(33 of 40) Piano Practice

When I was a girl, I took piano lessons. This was a financial hardship for my parents, but it was intended, I think, to prepare me to play hymns in church, and perhaps to make me good material to become a minister's wife. My teacher was my Uncle Billy, who was also a high school math teacher and, later, a principal. On Wednesday afternoons I rode the bus home with my cousins, a boy a few years older than I, and another, a few years younger. I spent an hour or two romping with them, or I helped my Aunt Evelyn in the kitchen, and badgered her with questions. She had a big kitchen garden, and a greenhouse. She was a very good cook and often kept me at her house until after dinner. Sometimes she cooked artichokes.

When Uncle Billy got home from work we sat down together in a corner of the living room. I sat on the piano bench; he pulled up a chair behind me. He sketched as he listened (I still have a picture he drew of "Mr. Bethany King"). When it was time to introduce the new lesson, he took a seat on the bench beside me, and I waited demurely, my hands folded on my lap, while he showed me what to do--how a real player could make those keys dance. Uncle Billy was a very good piano player. When I played, it never sounded like that. He told me stories, too, illustrative ones. I learned that when he was a boy he practiced the piano for an hour or two every day while his widowed mother sat sewing. I vowed to practice more.

But I never practiced more than I had to, and my mother finally saw that it wasn't going to take. "You just want to go because Evelyn spoils you," she said, and she made me quit taking lessons.

Daily writing is a little like piano practice. You don't have to write a new symphony--or a ragtime ditty--every day in order to become a better writer, in fact, you may be better served by letting your writing practice be a little closer to playing scales. Every Good Boy Does Fine. You'll be well served by doing some playful imitations. Play around with sentences. Write fragments and compound sentences and complex sentences and list sentences. Try describing settings and characters, quickly. Try throwing down a scene. Just write. Let it be dumb or "shitty" (as Anne Lamott says). Mind your teacher and write a little every day.

I never fell in love with the piano. And I never married a minister. I'm sorry about that (I mean the playing piano part), especially when I'm in a room with a piano and I get this itchy, uncomfortable feeling that someone is going to ask me to play. On the other hand, when I sit down to write I often recall that feeling of lifting my hands to the keys, the pause, and then the music flowing out. More to the credit of my uncle's gracious family than to my own prowess (or lack of it), it's a good memory.