I first took piano lessons when I was seven. I was probably asked at some point whether I was interested in lessons, though I seem to remember it being phrased in a manner that indicated that there was a right answer, and that the right answer was "yes." I enjoyed it enough — I liked the idea of playing songs, though scales and exercises were tiresome — but it was a hobby. My teacher was a lovely woman from Poland who learned to play at the age of three. She told me stories about her own piano teacher, whom she said used to monitor her posture by poking her in the back with a pin if she slouched.
At the end of my earliest lessons, she would play something complex for me. She loved Chopin, and brought me an inexpensive bust of his likeness one Christmas. Sometimes, especially during the early days, she would give me listening tests. "Her ear is almost perfect," she once told my mother. "But she needs to get better at sight reading." I took lessons from her for three years, until she moved her family back to Poland; we moved to another city not long after. I didn't pick things up with a new teacher once we did.
I did not like to practice.
Aleksandra had told me to practice for an hour each day, starting with scales, then with technical exercises and then with repertoire pieces. As a seven year old, the thought of sitting still and doing any one thing for a whole hour was mind numbing. As for the scales and the exercises, I just wanted to play the damn songs. I was pretty good at some of them — the ones I liked — because those were the ones I played most. Sometimes, when I would rather be playing with the neighbours' grandkids or playing video games with my dad or just being by myself, I would tell my mother that I didn't want to take lessons anymore. "You'll regret it when you're older," she said. My grandparents used to say the same thing. I didn't understand; I had no ambitions of becoming a concert pianist. It was a hobby. I would regret nothing. And yet they were right.
I didn't pick up lessons again after we moved, and I didn't really regret it until I was about 17. Shortly after finishing high school, I told a musically gifted friend that I was considering lessons again. She offered to teach me and ran me through a few pieces that summer. We both began university that fall and our schedules got in the way. I bought myself a keyboard after I got my degree, determined to teach myself some things if not take up formal studies again. Work intervened. I found myself working unpredictable hours; I later got a full-time job that saw me officially assigned to a night shift and moved around to other shifts on a regular but unpredictable basis. One day, while talking about musical training with a coworker, I said that I'd always felt that if I found myself with conventional work hours I would take lessons again. I kept thinking about it that way: someday, one day, when there's time.
Then I started running, then couldn't run anymore and decided it was time to stop waiting until there was time.
I met my new piano teacher last week. She is a kind, funny woman in what I'd guess are her sixties. She had me bring my old piano books (I only had one at my apartment; my parents might still have the rest) to the interview and had me play something. I made some mistakes; she told me I was going too fast and that I need to think things through. She told me I'd be working with scales and triads and practicing for about an hour a day. I understand it all now, nearly 20 years later. Running changed my brain. While training for my two half-marathons I ran for at least an hour at a time, four or five times per week. The absence of that kind of structure has been unsettling. I'm looking forward to this.
I've been telling a friend about how excited I am for this. "Art is wasted on the young," she said. She was joking, but I think she has a point. As a seven year old, piano lessons were one of the compulsory things I had to get through before I could go off and have fun. Doing something purely because you want to is pretty fantastic.
"We're going to have fun," my new teacher told me. "It's going to be hard work, and you have to slow down, but we're going to have a good time."
I think so too.
For Aleksandra, who I can only assume is still banging out Heroic Polonaise somewhere.