Sweet Notes

My mother liked to tell the story about five-year-old me at my first recital. I wore a shiny gold dress that someone had passed down to me after serving as a flower girl. Between my sissy socks, shiny black patent leather shoes and dimples, I was an adorable little lady, sauntering down for my turn at the piano. Until I reached the bench. Instead of gracefully sliding in from the side, I straddled it before swinging my other leg high and over.

This story sums up my instrumental career. On the surface, I seemed to have a certain amount of musical ability, but I couldn’t quite get up and over to doing well. To be fair, I seemed to have an allergy to practicing. Perched on our piano bench at home, I would wiggle and squirm, yank a hand from the keyboard to scratch an itch or wipe my nose, and whine. My mother was determined. She quizzed me with note flash cards and punctuated my playing with the tick of a metronome when her constant cry of “Count!” didn’t do the trick.

We took lessons at school during our lunch hour. At the end of every year our teacher, Mrs. K, held an awards assembly. My older sister won a piano pin for being best. I thought the only category I had a prayer of winning was “most improved.” In second grade, if I had made any progress, it was certainly more than in the past. I listened while all the awards were given and held my breath.

“And the award for most improved goes to – “

And she said my kindergarten brother’s name.

My eight-year-old heart sank. Even a five-year-old was better than me.

My nonmusical father was determined he would give all four of his kids a musical education. The four years of piano were nonnegotiable. After that we would choose a second instrument. My sister stuck with woodwinds, my brother with brass. My youngest brother wanted the drums. I think his plan was to be so annoying they’d let him quit. In the end, he got his way. I chose the violin. Finally, I had a chance to do something no one else in my family could do.

Mr. A, my longtime teacher, was a professional violinist who gave lessons on the side. Endlessly kind, he’d prompt and remind and demonstrate, and I did improve. When I hit a sour note, I wrinkled my nose. In a rare moment of impatience, he said, “I know you can hear it. Why don’t you play it?”

I quit violin for a six-week group guitar class my junior year. It was a lot of fun and I didn’t mind practicing. But with college looming, I was struck with an inexplicable urge to try out for my university’s general orchestra. Senior year I went back to Mr. A. The next August, I restarted the audition piece three times. They didn’t cut me, but I was the last chair. In retrospect, I realized they let anyone in this group, unlike the symphony which was by audition only. A month in, I quit. No one discouraged me.

Fast forward fifteen years. On a visit home with my kids, I told my mom about taking out my violin for the first time in ages. My baby daughter looked at me with adoration. Her three-year-old sister cried when I wouldn’t let her try it and the dog howled along. Mom and I laughed together.

“I looked through my old music,” I said. “I can’t believe I used to play that. I don’t remember being any good.”

My mother raised her eyebrows. “Of course you were good. Don’t you remember?”

I didn’t. I still don’t. She might have been biased. But the evidence of some quality is there in the music I played.

But here is what I’m left with. I have a friend who likes music and theatre as much as I do. We are each other’s culture buddy. Sometimes we go to student and faculty concerts at a nearby university. I marvel at the brass and woodwinds and picture my brother’s trombone and my sister’s flute. We go to see Time for Three and I admire the bow and fingering, hear the technique, recognize the harmonics. We attend an occasional symphony concert and I am immersed in the rich layers of sound.

Almost forty years later, all I’m left with is the love.

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