When I was five years old my family was visiting my grandparents in Connecticut. At the time we were devout Catholics who attended church every Sunday and could sing all the hymns by heart, so it wasn't a surprise when after we returned to my grandparents' house I wandered over to the piano and played a full hymn. Well, maybe it was a surprise because according to everyone in the family I'd never touched a piano before that morning.
Apparently my parents took it as a sign of impending prodigal fame and bought me a used upright. It was gigantic, with carved relief work on the front that resembled tangled vines. Standing six feet tall it reminded me of a wise, creaky old man with dark sun worn skin. It played, which is a quality that is hard to find in a $500 piano. There was a key, the low A, that stuck like it had molasses under it and the sustain pedal stayed down when you pushed it. You had to get your foot under it and pry it back up before you could push it again. That's how I learned to play, every song a full body aerobic workout.
After a couple of weeks I started my lessons. Ten dollars a week for a half an hour lesson in the back of a music store run by a woman whose name I've forgotten. I went to her for a few months and my first recital was the most stressful thing I'd yet undertaken in my young life. I played a hit people would know, a tinny rendition of "Give My Regards To Broadway" that had my left hand stagnant in my lap most of the time. All of us little kids had songs like that. But then the big kids came out and my left hand wanted desperately to move across keys like theirs did, to dance with the right in a counter melody of coordination. At my next lesson I asked for harder music, but she refused saying I wasn't old enough. I stopped taking lessons from her.
I moved on to Melinda Jackson, a nice woman from the South who pronounced my name like the first syllable was leaning onto the next and tickling it. "Dayn-yale" is the closest way to phonetically spell it, and that doesn't even really do it justice. She was soft spoken but firm and never let me slack on practicing. She would KNOW if I hadn't been. It got to the point where I would practice obsessively - not to get better at piano, but because I couldn't stand the look on her face that said, "Why are you wasting my time and your parents' money?"
She opened a world of music to me. Her recitals were dynamic and featured every level of talent. She even let my sister (a pretty good flautist) play duets with me as a second recital piece. When I got to middle school, a friend of mine started to take lessons from her as well and we were fiercely competitive. Mrs. Jackson made it work to our advantage by giving us four hand duets higher than our skill level that she made us perform together. I learned how to use my left hand. I learned Debussy and Mozart, Beethoven and Schumann. I learned what an etude was and played entire sonatas under her soothing, correcting tones. My parents promised to buy me a baby grand if I learned how to play Moonlight Sonata, so I practiced until my arms throbbed and got a $500 used, crackle finish Brahambach baby grand for my efforts. I was stoked.
In middle school I was in the concert band (playing clarinet, then orchestra bells and melodic percussion) and my director would ask me to play the piano for people as a kind of segue between grade levels. I even played at a mall once. I was basically a classical version of Debbie Gibson touring the Rhode Island mall scene. It was pretty damn awesome.
Eventually my main performance medium was as accompanist for my high school's choirs, directing a musical (Anything Goes) and not much else. I mean, really. There were boys and booze now and who has time to practice with all of that? I stopped being good. I still played my favorite sonatas and arabesques, but really I wasn't technically improving anymore.
And then there was that fateful day that my old chorus director asked me to accompany the middle school choir at their choral festival and I bombed so hard that it shook the moon. Granted she had given me the music (four different, complicated pieces) a week before the performance and I had never played them with the choir, but still. I had never walked onto a stage and not been prepared.
Since then, I haven't played for an audience. I miss it. I also know however that I am less likely to dazzle and more likely to fizzle. I haven't felt my hands wither from carpal tunnel in at least five years, and oddly enough I miss that. I haven't felt the thrill of buying new sheet music because I have nothing to play it on, and that's probably the feeling I miss the most. And just remembering how it felt to sit on a bench in front of eighty-eight keys and a million possible songs is heartbreaking.
My dad is selling the old baby grand. He broke it to me last weekend at my grandfather's 80th birthday party. I took it as a nothing, like I'd forgotten all about any piano. Deep down my heart gave a little shudder, a faint arpeggio of a memory.
So here is my Christmas wish:
I would like a piano. Nothing too expensive, eighty-eight keys and a nice tone. It could even be electric. I don't care. If it sounds like a piano and has weighted action in the keys and pedals attached, I am good. I need it. I need to breathe in trills and grace notes. I need to feel the felted hammers beat on my heart strings and finally find the adagio again.