Adult learning: a beginner at 37, was I strong enough to fail?

Woman at piano, with three daughters holding their ears

Photo credit: Chick Rice, 2002. All Rights Reserved.

I’ve been a professional author and editor for decades. But the fear of contracting, finishing and releasing a book never really ends. Fear is part of life and learning. Below is a reprint of an early article I wrote, as my career was just getting started. Enjoy!

 Me, in Concert 

 Not long ago I joined a dozen children and a handful of parents gathered around a gleaming piano. Nervousness hummed in the air as fidgety students waited to play. I was nervous too; I wanted my children to do well. But that wasn’t the only reason my stomach squirmed like a squid. Today, for the first time, I would be performing myself.

I’d flirted with music lessons off and on since the age of five, when my mother, tired of reminding me to practise, let me quit piano. Just as well; I was too timid to perform. Later I sat in the woodwind section of the junior-high band, safely out of the limelight, happily adding to what was probably the worst-ever rendition of “The Entertainer,” from the movie The Sting. But my next school didn’t have a band, so the clarinet was relegated to the closet. Still, music was around: I joined choirs, hummed along with the radio and whistled while I worked. Before I knew it, I had a family.

But something was missing—until I saw this ad: “Used piano. Suitable for beginner. $100.” My girls were just the right age for lessons, and more importantly, they wanted them. All we needed was an instrument. I piled the kids into the fan, and off we went to see it.

It seemed like a hundred bucks wouldn’t buy much of a piano: One leg was held in place with cardboard, at least a dozen keys were defective, and it was as ugly as unwashed linoleum. Still, enough of the main keys worked, and it didn’t sound bad, at least to my untrained ear. I plunked down my money and bought it.

Initially, excitement ran high, but less than a year into lessons, practising dwindled, then almost stopped.

“I hate theory!” I heard.

“I don’t get it. It’s frustrating!”

“Why do I have to take piano lessons, anyway?”

I told the girls they’d have to finish the year, to give it a chance.

Their response? “If you want to play piano so badly, you should take lessons yourself.”

I thought about it. Why not?

A tiny forgotten thrill bubbled up inside me as I phoned to sign up for lessons. A door was opening into a world I’d only glimpsed long ago. I imagined my fingers floating effortlessly over the keys, coaxing soothing melodies from the ivories—simple ones, of course; I wasn’t completely naive. 

Once I started, though, my hands became claws poised to attack. And the keys? Well, they all looked alike. The girls took great satisfaction from seeing my struggle. I think they enjoyed listening to my pitiful chords, my complaints and my apologies. “I haven’t practised much this week,” I’d admit. Or, “I haven’t warmed up yet; I hurt my wrist; the dog ate my music book.”

I’d forgotten how are it was to keep at something while having more failures than successes.

This is hard work, I thought after a few weeks, a seed of respect sprouting for my kids. How long had it been since I’d had to learn something new? I’d forgotten how difficult it was to keep at something while having far more failures than successes. I remembered the fear of not knowing what everyone else apparently understands, of having the spotlight swing to you, pointing out your hopeless incompetence.

Still, joining my daughters in their torture seemed to inspire them to hang in there a little longer.

At the recital Stephanie, our first daughter, took her place at the piano, and my pulse started thudding. She puts tremendous demands on herself and takes failure hard. My breath caught as her fingers danced over the keys, drawing out fields of violets and laughter and sunshine. She returned to her seat with shining eyes.

Then our second daughter, Andrea, was up. Recently, to my surprise, she’d become enthusiastic about certain pieces, practising just for fun. Today, she vaulted through her song, her fingers hitting the keys confidently. She finished with a flourish, grinned and bowed.

It was my turn. I stepped up to the piano, my feet leaden, and opened my book with trembling fingers. Cold perspiration sheathed my palms. Why on earth had I decided to take piano lessons? Who was I to play for an audience?

I focused on the page. Minuet in G minor was a piece I’d played over and over, till I sang it in my sleep and my family begged me to learn something else. I played the first  line, the second—and then it happened. The melody flew out of my head and the notes were gibberish; the keys might as well have bee cello strings. I froze.

“Give up before you make a total fool of yourself,” a voice inside me taunted.

For a brief moment, I felt tears prick my eyes, a blinding humiliation that would have once sent me scuttling to lick my wounds. I pictured myself folding my music, mumbling an apology and sinking into my seat. Then, I saw myself as the cowed child I once had been. But instead of shame, I felt compassion. The courage I wished on my children lifted my shoulders, placed my fingers on the keys and commanded them to move.

Why did I start piano lessons? Because I wanted to make music. Now, I didn’t care what anyone thought. I could be strong enough to fail. Perhaps there’s a child here praying he’s not the worst, who needs to see that adults get nervous and makes mistakes, and survive.

I took a deep breath and attacked the minuet again stuttered over the rough spot and stumbled through to the end. Sonatina in G major caused slightly less grief and finally I finished. I stood up, weak-kneed, relief rolling off me like a wave. I gathered my music, bowed diffidently and was moving towards my seat when I heard the sound: applause. My friends, my children, cheering me on, encouraging me.

Our youngest daughter wants to start piano next year. I’m thrilled; Megan will quickly pass me, but that’s okay. Perhaps my job is to be the one who struggles hardest and doesn’t give up. The one they can point to and say:

“If she can do it, well maybe…”

Lessons in music or lessons in courage, I’m not sure which I’m learning more.

copyright © 2002 by Roxanne Snopek

reprinted from Reader’s Digest, July 2002

All Rights Reserved



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