Piano lessons become life lessons

Roxanne Henke

“I want to QUIT!” My fifth-grade daughter slammed the piano keys in a discordant chord she certainly didn’t learn from any piano teacher. “I HATE piano!”

We had been through this same pound and protest many times in the five years since she had started lessons. I’d been there myself when I was her age. But, with the perspective of years, I knew some day she’d thank me.

Except today was different. Her whining, yelling and pounding hit my last nerve. “You want to quit?” I said. “Then quit!” I picked up her piano book, ripped it right down the middle and flung the two halves on the floor. (This was not my finest hour.) I marched toward the phone. “I’m calling your teacher. You’re done!” I meant it.

Tegan jumped from the piano bench, racing behind me. She threw her arms around my thighs and screamed, “NO! Don’t call! I’ll practice! I don’t want to quit!”

My resolve melted. “I don’t ever want to hear you whining about practicing again. Got it?”

She nodded.

I then taped the two halves of the book back together, so she could practice. Like I said, not my finest hour. But, I’d made my point. And, to my recollection, she never complained after that. Tegan became an accomplished pianist, playing for church and the school choir.

Like Tegan, I was a fairly good pianist at one time. I had played for church and for a friend singing a solo at a wedding. But my foot was shaking so badly, I could hardly keep the pedal down. My “problem” wasn’t a lack of desire, or ability, to play. My problem was performance anxiety. Horrible anxiety.

My piano recital (when I was about Tegan’s age) is seared into my memory. My stern (and very good) piano teacher had said, in no uncertain terms, “You must have this memorized.”

There I sat, waiting my turn with my piano book open on my lap. Maybe if I stared at the notes, I would remember them.

It was my turn. I stood up. My young brain was racing. I had a fast choice to make. I could go to the grand piano on stage without my book and fumble my way through the whole song. Or, I could take my book with me. What could my teacher do in the midst of the recital? Well, she could shoot daggers at me with her eyes. After I seated myself on the bench, placed my book on the piano stand and shot one quick glance at my teacher – yes, her eyes were like knives – I didn’t have to look at her anymore, because I had a piece to play.

I can’t recall anything else from that recital, but that feeling of anxiety when I have to perform still dogs me.

When my novels began to hit the market, I was asked to speak at a number of events. I may have looked “normal,” but the audience couldn’t see the sweat dripping down my back. I’d be soaked by the time I got back to my hotel room. I did speaking events for about eight years, and I never did feel comfortable in front of a crowd.

Which brings me back to the piano. When COVID-19 began, I decided to practice my piano skills (if you could even call them skills at that point). I hadn’t touched my piano (except to dust it) in too many years.

At first, my playing was an exercise in frustration. Like fifth-grade Tegan, I pounded the keys a few times. But I kept practicing. Even my husband noticed I was getting better. But, once I realized he was listening, there went my anxiety again. My fingers fumbled and stumbled.

Which got me wondering, why is it when someone is accomplished at something, we seem to think they need to “do something” with it? We tell people they should try out for “American Idol,” or play piano for weddings or play college sports, and maybe “go pro.”

I’m reminded of when I began writing my first novel. I was typing at a good clip, when the thought, “People might read this,” popped into my head. My mind seized up in fear. I had to stop and pray for clarity and courage. Then, I wrote a notecard that I pinned to my bulletin board, where I could see it every time I wrote. It said:

You are not writing to please an editor.

You are not writing to please an agent.

You are writing to please God.

When I play piano, “time” melts away, along with my worries. Is it possible that some of our gifts are for us alone? Simply for our pleasure? We don’t need to “do” anything with them, except enjoy doing them. Our gifts might just be God’s gift to us. Excuse me now, I have a piano to play.

What’s your gift? Don’t let it stress you. Instead, let it bless you.

Roxanne (Roxy) Henke plays piano at her home in rural North Dakota. Sometimes, she even opens the windows, hoping only the birds are listening. You can reach her at roxannehenke@gmail.com.