The last time I had sat down at the piano, Richard Nixon was president.
I'd stopped taking lessons a few years earlier, after I discovered dating. Lessons were torture. My teacher sported big floppy hats and wore garish makeup. She hummed loudly and out of tune as I played for her. Although I enjoyed playing the latest pop songs, I hated practicing the scales and classical arrangements that Mrs. Riebold insisted I learn.
Then, after a divorce, my father sold the piano. I told myself I didn't care. Occasionally, when I'd find myself near a piano, I'd muddle through a quick rendition of "Heart & Soul," or "Do-Re-Mi," the tunes that any 9-year-old can pick out.
Shortly after the Clintons moved into the White House, my husband, children, and I moved to a house of our own. With more space, Steve, my husband, began lobbying me to buy a piano. Although a baby grand was prominently displayed in the house where he grew up, no one played it. He saw himself learning to play as an adult, and he hoped the children would gain an appreciation of music.
I was full of reasons why not. It was way too costly the initial expense, the frequent tunings, the lessons, the sheet music, the commitment! I wanted to travel lightly through life. A piano would be such a big object, smacking of permanence. But Steve kept after me. "It will cost less than summer camp for one child. Less than our trip to Disney World, less than a set of braces," he pointed out, "all of which we somehow managed to afford."
So it was with much trepidation that I accompanied my husband to "just look" at some pianos for sale at our local college. Once there, I gave in. Within hours, a polished mahogany upright piano was delivered to our living room.
That night, I dug out my old sheet music and plunked down on the piano bench. But after 30 years, I couldn't read the notes. So, with my family, I looked at the music as an archaeological dig through my past. Each piece was carefully annotated by Mrs. Riebold with the date of the lesson. There were scrawled drawings I knew were scattered throughout the books. My younger sister, 5 at the time, had drawn ghosts screaming "BOO" in the margins in a failed scheme to frighten Mrs. Riebold from the house. And I discovered one lesson dated Nov. 21, 1963 the day before President Kennedy was shot.
The next day, I found a teacher for the family and me.
The first lesson was intimidating. There was so much I couldn't do: read music, play with both hands at the same time. Yet after I stumbled through a few easy pieces for my teacher, and he smiled and said genuinely, "That's good," something shifted within me. And when I showed him one of my favorite pieces, Beethoven's "Für Elise," whose notes looked like hieroglyphics, I was stunned when he said, "You'll be playing this very soon."
I began playing each day, reviewing musical notation and attempting the exercises from my first-grade lesson book. After a few weeks, my sight-reading was back, and my fingers remembered the old patterns. I promoted myself to second grade. Soon, I could play part of "Für Elise" with much more feeling than I'd mustered as a child and with more enjoyment. Those childhood lessons had staying power! I could still stretch an octave, keep a beat, and follow a tune.
Before my return to the piano, when I had a free moment, I felt obligated to do the things I had to do wash a load of laundry, weed the garden, empty the dishwasher. Now, I am at the piano. And before, when my mind was idle, it latched onto one obsessive thought after another. What to make for dinner. Whether it is time to color my hair. Now, when idle, my mind is trilling a lovely melody, moving my fingers through a complicated passage, looking forward to playing it myself. It is a far better place for my mind to be.
While I hated practicing as a child, now I'm eager to progress in my lessons. I'm not bored playing the same two bars 35 times to get the fingering just right. I know that this incremental improvement is at the heart of practicing an instrument. There is no particular end in sight. The pleasure is in the journey. And when I do get something right, and the notes flow with power and grace, I'm transported to a place I haven't really been before.