Detours and Tangents

Side trips off the straight and narrow

My Crooked Path Toward Perfection

Studying piano as an adult has taught me about myself.

It is my lot in life to be plagued by insecurity, but I also have a stubborn streak. When I get a wild idea to pursue a goal in which the odds are against me, my stubborn streak kicks in and propels me forward.

In my first few weeks of journalism school, a professor informed me that I should drop out because I was too shy and I would never make it in that intensely competitive, take-no-prisoners field. Instead of heeding his unsolicited advice, I silently vowed to complete the program and become a journalist, if only to prove him wrong.

Some years later, when I was living in Honolulu and gainfully employed as a (ta-dah!) magazine journalist, I confessed to a colleague that I wanted to learn to play piano. My colleague, whose daughter was studying piano with great success, shook his head. Learning piano was a young person’s game, he said, and adults who tried to master the instrument inevitably failed. Once again the “Oh yeah?” part of me sat up straight and said silently, “I’ll show you!”

I began my studies with a dear friend who was a jazz pianist and had trained at Julliard and the Manhattan School of Music. He encouraged my quest, saying, “You will be 40 whether you can play piano or not.” But he was so musically brilliant that I couldn’t comprehend his teaching methods, and I stopped in frustration after just a handful of lessons.

My luck changed when I attended a party and learned that the elderly woman playing the piano was the host’s piano teacher. Dora Peterson, a Michigan native, had taught music in Honolulu elementary schools for decades and in retirement continued to teach piano to children and adults. She was 89 when she agreed to take me on, and on Saturday afternoons for the next three years we worked together to mine the narrow seam of musical knowledge I had acquired during two reluctant years of studying piano as a child.

To my surprise, we discovered that I had retained some of the basics: the names of the notes in the bass and treble clefs, the corresponding keys on the piano, and where and how to place my fingers on the keys. Dora was consistently and cheerfully encouraging. During one lesson, as I was ever-so-hesitantly playing a rudimentary piece of music for the first or second time, she said, “Susan, you read so accurately!” I protested that I might be accurate, but I was so slow that the music was barely recognizable. But Dora, who always sat just behind my right shoulder to guide and correct me, assured me that with practice I would inevitably improve.

When my mother became ill and I left Hawaii for Pennsylvania to help care for her, I took with me everything I had learned during my time with Dora, several books of piano music and the Yamaha Clavinova I had invested in after my first year of lessons. In a birthday call to Dora the year I moved, I told her that I thought of her every time I sat down at the piano. “Look around!” she replied in her serenely cheerful way. “I’ll be right there. I’ll be there looking over your shoulder.”

My new life in Pennsylvania didn’t leave time for piano lessons, but I vowed to compensate by playing every night before I went to bed. I also set goals: to become better at reading music and to learn a collection of the songs I loved—the standards from the Great American Songbook.

I started with a few favorites—"God Bless the Child" and "Skylark." Gradually I added others, including "It Might As Well Be Spring," "Thanks for the Memory" and "My Funny Valentine." Some days I brought my music to my mother’s nursing home and played for her in one of the lounges. My mother loved this music, too; these were the songs of her youth and she knew most of the lyrics by heart. Sitting in her wheelchair near the piano, she would sometimes softly hum or sing along as I played, in a clear soprano voice that had not yet been marred by her Parkinson’s disease. She had been deeply disappointed when I abandoned the piano as a child, so I would occasionally say to her, “See, Mom? Those piano lessons you gave me are finally paying off!”

As the years passed, I continued to practice diligently and add standards to my repertoire. For an hour, half an hour or sometimes just 15 minutes a night, the pressures of my high-stress job and my worries about my mother’s declining health disappeared behind the notes on the pages of my music books and the melodies I heard through the headphones plugged into my Clavinova. George and Ira Gershwin, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, Duke Ellington, Johnny Mercer and a host of less well-known composers and lyricists were my guides to a magical, timeless land of "Polka Dots and Moonbeams," "Stormy Weather" and "Someone to Watch Over Me."

