Short Story Saturday: Piano Pain

A sentence in my childhood journal says it best: “Today I started paino lessons.” Paino. It was a simple spelling mistake, one of more than I care to admit, but, oh, the irony. The pain, oh, the pain…o. Yes, if any instrument could doubtlessly be deemed an instrument of pain in my youthful mind, it was the piano. I hadn’t always felt this way. Once, the piano was held in the highest esteem. In my mind’s eye, I saw affected audiences bedazzled by stunning piano solos. I envisioned fingers flying over the keyboard as melodious notes soared in the air and settled in listeners’ souls. I dreamed of greatness.

But that was last week, before my first lesson. Today, I sat nervously on the couch outside the piano room, waiting for my turn. In the adjacent room, laughter, voices, and choppy notes rose together and met my ear. It didn’t ease my nervous nature. I balanced one dirty brown foot on top of the other as I listened to uneven notes rising in a rather rhythmic string. I probably should have washed my feet with the hose outside the house, I thought. No one ever did when they came in, but it would be nice to show a little extra effort when sitting down for a lesson. Oh, well. It was too late now. My long shorts reached my kneecaps, and the oversized t-shirt nearly made it to the same mark. Both articles of clothing were stained and a bit hole-y in places, but freshly washed. I’d pulled my hair back in a high ponytail and smoothed all the little flyaway hairs into temporary submission with handfuls of tap water. My hands were clean, at least. Well, as clean as I could get them. There were still dirty half moons under my nails, but I HAD scrubbed them with the nail brush.

I’d wanted to learn to play piano, but there wasn’t exactly a glut of piano players at the mission waiting to teach us; instead we just ran wild, day in and day out. I was good at running wild, climbing trees, picking fruit, and playing freeze tag; we learned life by model and mimic, teaching each other the parts we didn’t understand innately. But piano, we were well aware, needed a teacher. Nan fit that bill. She came down to Brazil as a short-termer, a teacher for one of the other families. I don’t know what her piano and teaching credentials were, but she offered to teach and a number of us eagerly accepted the invitation.

Stepping up, stepping down—pause—then a skip. The silly lyrics that went along with the simple three-figure exercise ran through my head again and again. That was last week’s lesson. I didn’t know what the corresponding notes were, but I remembered the finger placement and I practiced it on my leg as I waited…stepping up, stepping down.

When my turn came, I walked barefoot across the smooth, cool wooden floor and sat down next to Nan on the piano bench in the living room.

“Did you practice the music I gave you last week?”

I nodded shyly, looking down at the keys.

“Okay, very good. I’m sure we’re all set then. Why don’t you play the first song for me?”

I looked down at the keys and a rush of uncertainty appeared. Every one looked identical. I leaned in for a closer look at the practice booklet. Meaningless dots floated across orderly little lines. The letters FACE were jotted in pencil between the lines. Panic rose in my chest. My head grew light, and felt detached, a helium ballon, slipping out of an unsuspecting child’s hand. Pressure and I didn’t sit well with one another. Hesitantly, I set my fingers on the keys and took a deep breath.

“No, no, no! You’ve got the fingering wrong!”

Was that a shred of irritation in her voice?

“Pay attention. Where’s the middle C?”

I looked at the keys for too long, trying to remember. Patience with children may not have been her strongest trait, but I’m sure my silent hesitation didn’t help matters. I swallowed nervously and mumbled an apology.

“It’s not that hard! See? This is it. THIS is the middle C. Put your thumb right here, and try again. You’re never going to get anywhere with music if you can’t get the fingering right.”

I repositioned my right hand and played the song, all the while looking down at my fingers. That was not acceptable.

“What are you doing?”

No reply.

“Look at the page! Look at it! For crying out loud.”

I looked at the practice booklet, leaning in close until the notes came into focus.

“Sit up straight! No slouching!”

I sat up straight and the pages faded into a book-shaped blur of fuzzy white.

