Friday, October 26, 2012

Nothing Wasted

(Generic stock photo of piano keys--but they're pretty)

Yesterday, we got Uncle Oswald (our 94 year old player piano) tuned. The technician was also kind enough to clean him out (he had layers of white powder ((perhaps cornstarch?)) under the keys, as well as plenty of dust), and she even went so far as to pull out banks of keys and adjust the playing action.

Needless to say, I've been anxious to play.

My darling daughters, however, have not been so anxious to let me. In fact, they've been running me ragged. While I did play one song yesterday, I got to the end of the day today and realized I still hadn't gotten to really sit down and enjoy the new tone and touch of our beautiful piano.

I put the girls to bed, and then sent my husband off to bed as well, because he has to be at work early tomorrow. And then I realized I was all alone, and the house was quiet. (Do you know how rare that is?! I finally understand why my mom would get so excited to be left home alone.)

I was a little worried that I'd wake everyone up if I played, but I decided I didn't care. I needed to play. I pulled out a book of New Age-style piano music by Paul Spaeth that I fell in love with as a teenager, pushed the soft pedal, and began to play.

The music that came out of that old instrument went right through me. There's nothing small about the sound from one of those old uprights, even when holding the soft pedal. The low register in particular echoes and expands and moves right out of the wooden casing of the piano and up your hands, through the pedals into your feet, through the floor, the bench, your bones.

My fingers slid, stroked, and ticked on keys made of actual ivory, keys that have seen more years than even my grandfather, who's 92 this month. Every time I touch this piano, I wonder what music it's played; how many living rooms it's sat in; what dramas it's seen; how many owners it's outlived.

But tonight, my thoughts weren't on the piano's history, they were on mine. I won't go into my full piano history here (I tried to write an essay once about what it meant to me to give up my dream of being a concert pianist and why I did it, and it was 5 single-spaced pages long and still didn't manage to convey what I wanted--I don't want to subject you to reading that), but let's just say that for several years I've struggled to figure out where I stood in relation to playing the piano, and I've lost a lot of technical ability, and so when I would play it was often a bittersweet and frustrating experience.

But not tonight. Tonight I was filled with joy for the blessing that piano has been to me over the years. I was overwhelmed with gratitude for my mother who made me practice when I was younger, who pushed me to a point that when I decided I actually wanted to learn a song, I had enough background to go and figure it out, which eventually led to me taking lessons again and competing. I was grateful for the opportunity I had to learn from fantastic teachers who stressed technique and wouldn't accept less than perfection when it came to a competition piece. I'm grateful I learned to sight-read well enough to just sit down and enjoy playing, even when I haven't taken the time to practice.

One of the reasons my perspective has changed is that I'm teaching piano lessons now. And the more I teach, the more I realize just how much I learned with all those hours of practicing (2 hours a day for most of my pre-teen and teenage years). As I teach a seven-year-old about basic phrasing, I flash back to playing "Invention #1" by J.S. Bach, and chasing that pesky melody as it switched from hand to hand. I think of the difficulty of learning to play one hand louder than another so that the melody would shine through better. As I count eighth notes for a nine-year-old and discuss how to count in 6/8 time, I remember learning how to play eighth notes in one hand while playing triplets in the other, one of the last really technical things I remember learning before I quit taking lessons when I was 16.

And the more I remember learning, the less wasted it feels. I've realized that's one reason I've had such a hard time letting go of my piano regrets all these years: it felt like by not continuing to study piano, by letting my technical skill slide, I was wasting everything I'd worked so hard for. I didn't realize how much of it has become a part of me. I didn't realize what a gift it is to be able to sit in church and play nearly any hymn I'm asked to, even if I'm not familiar with it. I took my playing for granted, until I started teaching and realized just how many things have to happen between my fingers and my brain to make music come out of those keys.

As I sat and played tonight, I saw the wonder of it, and so I was grateful. I didn't mind the sour notes, I just fixed them, and was grateful I knew how. Instead of getting frustrated when my fingers slowed and tired, I saw how much they'd done, and was glad they'd gotten a good workout.

It was a glimpse of a bigger perspective; a view of the process, the results, and the future, even, as I pass the knowledge along through teaching; and it brought peace. It made me wonder what it would be like if I could see the rest of my life in the same way. I wonder what kind of peace I'd find if I could see more clearly the steps I've taken to become who I am, the person I actually am instead of my own flawed and critical perception of myself, and the person I'll be in the future.

Perspective is even harder to maintain than it is to gain, but I've glimpsed, tonight, that my efforts aren't wasted, even when my path turns. I'll just tell Uncle Oswald to remind me of that next time I struggle with thinking I'm working toward one goal when the Lord has a different one in mind.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Sometimes It's Hard


(This is the first time I've written anything so introspective in a long time, and it could probably use about 5 more revisions. Still, I'm going to post it, because I'm proud of myself for thinking hard about something I'd rather ignore.)

