I started learning the piano when I was four. I was so tiny, I couldn’t reach the pedals. They had to add blocks — like on an old-fashioned bicycle — so I could use them.
By the time I was 10 or 11, I played pretty well. Not as well as I was supposed to play, but well enough to play complicated music, which, as it turns out, could be heard all over the neighborhood. It was amusing listening to all the neighbors humming whatever I was practicing.
The house I lived in was on top of a hill and the sound of the grand piano wafted with the breeze.
By the time I was 16 and starting college (I skipped 7th grade), I decided to be a music major. Not because I was a brilliant pianist. I wasn’t. But I really liked my piano teacher. Coming as I did from a dysfunctional family, she was the nicest adult person I knew and I adored her.
The problem was not that I didn’t play well. I played almost well enough to be a professional. In the music business, the difference between playing “almost well enough” and “well enough” is a gap the size of an ocean. It sounds like a minor thing, but in music, it isn’t small. It’s huge.
I remained a music major despite all hints to the contrary that said: “You aren’t going to make it.”
These hints included having very small hands, which meant a lot of “large” music was impossible for me. It included a number of teachers pointing out to me that doing well on exams wasn’t going to “do it” for me as a musician. I was okay, but I wasn’t great. I didn’t want to be a music teacher and I wasn’t a composer.
I didn’t see myself as a conductor either — and piano was the wrong instrument for me. Unfortunately, it was the only one I knew — other than a little bit of messing with a guitar or a ukulele. And even worse, I had a case of stage fright so severe I couldn’t play for my teacher, much less an audience. I should add that I never overcame it.
I was one credit away from finishing my music major when I realized there was no future for me in professional music. I switched to speech & drama (a combined major) which was the degree I eventually got.
It was even less useful than music. By the time I completed college, I realized what I really wanted to do, but I would need an extra year of school to make up for some of the basic courses I’d missed — like “economics,” and “political science,” et al. Somehow, without realizing it, I had actually finished my major as well as the required number of credits for graduation.
No matter how hard I begged — and my professors begged with me — they would not let me stay an extra year and complete a second B.A. These days, it would be no problem, but back then, schools were a lot more rigid than they are these days.
I didn’t have the basics for an M.A. in anything in which I was interested, so I said “screw it” and went off into the world where I did what I always wanted to do anyway: write.
Until a few years ago, though, I could still play. The only thing that stopped me was pain from arthritis in my hands. Unlike arthritis in the rest of my body, “hand” arthritis is the result of years of playing the piano. Almost every serious pianist retires by the time they hit their 60s because their hands no longer work. It’s the price you pay for pounding on the keyboard from age four.
My piano teacher had trouble playing for more than a few minutes and her older sister, who played brilliantly, could barely perform at all.
I finally sold my piano. I couldn’t play anymore and it killed me to see it waiting there and not be able to use it. I still have a ukulele, though. Just in case.