My son flubbed another school band audition, even though he played well in the practice room just before. Nerves. Before bedtime, I told him the story of why I quit playing the piano:
The last time I performed on the piano was a lovely spring day in April 1988. Fifty or so music professors, music majors, and assorted music lovers gathered in the small, old chapel at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, where I was a freshman majoring in English Literature and Communication Studies.
Having played piano since the age of five, I continued lessons in college to keep music in my life. I’d enjoyed a companionable relationship with my home piano teacher who watched me grow up under her tutelage. I didn’t jive with this music professor, however; I was Grieg and Chopin (romantics) and she was Bach (mathematics); I was pop and she was do re mi.
Since I played well enough for a non-major, she put me in the spring recital playing, you guessed it, a Bach piece. I worked through my initial disdain, eventually moved the music into my heart, and the afternoon of the recital I played it perfectly.
In the practice rooms. Not in recital.
The nerves of playing for a room of professionals and professionals-to-be broke me down. I lost my place and then my mind. My roommate, an organ major, ran my sheet music to me; she sat on the bench and held her finger to my place in the piece. I never regained my composure.
That was the end of that.
At the time I operated as a fully-entrenched perfectionist and I wouldn’t do something I couldn’t do perfectly. Clearly, my failure indicated that I should not be a musician (despite my years of devotion and joy), so I let it go. I poured myself into classes and friends and moved on. Occasionally I dabbled with a song or two, just for fun. Until enough time passed and knowledge eroded that it wasn’t fun. I tried giving my younger son lessons until he decided he’d rather play on his own.
I let go of something I loved because I caved under pressure. It makes me sad.
Long ago my mom told me that she wouldn’t be surprised to someday find a grand piano in my home but no furniture, that art meant more to me than practicality. Accurate. We’ve hauled my upright piano up and down the state of California—from San Diego to Ventura and back, then to NorCal. All the while it has sat against a wall, collecting dust, beautiful…and sadly, unconsciously, a symbol of my failure.
My son plays it more than I do. He can’t read piano music; he plays by ear. For his sake, I’m glad we still have it. Last night, I shared my experience to encourage him to keep going. Not that his pursuit of music was ever in doubt, but I wanted him to know that I regret having given it up. That a botched audition or performance doesn’t define you. That he can be stronger in spirit than I was, and music will take him farther than it took me.