Picture it, a family standing around their piano as mother, father, brother or sister sits down to play the instrument, while the rest of the family members gaze with pride and sing in harmony. Add to that…whoever is playing, is doing it with delight and merriment.

Makes for a nice photo doesn’t it.

Yeah, well, that wasn’t us.

Mom and dad always said they knew exactly who was playing the piano even before entering the living room (later, the piano was moved to the den, but that’s a whole other story.) They knew exactly which daughter’s fingers were moving, or not moving, over the keys. (My brother, for some reason, was exempt from anything related to playing the piano.)

Daughter #1, of course, set the bar. Teaching little fingers to play was not a problem for her. She would be a hard act to follow. Her fingers danced over the keys, all in the correct tempo. She understood crescendo, allegretto, andante and legato, among all the other important musical terms.  She made reading music look easy, and she could play movie tunes or hymns. She had “sheet music” which was kind of a big deal in my mind. She could play really hard stuff that I could only dream of someday playing. Mom and dad were very proud of her. How do the rest of us live up to THAT?

Daughter #2 was another story. Mom and dad knew when she was playing because she pounded, as hard and loud as she could, through every song she began. However, she “began” every song over and over and over again. She’d get to about the fourth or fifth measure, stop, and then start over. Again. And, again. Mother said she knew when daughter #2 was playing because it was a race…it was loud, it was fast, she’d slide into home and she’d score. There was no “mezzo piano” in her world. Her interpretation of the term crescendo was not “getting louder,” it was “start out loud and just turn up the volume.”  No, in the world of piano, this would not be the route I should try to emulate.

Daughter #3 excelled in one song: Beethoven’s Fur Elise. She (and I), started piano lessons in the fifth-grade and completed lessons in the sixth- grade. I’m not sure how dad decided when we should start, and for how many years we should take lessons, but apparently the fifth and sixth- grades were the magical years. Daughter #3’s first piano recital song was Fur Elise, so of course, she had to memorize it. She memorized it up to the first “repeat” sign and that, as the saying goes, is all she wrote. Her teacher seemed okay with that. She played it for her fifth-grade recital, and again, for her sixth-grade recital. For her, the repeat sign meant “end of song.” After her second recital Fur Elise was the only song she ever played. And, perhaps not realizing it, she exercised daughter #2’s lesson method by starting, stopping, restarting, playing four measures, going back, starting over, and finally playing all the measures leading up to the first repeat sign. All LOUD. Always fast. And then, repeat.

Many young pianists are familiar with this book, Teaching Little Fingers to Play. Contributed photo

I’m daughter #4 so by the time I was FINALLY able to start lessons in the fifth-grade I thought I had witnessed a lot in the how-to-and-how-not-to proceed in the world of piano. Teaching Little Fingers to Play* had nothing on me. I was ready to climb the ladder of any series of lessons. I was in a hurry to try and catch up to my cousin Jackie, who had been taking lessons since the second-grade. The key word here is TRY. I never did catch up.

I hated practicing, especially practicing any assigned lessons. Instead, I liked to play hymns, or try to play daughter #1’s sheet music. Why oh why did I have to learn that other stuff, the stuff my teacher thought was important. My fifth-grade recital piece was Give My Regards to Broadway, and I hated every single thing about that song. During the recital I remember my hands shaking so much I could hardly touch the keys.

Alas, I had another year of lessons as I secretly scolded myself for having BEGGED dad to take them. For my sixth-grade recital piece my teacher relented to going off the grid of the lesson series and instead, let me play How Great Thou Art.  I specifically wanted to play that for dad. My hands were shaking as I played by memory and almost got through the whole thing until the ending, where I had added (with my mother’s idea and my teacher’s blessing) a unique finale of my own. Mom knew how it was supposed to end, and I remember her telling me afterwards how nervous she was when I stumbled with my finish. She knew I could do it, and after a few attempts in front of an audience, I actually did finish with my own embellishment.  I love that song for many unsaid reasons. After the sixth-grade I was done with lessons, but the playing continued, to my own tune.

I started playing more like daughter #1 and searched for sheet music for current movies and even dug out daughter #1’s old music that was still stored at home. I loved playing Chopsticks with all my sisters, but especially loved playing duets with daughter #3. Also, I would play while we sang. We thought we were actually pretty good, although no one was breaking down the front door, asking us to perform publicly.

Mom occasionally offered to have us play and sing at Ladies Aid. I’m not sure what mother was thinking when she had daughter #2, (you know, the pounding, fast, race-to-the-end player) accompany me while I played a coronet solo. I think I played a hymn. I’m not sure if my sister was playing the same one. The whole thing was a blur at the time (and still is). My sister told me never to ask her to accompany me again. The Ladies Aid never asked us back. Mom never asked again either.

My sisters and my cousins all put forth good efforts at church and Sunday school. I tried to play like my cousin Jackie, but I would never be that good. My cousin Mickey was THE downright genius on the piano as far as I was concerned. I could dream, but I would never play like her. No, I would be satisfied to just play in the privacy of our own home, play duets with my sisters and call it a wrap.

And so, the daughters handed down individual piano playing “skills and talents” to the next generation. All of daughter #1’s grandchildren play the piano and one, a high school senior, is already teaching piano lessons to about 25 students of her own. Daughter #2 said her boys learned how to tell time really well when they took piano lessons, i.e. “is my 15 minutes (of practice) up yet?” She said it was an investment in time management…how to tell time and how to waste it. The piano in daughter #3’s house was always a prominent part of the living room furniture when her girls were growing up, although I don’t remember much actual playing. Just like their mother, they may have one go-to song.

As for me, my daughters have their own Fur Elise in the form of Canon in D. My son, on the other hand, has followed my mantra…wasn’t crazy about taking lessons or practicing but will always play to his own tune, still playing today whenever he has the chance.

Just think. Take a family, insert a piano…

*https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Sylvanus_Thompson. Thompson was an American pianist, composer and educator. He maintained a long and distinguished career in piano, heading music conservatories in Philadelphia, Indianapolis and Kansas City. His piano methods include Modern Course for the Piano, Teaching Little Fingers to Play (the first part of the Modern Course), Adult Piano Course and Easiest Piano Course.