Lessons by Joe Mills

For a brief time in my life, once a week I would go to a run-down building and meet a woman in a small back room. We would spend an hour together, after which I would slide her money in an envelope. These meetings brought me no pleasure. Usually I felt guilty and embarrassed. The forced, temporary, closeness made me uncomfortable, and she did little to relax me, constantly correcting my performance.

I hated those piano lessons.

I hadn’t advanced much past the knowledge that “D lives in the Doghouse with C(at) on one side and (mous)E on the other” when I begged my mother to let me quit. She did so with no argument and no stipulations. At the time, I was too delighted (and self-centered) to wonder why. Maybe I should have been offended. Was my lack of talent so obvious? And, even if it was, parents weren’t supposed to acknowledge that, were they? Looking back, I wonder if she agreed because money was tight. Early in their marriage, my dad kept getting laid off, and sometimes at the grocery checkout, my mom would have to put food aside because she didn’t have enough cash. So, although my parents were willing to pay for opportunities for their children, they weren’t going to waste money.

My older siblings also took lessons, and, like me, my brother remembers hating them and feeling guilty for not practicing: “I had workbook assignments every week, but never completed them until Saturday morning right before my lesson. One Saturday I did the lesson as I rode my bike there, and I ran into a parked car. The equivalent to today’s texting, I guess.” He eventually quit as well.

As adults, we both wished that we had continued, and, for a while, I even resented my mother for letting me quit. After all, I had been a kid, and what kid has discipline? We have to be forced. Wasn’t that the tough job of parenting? (Like many, I conveniently blamed most of my failings and short-comings on my upbringing.) So, not wanting to make the same mistake with our children and not wanting them to have the same regrets, my wife and I signed our daughter and son up for piano lessons.

It didn’t go well.

The son, who loves music and beats out rhythms with anything that comes to hand, wasn’t remotely interested. We quickly learned that even if you succeed in forcing a boy to do something he doesn’t want to do (and success is not guaranteed), no one is happy with the result.

The daughter did want to know how to play, but she didn’t want to learn to play. She wanted the ability without the drudgery of practice. It’s a common fantasy. Neo, in The Matrix, simply gets skills uploaded into his head and says, “I know kung fu.” Harry Potter is born a wizard, can fly instinctually, and is a Quidditch prodigy. People want to be writers or have published a book, but they don’t want to put in the boring repetitive work of writing, or they fantasize that being an actor simply depends on being “discovered.”

We grew tired of nagging the daughter to practice, and I wondered if this is what happened with my parents. I was the youngest of three children and, after so many battles with my older sister and brother, much of their parenting concerning me consisted of shrugging. Did they let me quit out of fatigue?

We decided to make a deal with our daughter. If she practiced regularly, we would keep paying for the lessons, but we were done with the constant prodding. She was pleased to be treated like someone who was responsible, and this made us hopeful. The result? She didn’t touch the keyboard for a week. So, that was that. We were unable to break the cycle. Our children too would grow up regretting that they had never learned to play an instrument, that we didn’t force them, and they would have children who wouldn’t learn, and our family would remain enmired in musical poverty.

As parents, this is not what we thought was going to happen. We thought our kids would be better than us. Versions 2.0. Significant upgrades. And we’re frustrated. Why won’t they let us make them into the great, talented, people they could be? Why won’t they let us be the parents we want to be? Why are they acting so much like we acted? And why, since this happens again and again, don’t we learn our lesson?

Before we cancel with the piano teacher, Danielle makes an unexpected announcement. She’ll take over the daughter’s slot. She too has always wanted to be able to play an instrument.

I think this is great, in part, I’m ashamed to admit, because it seems a way of saying, “You don’t want to take advantage of this wonderful opportunity? Fine, we will. Ha!” But, mostly, I recognize it’s a good idea because Danielle loves to learn and loves to challenge herself. It will make her happy.

So, in her 40s, my wife begins to take piano lessons. Unlike the rest of us, she doesn’t quit. She feels guilty sometimes for not practicing enough, but she does practice. And, she gets better. And better. Although we don’t realize it at first, her determination and discipline and the obvious pleasure the lessons give her start to affect the entire household. What was supposed to be good for her becomes good for all of us.

When we share a space with others, we are changed by them and we change them. A decision of ours, or theirs, even one seemingly small and personal, will ripple outward. Danielle puts music in our heads that wasn’t there before, and she serves as a role model. One day, when no one is around, I sit at the keyboard, and take out the kid’s abandoned books. Just to fool a bit. Just for fun. And I discover it is fun, and I, too, begin to play.

Joseph Mills
Joseph Mills

A professor at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Joseph Mills holds an endowed chair, the Susan Burress Wall Distinguished Professorship in the Humanities. He has published five collections of poetry, including This Miraculous Turning and Angels, Thieves, and Winemakers (2nd edition). Although he has achieved awards and acclaim for his work, no one, not even the most sympathetic and pitying, would praise the way he blunders through “Amazing Grace” or rudimentary piano pieces. Nonetheless, in his middle age, he has decided to learn piano, and he suspects that it has begun to change his life in unanticipated ways.


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