At some point in an early childhood filled with US history flashcards and learning math from Monopoly my mother realized that i was just as precociously intelligent as she had hoped i would be when she started those Better Baby Institute classes as a pregnant woman just barely having her quarter life crisis.
As much as this development affirmed her tireless educational exercises (starting with painting my room with the B.B.I.’s specified shapes and colors), it also meant she would have to redouble her efforts for the future in making sure she kept me on a strict schedule of constant didacticism. Her two-pronged assault on my four-year old world was a holistic one. By day i was enrolled in a Montessori school, and by night i was intended to begin my instruction on the violin.
This latter initiative turned out to be a spectacular failure. My mother, lacking in any prior musical experience in her entire extended family, just couldn’t grasp what was wrong. She brought me to the lessons in some nice woman’s comfortable living room. She made the violin available to me at the prescribed rehearsal times.
What she could not comprehend is that i had no relationship with this instrument i was supposed to be growing to love. Why a stringed instrument rather than a wind, or why not enroll me in a boy’s choir since i was hopelessly enamored with singing along to Jem tapes in the back seat on long car rides? I didn’t understand why this awful wooden box full of shrillness had been imposed upon me then, and i still don’t. I viewed my lessons as thinly veiled torture for some unknown crime, and at home i would scowl at the instrument tucked away in its case above the china closet.
(Why was it above the china closet? What harm could have come in letting me play around with it (as, i believe, is suggested by current pedagogical theory)? Maybe i might have liked it.)
I remember the whole violin experience as snapshots right up through my last lesson, which i remember in silent 8mm verité. We arrived in the instructor’s homey living room, and my mother informed the woman that i would no longer be studying violin, and she clucked in disappointment. What to do, then, with this last lesson? She was clucking, but i already knew the answer.
Her piano, upright, against the wall just through the arch into the next room. At every lesson i would stare over the see-sawing of my bow as it squeaked out nursery rhymes at the stately wooden bench and covered keys. On this occasion the keys were uncovered (from a prior lesson?), and as she spoke with my mother i wandered over to the piano. So, my last violin lesson was my first and only piano lesson. As the frames of the memory flicker and fade i can almost hear her words, “and this one is called ‘middle C’. Go on, you can play it.”
The piano subject was oft-pursued with my mother from that day forward, but she always held the party line that it was too expensive a thing to accomodate given the chance that i might just carelessly give up on it, the way i did the violin.
I could be imagining it, but i recall a sort of cruelness beneath this reasoning – as if she was upset at her first failure in the path to rendering me a perfectly rounded child and refused to accept that i had some alternate plan for myself.
(The first in a long line of our stubborn standoffs, which are best exemplified by the time in ninth grade when i locked myself in our car so i couldn’t be taken to get a haircut, as i wanted mine to grow long.)
Playing our new digital piano all day today produced a bittersweet satisfaction. Here, two decades later, and i finally have a full-sized keyboard in my own home. Aged twenty-four and i am playing the same “Mary Had a Little Lamb” exercises i once bowed on my lap on that violin, but finally on the instrument i’ve always coveted and prefered.
Sometimes i wonder: what if somehow my mother conjured up a piano for me to play when i was four years old? Would i have begun lessons and quickly given them up as being too tedious, just as i did for the violin (and, eventually, guitar)? Or, would i have been completey entranced by the instrument, as i was today? Would i have kept at it? Did i have some natural, predisposed love and talent for music that would have ben unlocked then, rather than in some diminished form a decade later when i received my first guitar? Could i have perhaps eventually becoming my own Rufus Wainwright or Tori Amos, effortlessly mingling classical conventions with catchy melodies?
I am upset about that possible lost potential, but that alternate reality is one of my many schrodinger’s cat pasts, equally full of a virtuosic me and one whose skills are simply dead in the box.
As much as i like to think the best of myself, maybe it’s better not to glimpse into that world. Better to just believe in what i want to do, and to learn it the best that i can.