Practice Makes Perfect

This is dedicated to all those who sweated out music lessons, to the hours spent practicing while contemporaries ran free in the good spring air, to the lunches lost in anticipation of recitals; recitals which merited more practice than they actually got. We had been convinced, somewhere along the line that, if we applied ourselves, we could actually become the next Cliburn, or Horowitz, or any of a number musicians appreciated by the many who packed concert halls to see them perform. We were the lost and those of who still play an instrument on occasion usually do so out of the hearing of others.

I cannot speak for others, but I wanted to learn to play for a number of reasons. First of all, I love music, good music, the kind written by virtuosos; Mozart, Beethoven, Bach to mention but three. The problem comes when the aspiring student realizes that loving the music does not always translate into being able to play it. Mozart can sound deceptively simple when listening to it until one realizes the complexity of what is actually going on with the music. Mozart liked to take a theme and then rework it, weaving it through a work in major and minor chords. This can confuse the novice musician who can get lost in continually changing key signatures and tempos. We can play twinkle, twinkle, little star until Mozart gets hold of it, and then a simple one-handed melody turns into a keyboard involving sonata. Notes cover the page and our eyes cross.

Still we persevere and still we play in recitals (losing our lunch in the bargain), even though we realize that of the students appearing that day, we are the worst of the lot. We were never first on the program, a place reserved for the talented, but usually were at the end, even to being the last student to play. If you were the last, you could pretty much figure your standing in the eyes of the teacher. The theory being, of course, that the teacher knows you are going to be bad and so hides you until the end when parents and friends, now numb from the entire experience, will not notice just how bad you are and will overlook the terrified expression on your face because they know you are last and so the recital endurance contest is coming to an end. The fact of your playing is not important, the fact that you are the last is.

Children, who are incapable of life-changing decisions, often are tricked into music lessons by parents who somehow are convinced that the experience will be good for them. In rare instances, mine for example, the child is naive enough to ask if he or she can take lessons; a request that initiates a chain reaction of events. What instrument to play, how much will it cost, finding a teacher, how much will it cost, practice time, how much will it cost. I had wanted to learn to play piano but our house was really not well adapted for a piano and that part of the request was quickly shoved aside. But since I had already started the process in motion, the small matter of not having a place for a piano was quickly turned to a search for something else (would that we could have had electronic keyboards in those pre-transistor days). Why not an accordion? Yes, that’s the ticket, an accordion. After all, it has a keyboard. Why it practically is a piano, just portable that’s all. Despite the fact that none of the greats ever composed for the accordion, I agreed. Thus committed, there was no turning back.

I learned to play and some said I was good. They were, I think, being kind, sort of like people are kind to children who ride the short bus. The fact is, I could play, I just had no real talent. When I finally learned to play the piano as an adult, the same realization came to me once more. No matter how long I studied or how much money I poured into lessons, I would never be anything more that a journeyman player. Chico Marx, for example, played the piano with such facility that it looked like child’s play, anyone could do it. Not true, and I can appreciate the hours of practice it took on his part to make the difficult look so easy. When you watch a concert pianist, you see someone working hard and finishing exhausted. Chico just laughed as he played pieces nearly as intricate. Someone once deprecatingly explained to me that a concert pianist was a musician while Chico was just an entertainer. Perhaps, but he was a master of his craft.

Stopping music lessons as an adult is easy. You don’t have to ask permission, you just do it. It is a different matter as a child. Parents are resistant to the notion that you won’t be a virtuoso player some day. They have made the investment and paid good money for an instrument and lessons, after all, and you are not allowed to just stop until they finally understand what you have known all along. You have no talent. Permission to stop is rather grudgingly given. “You can stop, but don’t ever ask to do anything like this again.”

There is an exception in all of this, I also learned to play the trombone and, for a time was good at it. A journeyman, true, but a good journeyman. Playing in the school’s marching band and the concert orchestra was fun and as a group we were good, to the point of winning several competitions, both marching and concert. Unfortunately, we changed bandmasters in my junior year and the new bandmaster would not allow me the anonymity of playing in a large group. He wanted all of his band members, percussion section excepted, to compete in solo events. Trapped, I was forced into one competition for which I earned an honorable mention. I played flat, it seems. With the prospect of future competitions ahead of me, I did not return to the band for my senior year.

I have not played the trombone in almost 50 years and the accordion has been neglected for almost as long. The trombone has been given to someone with dreams of his own and the accordion sits neglected in a quiet part of the basement. The piano beckons to me on occasion and I still enjoy some quiet time with it of an evening. Sitting down at the keyboard, I occasionally still envision a large concert hall, the audience stretching away into the darkness, hushed in expectation. As the last cough is silenced, I begin to play. I am magnificent.