In spite of my dedication, there were limits to what I thought I could accomplish musically. Playing in front of anyone but my mother and a few close friends never seemed like a realistic goal. I might have a stubborn streak, but it was no match for my stage fright, which caused my hands to shake uncontrollably and my fingers to hit sour notes. Even playing for my mother took courage, but I persisted because I wanted to lift her spirits and music seemed to help.

The discovery that I might someday be able to expand my audience came about more or less by accident. One of the odd benefits of my stressful job was that some colleagues had put together a band that played for office parties. As we planned a retirement bash for a co-worker, I surprised myself by suggesting to the keyboard player that maybe I could play a few standards at the beginning of the party, before it was officially under way.

He thought that was a fine idea, which is how I found myself standing at a keyboard in a corner of our office conference room one summer afternoon, plinking out hits from the 1940s as the party guests wandered in and stood in groups by the buffet table, talking quietly to each other. The realization that, while they could hear me, no one was listening closely affected me like a sedative: I calmed down, started playing with more confidence and discovered that I really enjoyed playing background music. By the end of my second tune, I was hooked.

One day, as I walked through the lobby of a local hospital after a doctor’s appointment, I heard the notes of a piano and saw, off in a corner, a beautiful black baby grand with an optional player-piano function. Although no one was sitting at the keyboard, the piano was “playing” clearly enough to be heard everywhere in the lobby. As I moved closer to listen more intently and watch the keys move up and down as if struck by ghostly fingers, I thought, “I can play better than that!”

I got my chance to make good on my boast a few years later, after my mother had passed away and I had decided to trade my stressful job for the life of an independent writer. I learned that only hospital volunteers could play the piano in the lobby, so I gamely applied—a process that included a state police background check, two letters of reference and attendance at a volunteer orientation. To my surprise, there were no questions about my musical background and no audition—a huge plus for someone with my level of anxiety about playing when anyone was listening closely.

In the summer of 2012, I made my debut at the Yamaha in the lobby (with, I should explain, the player-piano option turned off). Since then I have logged 250 volunteer hours, accrued via two-hour shifts each day I play. Because the piano is in the corner, I play with my back to the room and I can’t see who is listening; that keeps my stage fright in check. In addition, I know that, because I am in a hospital lobby, nearly everyone there has something important on their mind and my music is at best a brief subconscious distraction.

I would be lying if I said this gig was a piece of cake from the get-go. In my first weeks, I was so nervous that my hands shook on all but my most well-rehearsed tunes—and sometimes even on those. Even after I managed to control my nerves, I found I could not quiet the malevolent voice in my head telling me that every third person who walked by the piano was an expert pianist and they were all secretly laughing at my obvious lack of talent.

Some days this voice was so clear, insistent and mocking that I asked my therapist if I might be psychotic. She reassured me that I was not, and she gave me some sound advice: Talk back to the voice (silently, of course) and tell it to pipe down. Amazingly, this worked—although even now, nearly two years later, the voice sometimes catches me off guard and renews its disconcerting monologue.

On most days, however, I can quell my anxiety, and I am no longer quite so inwardly incredulous when people stop to tell me they enjoyed my music. The comment I most often receive is that my music is soothing, which reassures me because my official volunteer title is Music Therapy Aide. And last week I reached another musical milestone I would not have thought possible when I began my studies with Dora: I played at the hospital’s annual luncheon for the volunteers.

In some ways this gig was no different from my afternoons in the lobby. My assignment was to play background music as the guests registered and made their way to the tables. They would be greeting each other and talking; on the musical continuum, my piano stylings could be considered one small step above Muzak.

But there were some key differences from my lobby gig, all of which had the power to trigger my anxiety and set off that negative, judgmental inner voice. The event was held in an elegant country club ballroom and more than 200 people were expected—a far larger audience than I had ever had. In addition, I would be playing a piano I had never seen, let alone played, before.

