Learning to Play

Learning to Play

Brad Shurmantine

“Everyone has heard the story which has gone the rounds of New England, of a strong and beautiful bug which came out of the dry leaf of an old table of apple-tree wood, which had stood in a farmer’s kitchen for sixty years…which was heard gnawing out for several weeks, hatched perchance by the heat of an urn…Who knows what beautiful and winged life…may unexpectedly come forth from amidst society’s most trivial and handselled furniture, to enjoy its perfect summer life at last!” —Henry David Thoreau

When I was a kid my mother had me take piano lessons. We had a player piano in our basement. It was the most remarkable thing we owned but we kept it in the basement, a huge, unfinished space with concrete walls and no ceiling, just floor joists and pipes and spiders. My mother probably thought the piano would lure us down there, along with all the neighborhood kids, and our basement would be filled with music and dancing and become the social epicenter of the neighborhood. We had boxes of music rolls and we’d plug in one and the keys would bounce up and down as a ghost played, “Bicycle Built For Two.”

But the lessons didn’t take. The teacher was a kind lady but she had a messy house. The stickers she awarded me for completing a lesson couldn’t overcome the dread I felt going downstairs to our cobwebby basement and sitting all alone in the gloom, plucking at those keys. Plus, baseball. Then one night my cousins came over and we were all downstairs raising hell and in some horrible act of mindless vandalism we unspooled all the music, all over the floor, and destroyed most of the music rolls. And then the player piano mechanism stopped working, and the piano just sat untouched in a corner of our basement for the next forty years.

When we had children, we bought a piano from our next door neighbor and carefully selected a good teacher, who had a clean, elegant home. Kara stuck with it and played beautifully. Then she stopped one day, just dug her heels in, a month before her final recital. No more. She would not sit at that piano.

Did we do something wrong? Did she just snap under the pressure of our huge parental expectations? I didn’t want her to quit; you don’t quit. Finish the month out, give the final recital, finish things. But we never badgered her about playing. We loved hearing her play, but we thought our joy tiny compared to the vast pleasure and satisfaction we thought she must be feeling. Then she stopped.

One of the sorry mysteries of my life. It made me sad to walk past that piano for the next ten years and hear its silence. We kept it dusted and polished, our best piece of furniture.

As retirement approached, one day it struck me: I could learn to play it. Why not? I’d have plenty of time on my hands. Why not? After sixty years, I resumed my lessons.

Now I sit at my piano most every day and try to learn something. My teacher is a phenomenally talented young man who looks at sheet music and hears it; he can play a piece fairly well on sight. But after two years of lessons I still need Every Good Boy Does Fine and Good Burritos Don’t Fall Apart to identify a note; it’s all hieroglyphs to me. And the torturous way I figure out a song, which finger hits which key, I can’t practice comfortably when anyone’s around. I feel so sorry for them.

Still, I have fun staving off senility, breeding lilacs out of the dead land. My body is still limber and compact and healthy. I go to the gym most days, and stretch and power-walk on the treadmill for 45 minutes while reading a novel on my iPad, then soak in the hot tub. Sitting there, I often think of Pat, one of the excellent assistant principals I once worked with, who grew huge and unhealthy as she aged and died just a couple months after she retired. Unfair. That’s not going to happen to me. Growing huge. I may suddenly die, of course. Those things happen.

But until it does, I have time. Time to plunk away at those keys. Time for an afternoon nap every single day. Time to lie on the couch and wake and stare at the ceiling and hear the house creak, hear new things wiggle out of the woodwork, being born, taking my place.

Brad Shurmantine