Music and the lesson of love

My sister and I both played instruments. I had talent. But she had something more.

John Nordell/The Christian Science Monitor/File

I remember when my sister began playing the violin. She was 7 years old. I was 9 and had been playing the piano for two years. How did she sound? Appalling. There’s little more troubling to the ear than the earnest screech of the beginner violinist.

Diane didn’t like the way she sounded, either. Practicing often left her in tears. But she didn’t quit. She loved playing the violin.

I was better at my instrument than she was at hers. Not only did I have those two years on her, but I also had talent. My teacher had told my folks that I had great potential. And because I was a good obedient girl growing up in the 1960s, I practiced every day. I went to music camp. I performed at recitals, even though I hated them. I got better and better. 

Everyone agreed that my sister lacked talent. But she loved playing the violin. I didn’t love making music as much as she did. But because I was the talented sister, everyone encouraged me to continue. 

Nobody encouraged Diane, but she kept at it anyway. She continued with her lessons. She practiced. She got better. 

At 12, she asked our parents if she could attend a full-time music academy. They said no. She just wasn’t good enough, they told her, to hope to make a living as a professional musician. Sending her off to music school would be a waste of time and money. 

Meanwhile, I’d discovered the British TV show “The Avengers.” I adored the show and watched it faithfully. It aired every Saturday at 3 p.m. Back then, you couldn’t tape a show to watch later. If you missed it when it aired, that was it.

Every Saturday at 3, I’d be in front of the TV. I let nothing interfere with my “Avengers” hour. 

When I was 13, my parents wrangled an audition for me with the best piano teacher in the area, and he agreed to take me on as a pupil. There was just one problem. The only time he had available to teach me? Saturday afternoons at 3. 

So I turned down this amazing opportunity. Sure, I wanted to become a better pianist. But I wanted to watch my show more.

My parents were floored. They didn’t understand. But they couldn’t make me. I’d finally figured out that just because you can do something really well doesn’t mean that you have to. 

I continued to play, but sporadically. Eventually, I stopped taking lessons. Today, I don’t even have a piano in my house.

My sister continued with the violin. Nobody encouraged her to become a musician. In fact, our parents actively discouraged her. She became an engineer. And then a wife and mom. But she never stopped making music. 

She played chamber music at home with other amateur musicians. She played in the pit for local community theaters. She continued to take lessons. 

When she was in her 40s, my sister switched careers. She went back to school and got a degree in music education. Now she’s a music teacher. She starts kids out on their first instrument and gives them all the support and encouragement she never got. 

And, of course, she continues to play. 

Recently, she and a pianist pal decided to put on a recital at a performance space at a local community college. A big crowd of friends and family turned up to listen to her play. 

She was wonderful.

As she played, I looked around at the audience. Everyone was obviously enjoying the music. It occurred to me that I was the only person in this room who remembered that 7-year-old kid making those perfectly awful sounds. I was the only one who knew how far she had come, despite everything.

Talent is important. But love is even more important. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Follow my sister.

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