My piano bench pad is wearing out. I suppose that is a good thing. Five of my children, ages 6 thorough 15, practice piano regularly religiously, you might say. On Tuesdays, the piano teacher comes to our house for three hours.
That’s a really long time to keep the other kids quiet and out of the room, but that is not even the end of it. When she leaves the kids are so enthusiastic about their music they often want to practice all day. Sometimes all week. May I tell you a secret? It used to drive me crazy.
I know, I know. What an awful thing to say. Studying music helps improve test scores. It helps one think spatially. Being able to play the piano is a gift. It enriches the children’s minds and lives. I should be happy they want to practice. But the plink, plink, plunk for nearly five hours on Tuesdays, and other times during the week, is a long time. Even for a mother who likes classical melodies.
I really don’t mind the mastered, sweet-sounding minuets or powerful concertos that my 13- and 15-year-olds practice over and over. Sometimes, in fact, I will slip into the living room where they are playing and lie down on the sofa, eyes closed, to enjoy the music that I never learned to play. As their fingers glide over the keys and bodies gently sway unintentionally to the rhythm of Bach's or Beethoven's or Mendelssohn’s pieces, I am amazed at God’s gift of harmony and song. I am amazed that my offspring can do this wonderful thing that I could never do. And I am equally amazed that God entrusted them (and their musical education) to me, who can barely find middle C on the keyboard.
But it takes so much effort to schedule the lessons, to keep the ones not playing quiet during them, to keep track of the younger ones' songs and practice times, to listen and encourage daily, and let’s face it, to come up with the cash to pay our patient teacher. I have asked myself on days the children have struggled with notes and finger positions (neither of which I can help them much with), “Is it worth it?”
Last summer Caroline, who was 14, played in her first piano competition. It was held at a college in a real auditorium, with three somber judges scribbling notes from afar. Before the event she practiced for hours a day, for months at a time, honing her skills on the piece she had chosen L’Orage (“The Storm”) by Burgmuller aptly named because of its intense, fast beat. The day of the competition Caroline looked beautiful as she approached the grand piano on stage. She wore a flowing black dress with ladylike but sensible shoes which allowed her comfortable access to the piano pedals. As she seated herself at the instrument with perfect posture something not achieved without much effort if you know Caroline I could sense both her nervousness and determination. At that moment I was ashamed that I had ever questioned if the music education was too much trouble, and that I had selfishly escaped to the upstairs bathroom for breaks from the sound of the piano in the early years. Right then I knew the effort was worth this one, single moment, when Caroline had the courage to walk alone on stage and play. That day she offered her talent bravely for the experts to judge, at an age when just walking into a room full of peers can sometimes be nerve-wracking enough.
Caroline started off beautifully, just like she practiced at home, but then stumbled over a few keys. I held my breath. Quickly she recovered and finished the piece rather well, but not quickly enough, in the judges' opinion. I knew she must be disappointed, but I was immensely proud of her. She had worked hard. She had given it her best. To anyone else but trained judges, her mother thought, the piece sounded spectacular.
It was then I thought that God must be like the parent and we are like the piano student. He applauds and encourages the sincere efforts of His children, but the incessant noise of the learning curve is surely no joy to hear, especially at the beginning. Without a doubt it seems we will never learn sometimes, as we plink, plink, plunk through the challenges God allows in our lives. But over time, with His immeasurable grace, we do learn. We may make mistakes at critical times, but God knows the intent of our hearts. Often we try again, and sometimes we may even gain some proficiency in doing His will.
Worthwhile objectives are always hard work. Good marriages, raising children, being good Catholics, and yes, even learning to play the piano are not goals quickly achieved, nor should they be. The effort itself is the chiseler, providing the very formation needed for the goal.
Caroline did not place at the piano competition, but the prize had already been won. I told her how proud I was of her persistence, determination and performance. Then I shared that she wasn’t the only one benefiting from instruction in this instrument. Mom, too, I told her, had learned her own piano lesson.
Theresa A. Thomas, wife of David, is a homeschooling mother of nine children, as well as a freelance writer and newspaper columnist for Today’s Catholic. Look for her contribution in Amazing Grace: Stories for Fathers, due out from Ascension Press later this year. This article originally appeared in Today’s Catholic.