A little encouragement goes a long way

My dad blasted opera music when I was in the womb to ensure that I’d soundly sleep through it once I was born. He didn’t want to have to adjust the volume on my account. I don’t blame him. Not only do I sleep soundly to any type of classical music to this day, but I’m also a music fanatic.

At 3 yrs old, I was placed at the piano and commenced piano lessons. When it was clear that my little fingers were still too young for the keys, lessons were postponed until I was 5. I am the youngest child in my family, and therefore a natural glutton for attention, so I was delighted by all the praise I’d get from family and visiting friends for my playing.

(I also like photographing pianos.)

Somewhere along the way, within the ten years of my lessons, this natural relationship with the piano turned sour. Maybe it was the long days at private prep school that stole time from my practicing, making me feel inadequate and behind in my lessons. Maybe it was not getting the music scholarship in high school, making me feel discouraged. Regardless from where this destructive seed originated, it was planted in my sensitive adolescent brain and just continued to grow. Stopping lessons was a relief since it meant no longer needing to face feelings of shame and inadequacy at my lessons. And I was now free to focus on “more important” things like academic work and college applications.

These negative associations with the piano settled into a painful estrangement. The longer I stayed away from the piano, the more my memory of previously perfected pieces diminished, along with my agility on the keys. This deterioration resulted in deeper feelings of incompetence and inadequacy, perpetuating the downward spiral. All the while, my love for the piano just continued to grow, which made things worse. I could barely listen to Chopin without being moved to tears – not for its beauty, but for its mocking quality of what I no longer had.

When I was earning money out of college, one of my first investments was in an electric piano and digital recorder. Not because I was a prolific songwriter, but because I secretly wanted nothing more than to become one. This was not a dream I shared often with others, since it made me shy and self-conscious to even think about it as a possibility, and part of me felt silly for even purchasing the equipment. And when the piano would sit in my apartment unused for months at a time, my feelings of silliness would return. Who am I really kidding, anyway?

Slowly, with help from writing, acting, and other creative outlets that allowed for healing self-expression, I began to revisit my relationship with the piano. I’d sit for only a few minutes at a time, but found myself naturally floating over keys in aimless improvisations here and there. I’d hear fun melodies in my head, and fumble on the keys to bring them to life. Those that I liked I recorded. This became my rare guilty pleasure that I allowed myself only when feeling especially indulgent, and when there were not “more important” things to do…you know, like laundry, cooking, shopping, etc. And I never bothered mentioning this pastime to others, lest they want to hear my little doodles and realize the hack that I was. What business did I have in making music anyway? I was even terrible at reading it! It was waste of time, really…

And this is how the next five or so years progressed. As my sense of self began to strengthen, the stranglehold that had developed around my self-permission to play began to loosen. My explorations on the piano began to become longer in length and freer of self-criticism. Lyrics for melodies began to present themselves, and I began filling a notebook with them. Pieces of songs began to form together.

(I like tinkering on the guitar too.)

This past month, I finally completed my first piano piece, complete with lyrics and voice. I hadn’t played piano in front of anyone for the last 12 years, never mind any original pieces. But I felt a shy need to share this one with my brother, a close sibling who strongly influenced my own musical palate. With a timid nervousness I sent him a recording via email. Just a rough draft of something I wrote, I told him.

Two hours later I got his email:

“So I just played this song a bunch of times. It is simply beautiful.  The piano, your voice, and the lyrics. It sounds professional, and that does not do it justice.  I am beyond impressed. I think you need to keep going on this. You have a gift.”

And so began the tears. Years of repression released. For so long I had replayed the story in my head that I was not good enough to write a song. I was not even worthy of the piano. And here was positive support and encouragement from a family member who has a track record of holding high standards for all things I do, from college essay writing, to choosing a career, to driving manual shift. Generally there is always room for improvement. But today I got his praise.

This push of encouragement inspired me to continue with other songs I had brewing, and with vigor I’ve been dedicating time to the the piano each day since. Over the last few weeks, I can honestly say that what was left of the darkness that had plagued my relationship with the piano has completely lifted. It is now my peer rather than my superior, my dancing partner instead of a disciplinarian, and playing music is a happy creative relief instead of a stress-inducer.  It is amazing how healing this familiar, old wound has greatly impacted my overall emotional health. A burden has lifted, and I simply feel more like myself.

While this healing process has certainly been going on for years, it is clear that a little encouragement from others may be the final push we need to get ourselves over a massive hill. Especially if we create that hill ourselves.

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