Practice Your Piano (Or: Do Parents Even Know What They Want?)

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Drat, I think to myself (well, more or less), piano lessons are tomorrow and I don’t remember a single sound coming from my daughter’s keyboard this past week. At the price we’re paying, there’s no way I’m not getting my money’s worth out of this.

I call upstairs, “Renée, have you practiced for your piano lesson at all this week?”

My answer is only silence — confirming my assessment of the situation.

“Renée?” I call and again receive no reply.

I don’t enjoy standing around waiting for my daughter to stop ignoring me. One enjoyable pastime I do have is irritating her whenever she deserves it. I repeat in exactly the same tone, volume, and without any of the irritation I feel so deeply.

“Renée?” and then, getting into my stride, I decide to repeat myself at 3-second intervals until I do receive a reply. Each time I call her will be exactly the same: she will then realize that I can go on forever if needed.

Ah, after five more tries, the dam finally breaks: “What?!

“Oh, I’m sorry, I forgot what I was going to ask . . . don’t worry, it’ll come back to me.” Note that this stalling tactic could have been done out of vindictiveness, but this time I honestly had lost my train of thought.

The problem was that I had been contemplating my strategy. Renée was doing her homework and this presented me with an obstacle. She’s fairly clever and for reasons of self-entertainment, now long forgotten, I had encouraged her in developing defenses against parents and other authority figures. If I tell her she needs to practice after she finishes her homework, the official and declared end-of-homework won’t occur until well past bedtime. Too late, I realized I had jumped the gun.

Got it! “Renée, you need to practice your keyboard for an hour this afternoon. Do your homework first, but don’t worry: if you wind up not having enough time, I’ll get you up early in the morning.”

“O-kay” Renée shouts in a grumpy reply. Knowing I had prevailed, I patted myself on the back over my achievement.

Piano lessons have been a long-standing custom in my family. I don’t know why. I don’t question their worth. Confident that at least Rachmaninov’s parents made the right decision when forcing their son into piano lessons, I continue the family tradition. As a child, an old upright was against the wall of our den. I remember watching cartoons on the TV while Mom did some ironing. I didn’t get much enjoyment from the cartoons: I was always looking guiltily from piano to mother and dreading the imminent, “Oh, I almost forgot, you need to practice.”

But this is just one of the ways we parents torture our children for their own good.

Renée’s lessons and the habitual reminders to practice continue for nearly two years. Renée is improving but gets no joy from her practice. Strangely, she hasn’t insisted on ending her lessons. So we continue as before.

One cheerful spring day, my wife and daughter come back from Renée’s lesson.

“The studio has a piano they no longer need. If we can get it moved out by Friday, they said we can have it.”

“That sounds good as long as we can find someone at a reasonable price on two days’ notice,” I reply.

Surprisingly, using semi-skilled college labo r— he’s the son of the piano mover— we’re able to accomplish this.

The switch from keyboard to full-fledged piano has made an incredible change in Renée. She is now truly enjoying her practice. Frequently passing the piano in the living room, she often pauses to play one of her favorite tunes from a video game.

I am becoming quite proud. Renée is approaching her piano with a new sense of seriousness. Once, she even accepted my advice (about slowing down so she could play the entire song well, then gradually increasing speed). For something where I only had to pay two students, I am pleased with the results.

But parents never achieve a total victory. I’m afraid to admit that after a month, Renée’s frequent little ditties are beginning to annoy me. The insipid little tunes burn into my memory and play in an endless loop. But I must consider the long term and keep my irritation to myself.

 Now that I’ve lived with this new piano for a few months, I’m beginning to wonder when — if ever — the sheen will wear off this new musical incentive. The only thing I am sure of is that when kids really want to punish their parents, they give them what they want.

Phillip A. Lombardi is a father and author of “How to Irritate Parents,” a humorous family guide that provides playful ways for parents and teens to connect and communicate.  The book will be available in May 2015. Updates on twitter @PhillipALombard

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