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Friday, December 6, 2013

Play. At Any Age!

Music heals. I’m hardly the first human being to draw this conclusion. But when you experience the healing first-hand, it feels like your own discovery. Last night I played piano for a little while. I hadn’t played much in the last few years, and it felt really good.

Even close friends reading this may be surprised to learn that I have a piano and that I know how to play a little. It doesn’t come into conversation much. Art is a bigger passion for me. But music has always been a piece of my history, too.

My dad’s father was a pianist, and his mom an organist. My mom and her sisters all played guitar at one point, and all of them sing. When I was a child I began piano lessons in first grade. I still remember my piano teacher, Mrs. Schaefer. We still have the books of piano songs she gave us, with her distinctive hand-written notes in pencil in the margin.

It’s been nearly thirty years since I stopped taking lessons. I took them for five years, and I’m trying to remember why I stopped. I guess I didn’t want to learn harder pieces! I’m so lucky that my parents saved the piano books from my single-digit years. There are pages of sheet music with notes I drew at age nine or ten: notes as round and full as balloons, the marks of a young child. I feel such nostalgia as I look at those notes. It’s an instant trip back in time.
I’m still marveling at how much peace I felt playing the piano last night. I lost myself in the music, and forgot about the birthday I’ve been dreading. The piano connects me to the child I was. Making music is something you can do at any age, and perhaps this is why I felt such peace as I sat with my hands on the keys. I’m feeling and looking a little older, which is hard to accept, but the piano doesn’t notice the laugh lines around my eyes or the gray hair stubbornly elbowing its way into my brown locks.

All year I’ve been struggling with a way to accept turning forty. Friends who are older say it’s no big deal, but while I appreciate their support, their reassurances didn’t show me how to accept something I have trouble accepting. (I suppose no one can provide a recipe for how to accept something. Acceptance is something that can’t be found by following a series of steps. There’s no one formula for accepting something hard. But still. I needed a guide!)

All year I’ve wondered how to accept this milestone and all it includes. In the last week or so I’ve become a little more accepting of it. And last night, as I sat down at the piano and tried playing a few songs, something came to me. Music could help me cross this bridge into my 40s.

Piano as the catalyst to a peaceful transition? This really took me by surprise. I thought I was supposed to accomplish certain tangible goals before forty. Forty became the deadline, and I felt pressure to accomplish things. I suppose it’s quite hard to feel peace about a milestone if you are spending time and energy trying to achieve things before the giant, ticking clock rings its ear-splitting alarm. So no, I didn’t feel anything close to peace as I eyed this looming day. I had no clue about how to make peace with it. It didn’t occur to me that peace might find me.

As I sat at the piano last night, slowly picking my way through a few songs, I felt good. Even when I hit incorrect notes. Even though I was slow. Even though the piano hasn’t been tuned in years.

To people who pick up an instrument every week or every day, like my musician friend Ed, it must seem strange that it took me so long to realize that music could ease this transition I’ve been dreading. To musical people, the power of music is obvious. The joy of music is clear. The healing ability of music is apparent every time they hit a note or strike a chord. For those of us who have been away from making music for a long time, rediscovering it is like falling in love again. It’s a surprise, an unexpected joy, to realize that music is an old friend who is just as easy to be with after years away.

Over the years, I occasionally sat at a piano, playing things I remembered. I learned violin and recorder in school, and I sang in choirs in high school and college. Music was still part of my life but it had been years since I sat at a piano regularly.

Years passed and I nearly forgot about my parents’ piano, tucked into an unused room at their house. I became a parent and free time for hobbies became a rare commodity. The first two years were all about survival! One day while visiting my friend Sue, I fiddled around on her piano a little bit and it struck me how good it felt to play. I decided to ask my parents if Hubby and I could have the piano, since no one used it. They said yes and we drove it from their city to ours. I played regularly for a while but soon I had another child, and another. The piano took a back seat to caring for babies, and I only sat down at the piano occasionally. I decided not to have it retuned unless I was playing it more than few times a year (which I wasn’t) so it remained untuned and unplayed. Maybe if I’d had it tuned I might have gone back to the piano sooner but who knows? Sometimes a break from something makes your return to it more meaningful.

I’m looking back at the last few months, wondering when and how the pieces of this puzzle came into place. Maybe Ed’s reconnection with music this year planted a seed in my brain. This year my dear friend Roxie mentioned how much playing the piano relaxes her. Another friend talked about her son’s piano lessons. These comments must have made a subliminal impact on me. I didn’t have one Eureka moment where I saw “music” written across the sky, a clear answer to my stress about turning forty. But these pieces must have come together over time. At the library a week ago I checked out a book of piano songs and I photocopied some of them a few days ago. I’m building a little collection of songs that make me happy, songs I want to teach myself to play. Maybe this collection of songs is the map I’ve been seeking all year, a guide to feeling peace with my new decade. I requested that my birthday-Christmas gift would be to get the piano tuned and I plan to play it often.

As I creative person, I am not shocked that making music calmed me down yesterday. But I was surprised at how much happiness it brought me. Scientists have studied how making art and making music promote good health. Doing art (even if we don’t finish a project) distracts us from our worries and it slows breathing and lowers blood pressure. I know all this to be true when I do art projects, but it amazed me how much making music calmed me yesterday. Relearning the piano is also a good challenge to give myself. I’ve forgotten some of what I learned so many years ago. I’ll be learning again, and that feels exciting.

I’m so lucky that I grew up in a family that valued creativity. I am so fortunate that my parents chose to pay for piano lessons instead of spending on the status symbols that some other grownups prioritized. I’m really grateful that my parents gave me the piano that I learned on. I’m thankful that I’ve found some peace through piano playing. A reunion with an old friend, music, is a wonderful way to start a new decade. 

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