As it turns out, studying music in middle age is a lot easier than when you're a child. No one expects anything other than that you will be dreadful. No one wants to show you off in recitals. It is very liberating, this. I found a great and patient teacher, and I practice every day, even though I don't have to. And lo and behold, I'm good at the piano! Let me rephrase that: I'm much less dreadful than anyone expected. To my surprise, I love music theory. I even enjoy scales. And playing the piano is the most wonderful form of meditation. While my teacher has accused me of thinking that the metronome has no function other than to swat flies, I'm thrilled that I'm actually good enough to butcher Chopin and Debussy, however much my playing brings to mind large animals being dragged to slaughter.
The most comforting thing is that no one's going to flunk me. For those of us who have spent our entire lives plagued with a fear of failure, there's nothing so refreshing as stumbling upon a pursuit in which absolutely nothing is at stake. Don't get me wrong—I think personal best is a fine idea. But in the relentlessly competitive world most of us inhabit, I think there's a very similar redemption in taking time to chart one's personal worst.
Recently my teacher taped a little American flag to the metronome, to "give that waving arm a sense of purpose." He was trying to get me to pay more attention to meter, but I apparently charged through that Beethoven rondo on my own internal funky-chicken time. When I finished he said, "You know, I feel great sympathy for your mother."
"Yes, and particularly when you were a teenager."
My playing inspired this?
"Well, you are the most persistent human being I have ever met, and I suspect this trait was at its peak during your adolescence." He held forth about how sheer determination has brought me a long way, but that I needed to loosen up in the elbows and wrists so as to feel the music rather than approach it like the New York Times crossword puzzle. He's like that. A great teacher, but a little tart. He meant it as a compliment; he really did. Not at all like the time he compared my playing to Napoleon's troops marching through the Russian winter.
I told my mother what he'd said about my adolescence, and she just laughed and laughed and laughed. And then she laughed some more, which I thought a bit beyond what was necessary for a woman of her dignified years. Anyway, I'm getting myself together in other ways, too, if through the back door. I drink green tea because it goes so well with D minor. I've signed up for a yoga class because it might help with that chopping-wood thing I do when my shoulders tense up. I've taken to lifting a few small weights, just enough to give me stamina for all those scales.
And a friend invited me to run a 5K race next weekend, which is actually kind of tempting since it takes a lot of aerobic ability to be able to hold my breath when I try trills. Who knows? Maybe I'll run that marathon sooner than I thought: After all, my ultimate goal is to set Rachmaninoff a-spinning in his grave.
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