be okay with just being pretty good at it. And the result was I was so rusty I could barely play “Chopsticks.” What was so terrible, I asked myself, about not being a virtuoso?
What if I started playing the piano for the simple reason that it made me happy?
So I shelved all my old competition music and downloaded the work of my more modern heroes of the piano: Bruce, Jackson Browne, The Pretenders. Elton John and Coldplay. And I sat down and began to relearn my instrument.
I wish I could say that in the end, I regained my prowess. But I still cringe sometimes when I hear myself play: Is this really the best you can do? I ask myself. You, who have been playing since you were six years old?
And yet, when I sit at my little keyboard and plunk out a sloppy version of “Running on Empty”, singing along loudly and off-key, I feel like a dusted-off old champ, back in the ring after a long retirement. Sure, I’m not as quick or agile as I used to be, but there’s something I haven’t lost, something, in fact, that I have gained by losing. I ignore the missed notes, the uneven rhythm, the labored key changes. I play my heart out to the empty walls.
About the author…
Jessie Ann Morrison is an MFA candidate in fiction writing at Columbia College Chicago and a high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Chicago Reader, McSweeney’s, Word Riot, The Copperfield Review, and Columbia Storyweek Reader. I wrote a blog last year, “MFA Confidential,” for Writer’s Digest. I look forward to hearing from you.