Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Spring recitals, then and now


When I took piano lessons as a kid, recitals were a big deal. Memorized piece, new dress, public auditorium or church endowed with a good piano. The city arts center where my first teacher held her recitals contrasted with the dark and smelly living room where she gave lessons. My highly-organized second teacher's home was immaculate; she held her recitals at a Methodist church. I remember planning the dresses (my mother often sewed them for me), being coached on how to bow and how to sit, the nervous stomach knots. The recital itself usually went well, though my last was a disaster. Even though I loved my music, even though I'd practiced conscientiously. The day it counted, it was one miserable mistake after another.

But I don't think that's why I stopped taking lessons. It might have been senior year, a natural end point. Maybe I just wanted to do something else. That final recital was planned as my little swan song from the get go. And while I remember messing up, and I remember the dread and the nerves before every performance, I don't remember recitals in general as an awful thing. It was fun to perform, to struggle and work and then to do something well. It was part of the deal. I don't think it occurred to me (or to my parents) that recital-free music lessons might be an option.

A couple of years ago, I started taking guitar lessons from the woman who teaches my daughter recorder. I'd been thinking about guitar lessons for years, but I had been waiting to accomplish a sufficient (if undefined) portion of my long-range to-do list, to have "enough time" to devote to a new activity. Then I decided I probably had as much time as I was ever going to have. And I was (still am) spending a good bit of that time getting my kids to and from recorder lessons, drum lessons, theater camp, choir practice, martial arts eastern and western. Why not develop a little of the latent potential my parents had spent so much time and money fostering during their own schlep shifts?

Besides, I already had the guitar. I've had it since we lived in Ecuador when I was twelve. I wanted to play like my dad. Far out at the end of the bus line, in a suburb of the city closest to our little town, my parents found a craftsman who made guitars. I remember going to watch him work on it; I probably remember the smell of sawdust in his workshop. But then I never learned to play. A few self-teaching attempts, a lot of good intentions, but we returned to the U.S. and I returned to piano. And then I went to college and graduate school and work and stopped taking music lessons at all. The guitar moved around with me but rarely left its case. Until I decided I'd put it off long enough.

It's useful, as a teacher, to be a beginner again, on the receiving end of instruction.  And in learning what I don't yet know, I see, too, what I do know--sometimes more a hindrance than a help. It's been years since I've thought about piano fingering. Even in my heyday, I was pretty cavalier about the fingering suggested in the book. But the numbers corresponding to each finger seem to have been permanently recorded in some no-longer-plastic part of my brain. It takes a conscious effort, nearly every time, to think of my pinky as 4, not 5. So it's good for my brain and helpful at work but mainly, it's been fun. I've enjoyed taking lessons, the encouragement and praise, the new shiny thing of a new piece to work on. I've enjoyed the practicing, getting just a bit better, and then better again (very slowly).

Where I live now, things tend to be very low key. It's the rare occasion that warrants a new dress. My son's drum recitals seem to spring up at the last moment. My own recitals tend to be readings, not recitations--script in hand, though I do practice in advance.

The teacher my daughter and I share doesn't even hold recitals. She calls them "get-togethers" out of deference to those students still traumatized by past recital nightmares. We don't have to memorize our pieces, we do a bunch of songs together, sing-along style--recorder, banjo, guitar, mandolin--and we get chocolate if we do well and also for any mistakes, a kind of grade yourself approach to just desserts. Weather permitting, she holds the get-together in her yard (bring a chair or a blanket and a snack to share).

This year, finally, the weather cooperated. I made plenty of mistakes, but I hit a lot of the notes. It was a lovely evening.

♩♫♬♬  ♩♫♬♬  ♩♫♬♬ ♩♫♬♬ ♩♫♬♬  ♩♫♬♬


  1. I love this. You have such a knack for conjuring a world in just a few paragraphs. And good for you, getting back to music lessons! Sounds like you got plenty of chocolates at that recital.

    1. Indeed, on the chocolate front, I was kind to myself, marking both what I did well and what I did badly. And, thank you!