I am eight years old and sitting at the piano. The John Thompson book is propped up and staring back at me. The song is Row Row Row Your Boat for beginners, but it might as well be Chopin’s “Clair de Lune”. I am hopeless.
My Mama thought it would be good for me to know how to play the piano. Mothers, in general, are concerned about making sure that their children are well rounded and cultured. I was more interested in playing army and spending long summer days with my BB gun roaming the pastures and creeks.
It didn’t help that the piano stood against the wall in the living room next to the front door. The big wooden door was open, and from my seat on the piano bench I could look out through the screen door. The world out there was way more exciting than John Thompson. The birds were chirping. They were free to do whatever they wanted. I was stuck inside. I could smell the sun on the grass and feel the slight breeze calling to me.
“Come join us. You can practice later. Be free young man. Be free.”
Working at the piano was like torture for a boy who couldn’t make sense of the little black dots on the page.
For three years, I took lessons in Hampton at a house on the corner across from the old train depot. I can’t remember the woman’s name. A wood sided house with an ornate porch. Wood floors with rugs and lace curtains and an ornate lamp on a table by the window. City Hall sits on that corner now.
I imagine that hundreds of restless young souls sat at that piano over the years. Mothers sending their girls and boys to that house in hopes of discovering the next Liberace. The little wooden metronome ticking away like a woodpecker pecking at my head. The teacher sitting beside me on the bench trying to get me to spread my hands and lift my wrists over the keys.
Often, when I arrived, there was an older girl finishing up her lesson ahead of my time slot. I sat in a Victorian chair in the corner and waited as she polished off a Canta in Bm from John Thompson Book III. I was intimidated. She would get up from the piano and smirk at me as if to say, “You stupid boy, you’ll never be as good as me.” And she was right.
Mama tried to salvage my music career by inviting over this fella who could really play the piano. I think his name was Guy. He was married to one of my cousins. Guy was a big man. He filled up the bench and played with fingers the size of hot dogs.
“Play us a little Floyd Cramer,” Mama would say. And he tickled out “Last Date” on the keys. We stood around the piano amazed. We called out song after song, and he could just whip out anything you asked for. Hymns. Bing Crosby tunes. Honky Tonk. My Mama’s favorite, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”. He always finished up with Jerry Lee Lewis, “Great Balls of Fire.”
“Boy, he can make that thing talk,” Dad would say.
Mama would plead with me. “You stay with it and you can play like that.”
But I knew it wasn’t meant to be. Guy never had a piece of music in front of him. He couldn’t read the little black dots either. But music just oozed out his pores and from his fingertips. The black and white keys somehow just worked in his head in ways that I could never understand.
When I was ten, I quit the piano. “You’re going to regret it. One of these days you’re going to wish you had stayed with it”, she’d say. But I was so glad to be done.
I’ve known lots of people over the years who could play piano. Some of them trained in Beethoven and Bach. Some of them who played in church services. Some who played Moody Blues and Stepping Wolf and Hank Williams in bars. One friend still writes and records for TV in Atlanta.
I envy those who can read the music sheets. But I marvel at those who just have a gift for the magic of the keyboard. Perfect pitch. Just hum a bar that sounds close and they can figure it out. Only 12 notes on 88 keys, but the things they can do amaze me.
So, it ends up, Mama was right. I do have regrets. It’s not like I was ever close to anything good. No way I ever had the potential of some of the guys I’ve known. But to be able to float across the keys and make that piano talk . . . I’d like that.
I picked up the guitar when I was 14. House of the Rising Sun. Joy to the World. Smoke on the Water. A little Beatles. Credence. Playing a few chords and pretending to make music. My cousin, Gary, gave me my first guitar. A Sears and Roebuck acoustic with rusty strings that made my fingers bleed.
I still love to play music. My youngest daughter was a music major in college. Her instrument is the flute. Neither one of us will ever be on some big stage anywhere, but we do alright. We get together now and then, and the music is always something good that we share.
If I were a betting man, I’d say that you probably have played an instrument in your life at some point. Or, you’re wishing you could play, or should play again. Most of us are too embarrassed or shy to call ourselves real musicians. The old instrument is collecting dust in a closet somewhere. You might even have a piano sitting in a room off to the side that no one plays.
So, I’m challenging you. While you’re quarantined at home, shake the dust off and play. What else are you going to do with your time. It’ll be fun. It doesn’t have to be great. As long as it’s music, you’ll have a blast. Three chords and you can play nearly any of your favorite songs from high school. Make mistakes. You don’t sing? Get over it. Who cares? Unless your wife decides to video tape you and put it on FB.
The point is that there is no excuse for regrets when it comes to music. By professional standards, I stink at guitar. But I still play. There will always be someone better than me. By any standard, I really stink at piano. But I can still play some watered down, stupid version of Heart & Soul. John Thompson, whoever he is, is rolling over in his grave. My teacher is cringing because I don’t hold my hands right. And for sure, don’t put a metronome on me. But by granny, I’m playing something on the piano tonight.