Rhythm 'n' blues
Growing up, learning to play the piano was considered a necessary life skill.
It was right up there with mastering the art of swimming (or, according to Mom, you would inevitably end up stranded in the middle of the ocean after a doozy of a plane wreck and die) and learning to drive a stick-shift (or, according to Dad, you would inevitably end up stranded on the side of the road after a doozy of a car wreck as your best friend lies helplessly next to you and then, due to your ignorance, you would both die). But that probably goes without saying.
At any rate, when Mom decided my younger brother Brian and I were doomed to social ostracization if we were unable to tickle the ivory keys, there was little room for argument.
And so, each Tuesday, after downing my strawberry Nutri-Grain bar and root beer (half a can, for a whole can would cause cavities and make your teeth rot and then you would--you guessed it--die), I headed to Miss Sally's.
Miss Sally lived in a big house on a brick street in a quaint, quiet neighborhood. She had wild red hair that stuck out all over the place and a slightly shrill voice that, left by itself, would have been little cause for concern, but coupled with her leather-vested, mustache-donning, motorcycle-riding husband, who lumbered occasionally through the front door grumbling about the weather, and her two unruly daughters, who constantly flitted about the house shouting and squealing and generally causing quite the racket, her very presence put me immediately on edge (and if I am to be completely honest, left me constantly searching for clues about her mysterious secret life because clearly, Miss Sally was a prime candidate for a closet witch. Or vampire. Or something.).
At exactly 3:29 p.m. every Tuesday, I trudged up her long, winding sidewalk and begrudgingly entered the front parlor, crossing my fingers that Scary Surly Husband would be nowhere in sight.
"Hi, dear," Miss Sally chirped cheerily. "How are you? Did you practice this week?"
"Hi, Miss Sally," I responded politely. "I'm doing okay. Yes, I practiced. Although my fingers began cramping up mid-week so it really did hinder my practicing ability. Premature arthritis, you know," I said, wincing dramatically as I tenderly rubbed my palms together.
"That's nice, dear," Miss Sally replied. "Well, let's hear it then."
And off I would go. First the dreaded warm-ups--scales and chords and simple melodies. My fingers drifted through them slowly. I yawned.
Then came time to showcase the few pieces I had practiced for the week. It was here I would pause, attempting to stall a bit.
"Did you have a good weekend, Miss Sally?" I would ask sweetly. "How about that weather? I spent all Saturday outside playing, stopping only to reapply sunscreen. Skin cancer is no joke, you know. And don't worry, I didn't forget the tips of my ears. Do you use sunscreen, Miss Sally? Mom says that--"
"--Mmm, okay, dear," Miss Sally interjected. "Go on, then. Let's hear that music."
And I would clumsily plink-plink-PLUNK my way through a song, my fingers fervently searching for flawless melody.
"You must feel the music, dear," Miss Sally said. "Each phrase is a thought and each thought has a feeling. Feel it and the rest will come in time."
I feel like going home thankyouverymuch, I thought crossly to myself as I smiled and nodded along.
"Music is more than the notes. More than chords. More than scales. It is--GIRLS, IF YOU DO NOT STOP IT RIGHT NOW YOU WILL WISH YOU HAD!" Miss Sally suddenly shrieked as her daughters whooped and hollered through the halls.
Turning to me, her voice softened and she continued, "--Music is emotion and harmony and dissonance and--" she paused, her voice catching. "--It is humanity, dear."
"Now, try it again," Miss Sally said. "And this time, make me feel it!"
And so, ponytail bobbing, I started again.
As I got older, Miss Sally required I memorize pieces in preparation for our semi-annual recitals that always left my stomach a bundle of nerves and my palms a shaky, sweaty mess.
I only agreed to participate to such a manifestation of utter anxiety because of the all-you-could-eat cookie reception that followed. Obviously.
But the weeks that preceded the recital were always full of utter trepidation.
"You're trying too hard, dear," Miss Sally said one Tuesday as her husband bounded in the front door, swearing and tugging on the tips of his mustache.
"Don't worry so much about playing perfectly," she continued. "Play with heart. Feel each phrase. The rest will come in time."
And I plink-plink-PLUNKed my way from pianissimo to forte and back again in search of a melody I could call my own.
A few days ago, home alone on a quiet spring afternoon, I found myself drawn to the family piano.
I dusted off the rickety bench and perched on the edge of the seat, gripped with a sudden urge to play something familiar. Something unchanging. Something that made me remember. Something that perhaps even let me forget.
As the first rich notes sounded, I found comfort in a song I had played so many times before. One I had first sung as a little girl then later memorized for Miss Sally's recital and eventually had become somehow ingrained within me.
The music ebbed and flowed when suddenly, about halfway through, my fingers froze and PLUNK! PLUNK! PLUNK!--an ugly, clanging chord hung heavy in the air.
I sat dumbfounded.
I forgot the music.
Helplessly, I combed my thoughts in search of something anything that would remind me what came next. I found nothing.
And just as I began to despair that the melody--my melody--was forever lost in the clanging chords that crashed around me, Miss Sally's voice echoed in my thoughts:
"Don't worry so much about playing perfectly. Play with heart. Feel each phrase. The rest will come in time."