Just last week, during prayers at bedtime, my youngest son thanked God that piano lessons were over for the summer. I’m not sure when it became law for upright pianos to be stationed in every household, to break the backs of the fathers who move them there and to break the minds of children who, coming home daily from school, find not freedom but piano lessons, but it’s a law I resent even as I continue to abide by it. In one corner we, too, have a breaking-down piano like a hulking mushroom.
I took piano lessons from third to sixth grade—until I broke my arm, thank God—and honestly never played one song that had life or actual music in it. For me, the piano was a parallel art: it was an art that ran parallel to my life and never once broke into my own playing. One night, after I tearfully struggled through my lesson, going through the motions, I got out our old typewriter and began happily copying encyclopedia entries. First, I did “Temperate Forest” followed by “Desert.” Climate descriptions, animal lists, whatever. I plunked them out and felt every one of the clicks and thunks, felt the energy transferred from my fingers to the simple levers of the keys that punished the paper with staccato precision, marking it with elegant letter after elegant letter. That rhythmic mechanical process clicked off something in my brain. I loved it.
Dad was a musician, or rather a musician turned farmer, with short muscular fingers at least a key-and-a-half wide from milking cows for forty years. The night of the plunking typewriter, he scolded me sharply for my miserable attempt at the piano while I could type out meaningless stuff easily enough. He was right. There was certainly no music to the words, nothing like he could do on the old upright. He’d modeled what music might sound like, playing from memory an old ditty in which his hands jumped from the keys with life and verve, his thick torso swaying back and forth, a conduit of emotion and energy even if he didn’t hit all the right notes. In a man of his size, it was something to behold.
As I sit this morning and wonder what it is I’m doing at this keyboard, I can’t conjure as much emotion as he did for those little ditties. It wouldn’t be safe. Or sustainable. And yet it’s exactly what I want in a way—to grasp and hold lightning for a minute like he did, for meaning to flow through the conduit of my body and out these ten tangled fingers.
So I get up morning after morning, sit before the keyboard, and bend myself to the lessons, waiting for lightning to strike.