I'm working on a couple of dance routines right now for the studio showcase in November. One is a Salsa team routine, and one is a Swing routine. Both are a lot of fun, but last night I really struggled with the Swing. Our instructor asked us to try a couple lifts, and they were lifts I had done before, things I thought would be easy. I was wrong. And almost every time I would attempt a lift, the instructor would give me that same pursed-lip face that my piano teacher used to give me when I hadn't practiced; the look that says, "are you just not trying, or are you really that incompetent?"

I got home at 10:30 p.m., exhausted but not sleepy (a common occurrence when I dance late). I lay in bed for awhile, but I couldn't shut my brain off, so I got up for some food. Which, of course, turned into clicking around on Facebook. Seeing as how it was midnight and I was feeling beat-up physically and emotionally, I decided to have a little pity-party on my status. I figured at that time of night no one would really see it, and I could get away with it.

I was wrong, of course. I received a lot of "cheer up" and "you can do it" responses, which I know were written with love and concern for me, but I found myself arguing with many of them in my head. 

I KNOW a good attitude is important, but all the "Little Engine That Could" attitude in the world won't make my body do something the muscles are not currently capable of.

Yeah, work harder, I wish I could. It's not like I can practice this on my own.

It'll come back--yeah, it would if I could actually practice it. But I'm not likely to ever have the chance to do many lifts again, so it's a moot point.

Time and dedication, two things I can't give right now. I can barely dance twice a week without feeling guilty.

The more I grumbled to myself, the more frustrated I got. But as I stepped back and looked at my internal dialogue, I started to see my real problem, which had nothing to do with the loving, encouraging comments of my friends.

This is more than just me not being able to do a lift and getting discouraged. It's more than being frustrated about the skills and muscles that I've lost (though that is frustrating). And I'm not lacking in confidence, because I know I can work and train my way into being good at lifts. After all, when I started doing lifts the first time, I was very, very bad at them (just ask my old coach--she once confessed to me that after our first lesson she wondered if my partner and I would ever be able to learn any lifts). It took a lot of hours and bruises to get to where I was when I stopped dancing to have children.

I know I COULD get back to where I used to be, given the right set of circumstances. Unfortunately, the circumstances required are not available at the moment, and are complex enough that I'm afraid they'll never occur again. The combination of a) time to practice, b) a partner to practice with, c) that partner having time to practice that coincides with your available time, and d) a place to practice that is available at the time you both have available, is a difficult one to find. Beyond that, I have to e) be physically capable of conditioning myself without breaking, which disqualifies any time spent in future pregnancies (lifts are a no-no while pregnant, lol) and whatever time I need to recover from them, and also means I probably can't just say, "I'll do it once my kids are grown" (since I already have trouble with my hips and knees, which have gotten worse with each pregnancy, I don't see myself being capable of doing such a strenuous form of dance in my forties/fifties). That means I only have a few, non-consecutive years left in which those circumstances could even possibly line up. 

I was very fortunate in college to be able to meet all of the above criteria at the same time, but now, without shifting my priority off of my family, I don't know that I'll be able to recreate it. I feel guilty if I take more than a couple hours a week to go dance, because, at least while we're living here, the only times available to dance happen to be the only hours my husband's home, and I feel like I hardly see him as it is. If I could dance during the day, that would be easier, but the thing about ballroom is that it caters to the hours when most couples are free, which means evenings. It's the same reason I wonder if I'll ever teach at a studio--the hours they need are the ones that are the hardest for a wife and mother to give.

I've known all of this for awhile, but it's still difficult for me to face, and it comes down to this:

I felt more passion about doing dance lifts, specifically ballroom cabaret, than for anything else I've ever experienced except for getting married and being a part of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. But because God and my family come first, and because I can't see a way to reconcile my personal family priorities with the time and serious training cabaret requires, I will probably never dance cabaret again.

I gave up something I loved so much for something I knew would be better. But sometimes it's still hard.

Getting to dance at all is a wonderful gift, and it takes care of most of the ache. And maybe I'm wrong, and someday I'll do lots of lifts again. Whether I do or not, I'm sure someday I'll look back at this time and smile that wise, introspective smile that people get when they think of their naive younger self; that smile that says, "I see things more clearly now, but I remember the pain was real."

In the mean time, it hurts when I try an "easy" lift and fail. It hurts a little because I think I should be able to do it, but it hurts more because I'm scared if I don't get it right, the instructor will scrap the lift, and I'll never get to do it again.

But somehow, when I recognize why it hurts, it hurts a little less.