INSTRUMENTAL AND PERFORMANCE – Marilyn Armstrong

FOWC with Fandango — Instrumental

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.”

Piano lessons

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.

Everything comes with a price tag. The funny thing is I knew this, even when I was quite young. But “60” was a million years in my future … and now it’s a pretty long way in my past.

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.

Author: Marilyn Armstrong

Writer, photography, blogger. Previously, technical writer. I am retired and delighted to be so. May I live long and write frequently.

18 thoughts on “INSTRUMENTAL AND PERFORMANCE – Marilyn Armstrong”

  1. I started piano pretty young too, Marilyn. Not particularly good but I still enjoy it. I had to give it up when the children were really young because they would inevitably bang away on it at the same time. All our children took lessons on the piano and then some moved on to other instruments. Try living with a drummer. Music is so important that I put up with a heck of a lot of noise before it paid off.
    Leslie

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    1. I stopped practicing when Owen was little because he didn’t wake up easily, but the piano woke him every time. By the time I was ready to practice, I was working full time and mothering the rest of the time and there wasn’t any time to practice. Finally, I had time to practice when I retired … but my hands were painfully arthritic by then. C’est la vie. It’s not like the world lost a great musician.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. I was beginning to practice, but the pain was really bad. Not dull pain. Sharp shooting pain. I had about 10 minutes, then I had to soak both hands in ice. It wasn’t worth it. I could have had surgery, but it turns out I also had cancer, so I passed on the hand surgery and now, it’s too late.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. One of our bigger local music shops has a ukulele class every Saturday morning. Sometimes I just go to hear them play. Let me know when I can sign you up, Marilyn. It’d be so much fun!

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    1. You don’t really need a class for ukulele. It’s a VERY easy instrument. Pretty much anyone with an ear can learn it. I haven’t because I haven’t had the motivation. Or, more to the point, between photography and writing and living, there really isn’t any time left.

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  3. I relate with many things in your post.
    Mum bought a upright piano and signed us six kids up for lessons. But we wouldn’t practice. And she couldn’t make us. And Dad didn’t care – probably didn’t want to pay for the lessons. I’d think I had talent – and my hands were big enough. But I wanted to go outside and play. It’s one of my deepest regrets that I didn’t go through with it.
    College? Higher Education? Wasted a few years and a lot of money there. Never did figure out where I belonged. I think I was supposed to be a hockey Superstar, but my parents didn’t care about that.
    Maybe I shoulda joined the Army? I like shooting things. And in the Army it’s legal.

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    1. We all go to college too soon. By the time we begin to get an inkling of what we are supposed to do, we’re pretty much finished. I was only 19 when I finished, so it wouldn’t have killed anyone to let me stay another year, but they wouldn’t do it. I still don’t really understand why.

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  4. Very thought-provoking post, Marilyn. I took piano lessons and never practiced enough to be accomplished. I regret that, sometimes. I also didn’t stick with the career that my first degree afforded and went back to school to be a teacher in my mid-40’s. While teaching, I figured out that I really wanted to write:)

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    1. I keep saying it. We start college too young and are forced to make a lifetime decision when we have NO idea what we want to do with our lives. We should all be required to take a couple of years off between high school and college and come back when we’ve had a little time to think about it. But this country isn’t designed that way. More’s the pity.

      Liked by 1 person

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