I was perusing Facebook the other day, and saw a post where someone was looking for an inexpensive flute for the their child, and my first thought was, “I hope that parent doesn’t change their mind and get their kid a piano.”
Let me back up here. Six is about the age when parents start looking into different lessons and activities they can sign their children up for. My parents had tried ballet for me (I was mostly just interested in twirling around until I fell down), tee ball (my best skill was picking dandelions), and so they asked me if I was interested in learning a musical instrument. I picked the flute; I don’t know why. I was, and still am, a pretty decent whistler. Besides the theme to “The Andy Griffith Show,” I can also perform the ending to “Sitting on the Dock of a Bay,” and I am adept at whistling for dogs, so maybe that had something to do with it. But really, I think I just like the idea of the shiny, pretty-sounding instrument.
Now my parents will tell you that I asked them to learn to play the piano, but that, my readers, is a great example of how parents will try to gaslight their children into believing they want to do something that really, you parents want them to do. I remember very clearly saying “I don’t want to learn to play the piano. I want to play the flute.” To which their response was “Learn to play the piano, and then we’ll see about the flute.” Which even back then sounded like a terrible deal, because what would you rather have in your house: a 600-pound piano that takes up wall space, or a two-pound flute that you can hide in a closet when your kid gets tired of it?
I was six, and they had the checking account, so one day a honey-colored Kimball piano showed up at our house and got man-handled into my bedroom with a minimum of dings on the hall wall. I suspect my grandma Kate was also in on this “lets get Ceason piano lessons” conspiracy, because she arranged to have me taught by one of her best friends, Pat Bennett, who conveniently lived across the street from Fairplain Elementary.
From first grade through sixth grade, one day a week, I was at Mrs. Bennett’s house, working my way through red and white piano exercise books. Mrs. Bennett was patient, a good teacher, and her house had this really neat backyard where the hillside had been carved out in places and set with rock walls and had pots of plants sitting on them, which I thought looked really cool. And the fact that that’s what I remember the most about six years’ worth of piano lessons should tell you how much I got out of piano lessons. That, and the fact that the I was in the sixth grade and still in the second-grade piano book.
It wasn’t that I couldn’t appreciate music. I come from a very musical family: Dad was a drummer, my mother played brass instruments in her marching band, and my brother is one of the best guitar players to ever come from Jackson County, and that’s not just sisterly pride: if you can get him to play, he will blow your mind. My Uncle Chuck’s kids are either amazing singers or were members of the Viking Band (or both!), and my Uncle Gapper sings gospel music at the local nursing homes when it’s not COVID time. My other cousins were even in an (in)famous local band, Grandpappy’s Lap, which we don’t really talk about without making the sign of the cross.
But my musical talents have always been geared more towards listening instead of playing (I’m also a dynamite maker of mixed tapes and CDs, as are all kids who grew up in the Napster generation). I just could not get interested in the piano. Do I think I would have been more enthusiastic about actually playing music if I’d gotten a flute? Possibly, but as I’m writing this column, I’m realizing maybe part of the reason my parents didn’t get me a flute was probably because there probably weren’t a plethora of flute instructors in Ripley to take lessons from.
But there was Mrs. Bennett, right across the street from my school, with the patience of a saint as we sat together an hour every week, her trying to get me to curl my hands correctly, and me swearing I was practicing thirty minutes a day, when I knew full well I was sitting at my piano for thirty minutes, but the “practicing” part was suspect at best. So I wasn’t heartbroken when Mrs. Bennett announced she was retiring from teaching piano when I was twelve, after six years as my teacher. I’d miss her house and miss seeing her once a week, but I was not going to miss the hours spent in front of the keys.
Twenty-odd years later, I’m looking back on my foray into piano-playing with both fondness and regret. Fondness, because I do still remember some of my music-reading skills, and because I can muddle through one little Bach minuet if called upon. But most of my fondness is because I really enjoyed my time with Mrs. Bennett. She never made me feel bad because I wasn’t progressing very fast as a player, and I like to think that she enjoyed my company even if she couldn’t enjoy my playing.
Which may be why if Mrs. Bennett ever did hold a piano recital for her students, I was never invited. My parents swear she was having them all the time and just not telling me. Now, they could be messing with me, or it could absolutely be true. In fact, I’m chuckling at the idea that, a) I was so bad at the piano that I couldn’t even get invited to play at a recital where the audience has to listen and clap for you, and smiling that, b) Mrs. Bennett thought enough of my feelings to keep her recitals a secret from me for six years so I wouldn’t feel bad. If true, it was a small mercy, but a sweet one.
“But Ceason,” you’re asking, “if you don’t regret not being a better player, what do you regret?” Readers, I regret whole-heartedly that my parents bought a piano, put it in my bedroom, then remodeled the house so now I can’t get the piano out. Now, I’m not saying they did it on purpose as a punishment for wasting six years of their money on futile lessons, but not long before the end of my piano-playing career, they remodeled the upstairs of the house, and instead of taking that time to get rid of the piano when they literally had an opening in the hallway, they chose instead a floor layout that makes it impossible to get that dang piano out of the bedroom. For twenty-odd years, it’s taken up wall space and been used mainly to hold jewelry boxes and “Nightmare Before Christmas” snow globes. I use the piano seat to stand on to change lightbulbs, and before I loaned it to an actual musical friend, I was storing old remote controls and beaded bracelets under the cushion part.
Now one day, that piano will be gone. It’s a good piano, maybe needs some tuning. I’d like to see it go to the Alpine for plays and music nights, but I’ll settle for the home of some child who when asked, “Would you like to learn a musical instrument?” replies with an enthusiastic, “The piano!.” When the time comes for me and the old Kimbell to part ways, I’ll find someone who can delicately turn the piano on its side and dolly-wheel it out of the bedroom (wall-wings be danged), and I’m sure I’ll be a little nostalgic as it leaves my sight, a 600-pound reminder that even if my parents weren’t getting the music skills they wanted, I got to spend an enjoyable hour a week for six years with Mrs. Bennett and her rock wall garden.
And to the person looking for a flute for their kid, and who was concerned they may not stick with it? Get the flute and take your chances. If they give up, all you’re stuck with is a two-pound instrument you can shove in a closet. Get back to me when you’ve spent twenty years trying to figure out if you can find enough ramps and strong friends to lift a piano through a window, just to get some wall space back.