Last night, I visited a music studio to learn about taking piano lessons. Next week, I'll officially start playing piano again, for the first time in more than a decade. To celebrate this tentative return to music, here's my brief history with the piano:
1. My mom signed up herself, my sister, and me for piano lessons when I was ten; we were taught by a married couple who gave lessons at their house. I claimed I wasn't a beginner because we had a keyboard at home, and I sometimes pressed the buttons for the pre-set beats. At the first lesson, my teacher asked if I knew what the musical notes were called, and prompted me with "A, B, C..." I thought one of the notes was H, and had to be corrected.
2. After taking lessons for about a month, I asked our music teacher at school, Mr. Marshall, if I could play my six-note version of "Ode to Joy" for my classmates. In my music book, "Ode to Joy" was on the facing page of a song called "Speedy the Turtle"; when I sat down to play, Mr. Marshall announced, "Here it is! Speedy the Turtle!" I made a mistake and had to start over.
3. My sister and I played many duets together throughout our years of piano lessons. We also occasionally made up lyrics to pieces from our music books, including a song we called "I Like Eggs."
4. Thanks to delusions of grandeur, I thought I might be able to compose music. Freshman year of high school, we were supposed to do some kind of creative project for our English final, and I decided to write a song inspired by an Emily Dickinson poem. I tapped out something simple on the piano and then came to school with no plan for actually performing it to my class. I ran to the band room and burst in on a jazz band final, gasping, worried that I'd fail the final if I couldn't find a piano. Eventually, my classmates all had to trudge down to the school auditorium so I could play my thirty-second tune.
5. I first went to piano camp at Western Illinois University the summer before starting high school, with my good friend Laura, who took lessons from the same teacher. I would continue to go for two more years, both with my sister. Every year, I was one of the least advanced and least serious pianists at camp. Once, we had to introduce ourselves on the first day with our favorite composer, and I said John Williams; I thought I was very smart for knowing that he wrote the scores for Star Wars and E.T. But although most students were laughably more talented than me, that didn't actually seem to matter, in the sense that our teachers didn't fully know what to do with us. They were college professors charged with making a week of piano playing both fun and educational for teenagers. As a result, we invariably ended up doing some kind of stunt during the final recital on the last day of camp. One year, the entire group took turns playing "Happy Birthday" in different keys; another year, a trio of campers played a round of Brahms' "Lullaby" and pretended to droop over and fall asleep, one by one. My sister and her duet partner played "Chopsticks" with actual chopsticks that they wore in their hair buns and pulled out while playing.
6. That belief that it's necessary to spice up recitals seemed to be shared by our piano teachers at home, too. More than once at the yearly formal recital, they performed a bit in which the husband would pretend to tune the piano and then open it up to reveal a rubber chicken.
7. At camp, we were taught some basics of jazz piano as well as classical; my first year, we learned the elements of a blues song. That led to a portion of the recital in which a few campers, braver than me, stepped up to the microphone and delivered original "blues" lyrics, punctuated by finger snaps: "Last night at dinner, I ate some ham / Ohhh yeah, last night at dinner, I ate some ham / Let me tell you now, I'm just glad it wasn't spam."
8. Somehow, between the ages of 11 and 15, I had the idea that I could impress people by eating a lot of food. On one hand, I'm grateful for this misguided notion, and for the general luck, fast metabolism, and low-maintenance upbringing that kept anxiety about my body to a minimum at that age. On the other hand, this belief about food sometimes led to me cornering boys at pool parties and bragging that I'd just eaten eight slices of pizza. One night during piano camp, the staff ordered Domino's, and we could put in our orders ahead of time by paying for a specific number of slices. I declared that I was going to order a whole pizza and eat it all myself. The counselor responsible for distributing the pizza, Doug, seemed to like me and think I was funny (in a completely benign, teacherly way). As everyone else grabbed their slices and dispersed, I plopped down across from Doug with my pizza and began munching away with outsized braggadocio. Which quickly faded as I realized I was just sitting there chewing at him. I picked up my pizza box and sauntered away self-consciously.
9. Each year, the camper talent show was a big deal. This wasn't like Mean Girls, where everyone who's actually trying is vaguely embarrassing; this was a camp full of multi-talented performers eager to lend their trained voices and music skills to pop songs. My first year, two girls who had brought their guitars to camp played together and sang "Wish You Were Here" by Pink Floyd. I was mesmerized. I wanted so badly to do that. I spent the entire next year fantasizing about winning over the crowd, ideally with a wind machine blowing back my hair as I hit each power chord. (I didn't play or own a guitar at the time, though I would convince my parents to buy me one from the now-defunct store Media Play for my next birthday.) My second year at camp, one of my fellow pianists, who was 12 years old, strode onto stage with his harmonica around his neck and sang "Piano Man" while accompanying himself on both piano and harmonica. I was so shocked by his unexpected talent and confidence that I burst into tears. I continued to wish I were good enough to perform, but each year I simply sat back and cheered with everyone else. The audience adored the jokey routines, too, like a guy who did yo-yo tricks, a guy who chugged a bottle of water in three seconds, and a Blues Brothers act.
10. One of the Blues Brothers and I crossed paths. On the first night of camp that year, he was called up onstage during some instructional skit by the counselors and told to sing "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." He belted it out, walking to the edge of the stage and reaching out a hand to me in the front row as if to serenade me. I scrunched down, giggled, and blushed. Over the next few days, he would spot me in the dining hall or the dorm lobby; he'd point and yell, "Hey, it's you!" and I'd laugh and smile. I didn't have a crush on him, and the attention didn't feel like anything more than it was — he was just a big, goofy guy. On the last night of camp, there was a dance. Again, these music kids were not the type to hang on the sidelines; people were starting dance circles, pseudo-breakdancing, singing along to everything from Elvis to Nelly. The "Twinkle, Twinkle" singer saw me in the crowd and cried, "You! Hey, we have to dance." He led me onto the dance floor for a slow song, and then, because he was a foot taller than me, he knelt down so I could put my arms around him. With him kneeling, we were at eye level. I was wearing pinstriped dress pants — my uniform in high school, because I hated jeans — and a baggy Beatles T-shirt from Hot Topic. My wrists rested against the back of his neck. We shuffled, him shifting gamely from knee to knee, and I stammered conversation by asking where he was from. We both began to register discomfort; I worried that he'd think I really liked him, and I wondered if he wished he were back with his friends. When the song ended, he got to his feet and we parted ways with mumbled thanks.
There are many more stories I could tell about piano camp. My sister and I had endless inside jokes about our fellow campers. But back at home, by the end of high school, piano lessons had come to feel like a chore, though I still fantasized about being able to sit down and perfectly play popular songs. My teacher encouraged me to keep up with piano after high school, but though she gave me advice about where to find practice rooms on my college campus, I never made an effort to play once I was on my own.
Until now — suddenly, I'd like to be able to play music again. I'm not sure what I'll play or if anyone besides my teacher will ever see me do it, but I'm excited to tap back into this part of myself.