I started taking piano lessons when I was eight years old, in group lessons after school on Wednesday afternoons. My teacher, Mrs. Gillies, was a nice lady who would teach something about music theory and then give each of us a few minutes at the piano to go over whatever piece we had been working on.
When it was my time to sit at the piano, I usually did fine. Most of the exercises, in Book 1 of the Leila Fletcher Piano Course, made perfect sense to me and I would get a Happy Elf stamped in red on that page of the book.
I had a nasty secret, though: I didn’t practise piano very much from one Wednesday to the next. In the piano book there are a few Grumpy Elves, on pages where I almost pulled it off. There’s even one Sad Elf, a tear running down its cheek. Ironically, the Sad Elf is for the piece “Merrily We Roll Along.”
So why didn’t I practise more? I can tell you unhesitatingly, because I knew the answer even back then. I was afraid of bothering people. At home, my piano sat in the living room and I thought that my family would be annoyed to hear me going over the same piece of music again and again and again.
It took a long time to crack that particular nut. The advent of electronic keyboards was a positive boon, because then I could plug in a set of headphones and noodle away for an hour or more. The last time I took formal piano lessons, in my early thirties, every night at 10:00 p.m. I’d switch on my 88-key Roland digital, put on the ‘phones, and spend the first 20 minutes going through literally every major and minor scale, chord and arpeggio that I knew. You couldn’t have paid eight-year-old me to do that.
I still feel a bit of vague anxiety when I sit down to practise clarinet, because that isn’t something you can run through headphones. There are contraptions available that allow you to play violin or trumpet silently, but nothing comparable for woodwinds because the sound exits through multiple tone holes on the instruments and not just through the bell at the far end.
Well, I’m going to keep practising anyway, even if people are listening.