“Now look at the book and play. The book! Not your fingers!”

I could almost feel the sorrow and angst I was subjecting her too. One lesson in, and I was a hopeless cause. I’d been so happy about learning how to play the piano, but I couldn’t do this. Embarrassment, frustration, and shame trickled in. Tough-skinned I most certainly was not. Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry, I ordered myself again and again. But another order was apparently the straw that broke the camel’s back and I couldn’t contain myself. The floodgates broke and saltwater streamed down my cheeks.

Unsure of what else to do, I stood up, rushed out the door, ran all the way home, slammed the gate, threw myself on my bed and cried my heart out. Mom heard the sobs, slams, and thundering footsteps and set her book aside. She slid her glasses off the top of her head where they often rested while she read, and opened our bedroom door.

“What’s wrong, kiddo?” She sat silently, stroked my hair and waited for a reply.

“I hate piano!” I finally erupted in a mess of explosive uncertainty. “I hate it! And I just can’t do it…I can’t get it right, and, and..I TRIED, but I just can’t do it! I tried! And then, and then, and then, NAN got mad and she yelled at me for not getting it right…and I just hate it. I hate it, I hate it, I hate it! I don’t ever want to go back every again.”

“It’s only been two lessons and learning an instrument does take some time…”

“I know,” I sobbed. “I KNOW! I want to learn how to play the piano, but I…Nan is so mean…I don’t want to take lessons with her anymore, and I don’t think she wants to teach me either. She was getting so frustrated with me.” My voice peaked and squeaked then grew more and more quiet as the rant transformed from an external sob to an internal mumble. I buried my face in the lavender pillow on the bed.

Mom gathered me up in a hug and smoothed my hair as she let my sobs evaporate into deep breathing, hiccups, and, finally, complete calm.

“I’m sorry the lesson didn’t go well, Hun. If you’re sure you don’t want to take piano anymore, I’ll talk to Nan. I know you think she’s being mean, but you need to be patient with her, too. Think of her perspective and everything that she’s going through right now. She’s very young, living in a foreign country, surrounded by a language and culture that she doesn’t know. That can be really frustrating. I know you’re upset, but she’s trying. She really is. We need to cut her some slack, okay?”

I nodded grudgingly. “I just don’t want to do it anymore,” I whispered insistently.

Mom kissed the top of my head. “Okay. You can stop the lessons. Just lie down for a little bit and rest. You’ll feel better soon. I’ll talk to Nan this afternoon, okay?”

I don’t know what Mom said to Nan. I don’t know if she apologized for her emotional daughter’s irrational tears and running retreat from the piano room, or if Nan apologized for taking out her frustrations out on a shy, introverted student, struggling to make it through her second piano lesson. Maybe Nan begged my parents to stop the lessons, deeming me a hopeless cause. All I know is I never went back. My parents usually encouraged us to stick things out, but in this case, I didn’t get the least bit of resistance.

It later came to our attention that I had horrible eyesight. I couldn’t follow the notes because I couldn’t see them. That, at least, is the theory. In reality, I’ve never been the least bit musical. To this day, I enjoy pretty piano music. To this day, I can’t carry a tune to save my life. I don’t regret the decision to put the piano behind me. I don’t regret it one little bit…

© Angela M. Adams


About Short Story Saturday: Last year, Short Story Saturday jumped around all over the place. It included current writing and very old. There was fiction, nonfiction, and something in between. One week I wrote about garbage disposal in Japan; then came a story about my husband and I shooing a bunny out of our garden; and there was a fictional piece about dying young mixed in there, too. No rhyme, no reason. 2015 will likely be more of the same. I’d like to focus on childhood, especially my years growing up in South America, but I’m not sure I’m ready to promise that. We shall see…

All posts on this site were written by Angela M. Adams (unless otherwise noted) and they may not be copied elsewhere without her permission. Thank you!

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