“Hmmm, maybe we need to do this a different way”

When these words come out of your teacher’s mouth, you can feel pretty confident that whatever you just did — well, it wasn’t particularly good. These were the words my piano teacher said to me two weeks ago after I meticulously plunked out my simplified version of Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze.” Not good. In spite of my dutiful practice.

In both parenting and in music, we don’t learn how to do it by memorizing a set of rules and techniques, but rather, it’s something we come to master in our own way though our experiences- and all the lessons and books we read can only take us so far.I started taking piano lessons almost two years ago. My kids were taking lessons (a thoughtful gift from my stepmother, who grew up in a musical family herself), and I figured it might be fun for me to learn along with them. I dreamed that I would provide inspiration by taking the time to practice along with them, and that we would all grow together to be (at least somewhat) accomplished musicians. The reality hasn’t exactly met the vision. I’m more impressed by my kids’ progress than they are by mine, and I’ve learned the hard way that playing an instrument isn’t something that can be done by simple step-by step instructions. I’ve actually come to think of my piano lessons in the same way I think of my experiences parenting. In both parenting and in music, we don’t learn how to do it by memorizing a set of rules and techniques, but rather, it’s something we come to master in our own way though our experiences- and all the lessons and books we read can only take us so far.

Sure both have jargon to know and skills to master. I think of my recent lessons about of the key of G the same way I learned about how to swaddle my first newborn. I had heard these words before. I knew there were different keys in music and had heard the words “swaddling clothing” and knew that Baby Jesus wore them, but I never really understood what these things were. Now I can wrap a baby up tight and I can remember to move my finger up to that black F# when I’m playing some pieces without too much thought. But just as I learned that wrapping the baby wasn’t enough – -that I also had to place this baby on her side just so, or apply the perfect amount of gentle pressure to her hip when I put her down – – I’ve also had to learn that hitting that F# is more than just pressing down the key.

And this is the thing, really. I’m learning right now that playing piano is more than just pressing down little white and black rectangles in a certain order. In order to play well, I have to play the music– not just the notes. So often I think as parents we can forget this too, and get caught up with trying to do all the right things. Check off all the boxes and hit all the milestones on time. In truth, we all occasionally hit a bad note. The trick is to keep the beat going so that we walk away remembering the song, not the mistakes.

The other day I was complaining to another mother about how I was about to spend my afternoon driving my kids all over town to get to all their activities. She rolled her eyes at me and said, “Oh, you’re one of those moms.” I was a little embarrassed and tried to down play it, but she’s right. There is a part of me who is the self-sacrificing I’ll-drive-you-to-whatever-you-love-my-dear mother. But there’s another part of me who will let my kid roll out the front door in pants that are a wee bit too short, in the same uniform shirt he probably wore yesterday, and very possibly with unbrushed teeth. I can go from the kind of mom you resent to the kind of mom you look down on in two seconds flat. This is the way my music comes out as a parent; sometimes it’s beautiful and sometimes I screw up, but the song never stops. I stay with the beat. And I’d like to think that this is what makes me a good parent.

So, what did my piano teacher have me do differently? She took away my “Bach to Mendelssohn” book and handed me “Contemporary Favorites” instead. She asked me to pick a song from it that I truly loved. “One that you know in your soul,” she said. I picked “Rainbow Connection,” a song that makes me feel like I’m eight years old, dancing alone in my room again. I mean- I love Bach – but in my heart he’s got nothing on Kermit. The difference between this song and “Sheep May Safely Graze” is the difference between hitting the keys and playing the music. It’s the same difference between taking the perfect shot for Instagram and being able to crack a joke that only my kids would find hilarious. When I came to my lesson last week, I played it straight though, without corrections or delays. I made mistakes, but neither of us particularly cared.

What mattered is that I stuck with the beat.