When I arrived in the ballroom the morning of the luncheon, I saw to my dismay that I would not be playing in a inconspicuous corner of the room, as I had hoped. Instead, a huge black grand piano sat squarely in the middle of the polished wood dance floor in the front of the ballroom. It was so large that it looked like a battleship stranded in a woodland pond. And for the person playing it, the insidious voice in my head cleared its throat to whisper, there would be absolutely no place to hide.

This time, however, I was prepared to outsmart that voice. First, I had deliberately arrived 15 minutes early so I would not be flustered when I sat down to play. Second, I had made a set list of 21 foolproof tunes I could play without hesitation or stumbling, even under adverse conditions. Third, although I was taken aback when I entered the ballroom and saw the piano, I heard a new, carefree inner voice pipe up and proclaim breezily, “This will be fun!”

I walked to the piano, opened the front lid and set up the music stand. As I dusted the keys with a cloth I kept in my music bag, I saw numerous smudges on the ebony finish, leading me to suspect that this piano had not been cared for, let alone played, in quite some time. My fear began to ebb, replaced by a kind of sympathy for this neglected behemoth. I propped my set list on the music stand, sat down on the bench and opened my music book. I took a deep breath and it occurred to me to breathe out a small prayer—somewhere between “Rescue me!” and “Give me strength.”

As the staff from the volunteer office moved around the ballroom putting the finishing touches on the table decorations, I started playing. The familiar "God Bless the Child" was first on my set list, followed by "Misty" and "My Ship." In spite of my advance preparations, my hands shook a little in the beginning, but I was soon able to bring them under control, and the negative voice in my head remained as silent as a sleeping baby. I worked through my set list, pausing for only a few seconds between tunes, as had been my plan. "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" was up next; after that, I launched into "A Sunday Kind of Love" and "Willow Weep for Me."

Guests began to file into the ballroom; as one crossed the dance floor to reach her table, she called out, “Thank you for playing for us!” As more guests took their seats, the notes coming from the piano began to sound muffled, and I realized to my dismay that I should have raised the piano’s main lid before I started. But I was not about to stop and do so then—especially because, amateur that I was, I had never raised a grand piano lid before. What if I secured it improperly and it came crashing down as I played? That would be far worse than muffled notes, I reasoned. Let it go.

"Cry Me a River." "I Can’t Get Started With You." "Mood Indigo." I played on and on and, almost before I knew it, it was nearly 11:25—the time I was scheduled to stop. I cut out a section of "Stormy Weather" to bring it to a close at precisely the right moment—and then the volunteer coordinator ask me to play one more tune. I chose "I Got It Bad," and I tried to play with special intensity, so as to go out with the traditional show business Big Finish.

When I stopped playing, collected my music and took my seat at a table, the volunteer coordinator thanked me from the microphone and there was a brief, enthusiastic round of applause. I was slightly mortified, but not nearly as much as if I had been disappointed in my performance. Because the truth is that I was proud of myself—a state of affairs that, given my chronic insecurity and the lifelong presence of that nay-saying voice in my head, rarely occurs. To be perfectly honest, I thought my playing was as smooth as silk.

Even a post-luncheon call to a musician friend who told me that I should indeed have raised the piano lid before I started playing did not dampen my enthusiasm. I'll know that on the next gig, I told myself, and on that gig I will learn something I can use on the gig after that. I wasn’t perfect, by any stretch, but I was much better than I would have been two years ago. Two years from now, I hope to be much better than I was last week.

Practice makes perfect, we are told as children. But as adults we may come to realize that, for most of us, perfection will always be just out of reach. Instead, it is the patient, persistent, sometimes plodding journey toward perfection—pursued by our demons and doggedly climbing over the boulders we place in our own way—that counts the most.

Copyright © 2014 By Susan Hooper

Photograph of Piano Keys By Johnny Magnusson (2005)

Painting: Woman at the Piano By Poul Friis Nybo (1929)

Yamaha Piano Photograph By SamFa (2013)

Magnusson and Friis images are via Wikimedia Commons and are in the public domain. 

SamFa image is via Wikimedia Commons under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Susan Hooper, a freelance writer, is a former newspaper reporter and government press secretary.

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