Instrument of Surrender
“I don’t care what our kids are into,” my husband says. “I just want them to play a musical instrument, too.”
He’s talked this way since before our son existed, when he was a mere hypothetical human, a wispy question mark wavering over our heads—back since we knew we wanted children but before we knew when we’d want them.
My husband comes from a family for whom musical training was important. Everyone had their instrument. His was trombone.
“Why music over any other activity?” I ask.
I have nothing against music lessons, of course, and I can’t fully convey my gratitude that my husband isn’t a sports freak. But what he didn’t realize until recently was that I was a Piano Quitter. A two-time offender, actually.
Like many young children, I don’t remember ever having a desire to play the piano, or any instrument for that matter. I don’t remember having a choice in the matter either.
“For me,” my mom responded to my complaints. “Please do it for me. I didn’t stick with my lessons and now I regret it. When you’re grown up, you’ll want to be able to play the piano for people.”
…Why? I thought.
My reluctant career as a pianist began in second grade. The elementary school offered lessons once a week for which the piano teacher would pluck children individually from their classrooms. The fact that one could miss part of class and not recess or after-school time should have been a boon, but for me it wasn’t. I was one of those neurotic children who felt stressed by the age of seven at the thought of missing important classroom material.
Unsurprisingly, I didn’t care for my piano teacher. I didn’t like how she snapped her fingers at me to increase my tempo, how she always ate yogurt while I was playing, how she never spoke of anything non-piano related. Even her name, Miss Fur, struck an off key with me and contributed to the exaggerated Cruella persona I’d developed for her.
“She’s not that bad,” my mom said in response to my groaning. “When I was a kid, my piano teacher would push my fingers down on the keys, really hard.”
I nursed hurt feelings when Miss Fur would accuse me of not practicing, which of course I hadn’t—slouching in front of our home piano to repeat mistake-riddled renditions of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” and “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas” only when my mom made me, and even then sometimes whimpering enough to escape the torture.
My mom finally agreed to let me quit after months of my insisting how miserable it made me. The school year wasn’t even over yet. There was one condition: I start lessons back up in a year or two.
I now sat through my classes uninterrupted, making sure to look down at my desk or page through a book whenever Miss Fur would appear at the door to claim another student.
The remainder of that school year as well as third grade passed without mention of the piano. The summer before fourth grade, though, my mom announced that my end of the bargain was due.
“It’s what we agreed on,” she said, a tone of finality in her voice. “You’ll thank me later.”
Always, always this assertion that I would enjoy, nay, depend on my piano abilities later.
If my mom hoped I’d developed two years’ worth of maturity and music appreciation, she was wrong. I entered piano lessons with, if possible, even less gusto as a fourth grader than as a second grader, feeling this time around Miss Fur would already have me (correctly) pegged as a sniveling, unappreciative quitter.
My mom must have been at her wit’s end when I began to speak yet again of my desire to stop.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” she said. “You can’t really want to quit again! At this point, don’t you just want to stick with it…you know, for the sake of it?” she implored. She was, I now see, trying to instill in my nine-year-old self one of the most basic principles of work ethic. Bless her heart.
She offered reasonable compromises. Couldn’t I at least wait to quit until the end of the school year? Couldn’t I try a new teacher, one unaffiliated with the school so I wouldn’t miss class?
No and no. I didn’t care about playing an instrument. I hated learning the piano, and more than anything, hated dreading it.
Who knows how I got her to agree. More than likely I wore her down until she didn’t want to talk about it anymore. Having a piano-playing daughter was not worth one who affected the air of a Greek tragedy heroine once a week.
Fittingly enough, years later I discovered my niche lay on the stage of my high school drama department. My time in the performance arts was relegated to playing roles like Emily in Our Town, Alice in You Can’t Take It with You, and Veta in Harvey. Like many a delusional teenager, for a time I even sustained the fantasy of becoming a professional actress.
I’m relieved to discover as an adult that I still harbor no regret at my lack of ability, nor an uncontrollable but impotent desire to drop onto a bench and pound little white and black keys (though how many homes even have pianos these days?). There are plenty of improvements I’d like to make upon myself if not for my laziness—I wish I were bilingual; I wish I knew ballroom dancing or Krav Maga—but piano playing is not one.
Now that our son is here, in a real and physical sense, his music-lesson-filled future seems even more solidified.
“It can be any instrument he wants,” my husband says. “Drums, guitar—whatever. It’s good for a kid to learn something like that. It’s correlated with better math skills, too.”
“What if he wants to do something else?”
“He can. Music just has to be one of his activities, that’s all.
This is fair, I suppose. I hope our son discovers an instrument he legitimately wants to play and proves to be a more disciplined student of music than I, because I can already tell my husband isn’t going to let him quit as easily (or as often) as my mother let me. Maybe there are important lessons to be learned aside from how to properly play a set of notes—skill-building, college-application-filling, artistic-appreciation-deepening, father-and-mother-honoring type of lessons.
Then again, I’d like to remind my husband that in the twelve years I’ve known him, I’ve never once seen him pick up a trombone.
Caroline Horwitz’s work has appeared in Mothers Always Write, as well as publications such as Brain, Child, Animal, bioStories, Lowestoft Chronicle, and The Summerset Review. Essays of hers have been nominated for the 2015 Best of the Net Anthology and listed as a notable entry in The Best American Essays 2014. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from Chatham University.