Monday, April 11, 2011


I've played the piano since I was eight years old. My teacher during most of the time I took lessons was a woman named Ruth Sweeney, and I adored her. She was (in my memory) tall and beautiful with perfect bone structure and creamy skin and strawberry blond hair, and she let me simply love playing. I played a little classical before she and I both realized that wasn't my forte and never would be, and she introduced me then to ragtime. That was my "fun" music. She also taught me how to be a better sight reader--how to play a piece through without stopping, even if I made mistakes. Just keep going. And then start all over again. And keep going all over again. Sight reading helped me immensely when I decided I wanted to be an accompanist for the school's show choirs and musicals. I was in my comfort zone behind the piano, and although there was much about high school I didn't love, I did love playing the piano.

Mrs. Sweeney moved out of state when I was sixteen, and I started lessons with a new teacher, fresh out of college. Rather than being enthusiastic, as a new teacher should be, she already seemed old and tired and beaten down by life. She had an entirely different approach, wanting me to focus more on classical music and on memorizing my pieces and on perfecting my pieces. Piano stopped being fun for me: I didn't like practicing or playing or recitals or receiving numbered scores for how well I did at competitions. How do you get a 97 for playing Schubert? How do you play a piece almost perfectly but not quite, not 100%, just 97%? How do you do anything in life outside of a math test or a multiple-choice exam and get a 97? It just seemed wrong to me: being graded on how well I did something that I only wanted to do because I enjoyed doing it--or used to enjoy doing it.

So I quit. But I didn't quit playing. I still played for school, still played for church choir, still played for myself. Even today, sitting at the piano and banging out (gently banging out, that is) my frustrations is therapy. I have a couple of Chopin pieces that hit the right emotion for me at times. But Ragtime is still my go-to music: Scott Joplin, Joseph Lamb, Tom Turpin. I like the syncopated rhythm, the freedom to hit a note off the beat rather than on it. I like that it's supposed to be "ragged"--a little imperfect, a little like jotting down the notes you hear in your head while watching someone who just wants to shout or dance or spin around without knowing the notes ahead of time. I love that people played ragtime for years before bothering to put it down on paper. You didn't read it or try to get it perfect. You just played until it felt perfect.

Most of Joplin's rags are in four movements, and the third is always the hardest. But he was kind enough to give us two shots to get the feel of each movement, as they all repeat once. The first time I sit down to play after being away from the piano for too long, I tend to stumble a little through each movement, and then something clicks as I repeat. I don't  perfect the piece, but I get it "righter."

And "righter" is enough for me, because that's where life is enjoyed: in doing what you want to do for the thrill of it all and not for the 97% score.


Ron said...

Nice post - deserving of a 97, at least.

Brooke said...

Actually, I'd be happy to do ANYTHING at 97%.