Not calling it quits

Author: Patrick Dunne '60

Just as into each life some rain must fall, so into the life of nearly every parent whose child takes piano lessons eventually comes the plea: “I’m tired of piano. I want to quit.”

Few are the parents — especially those who are not pianists themselves — who don’t eventually give in.

Illustration by Penelope Dullaghan

After all, the kid really doesn’t seem to be making much progress. And he really needs to be spending more time on his schoolwork. And he shouldn’t have to give up Little League when all his friends are having so much fun. And it’s not as though he’s going to be another Horowitz. And those piano lessons really do cost a lot of money.

So what exactly will he miss out on after he quits piano?

Let me tell you.

Many years ago, my wife and I lived in an apartment that fronted directly onto the complex’s swimming pool. On that hot summer day the pool was crowded, its denizens including four young guys, a rock-‘n’-roll quartet enjoying some popular success and a recently signed recording contract. I opened the door to let the cat out, briefly also letting out music from my piano — the first movement of Beethoven’s “Sonata No. 1 in F minor” — being performed by my gifted teacher.

Instantly the lead guitarist in the rock group stood straight up in the water, open-mouthed, wide-eyed, transfixed in wonder as if suddenly struck with the Beatific Vision.

“What is that?” he yelled. “What is that?”

That happens to be the sublime, life-enhancing experience your child will never know after quitting piano.

I don’t mean the reaction of the listener. I mean the experience of the performer himself, when he can let the composer enter and take over his own body and mind and soul, bringing Beethoven or Chopin or Bach back to life inside himself, doing what the composer once did at the height of his creative genius, thinking what he thought, feeling what he felt, knowing what he knew, moving as he moved, breathing as he breathed, creating what he created.

Unfortunately, quality-of-life enhancement is a throwaway commodity nowadays. You have surely noticed that when cities experience financial difficulties, the first items cut from the budget are library and museum hours and acquisitions. When school districts need to tighten their belts, the first instructional casualties are art and music. Math and science and sports — especially sports — take an unquestioned priority.

A couple of years ago, a young architect neighbor of ours was gazing in wonder at my dad’s splendid pen-and-ink architectural renderings that now grace our walls. He shook his head ruefully and said, “They don’t teach that stuff in architecture school any more.” Nor do they teach most of the work the old-time architects did. My dad’s career would have been completely displaced by a computer. Displaced, not replaced.

But can computers replicate creativity, rely on insight, express imagination, simulate talent, create beauty from deep within the soul?

We writers, thanks to the wonders of word processing, can correct our first drafts, leaving no trace of the old version. Scholars of the future will no longer have original manuscripts to study. Despite the admonitions of Miss Manners, the handwritten letter is doomed. So is handmade calligraphy. So is the art of writing out musical notation. So is hand sewing, needlepoint, knitting, crocheting — handcrafting of every description — even, in many school districts these days, writing in cursive.

But if you — as do the education authorities and school boards — value math and science above the arts, pay attention to the many studies that show dramatic improvement in math and science skills among children who study piano. Piano study in childhood enhances brain development like nothing else, no question. Recent research has shown that piano lessons form an essential part of an enriched early childhood education, producing as much as a 40 percent increase in math scores as well as improved handwriting, coordination and problem-solving skills.

So how do you respond to your child’s “I want to quit piano” plea?

Think. How would you answer a youngster’s desire to quit going to school, quit behaving well, quit taking baths, quit wearing clothes? Some things a responsible parent must simply insist on.

Nagging and iron discipline are not the answer. Instead, take an interest. Care. Once your child connects with a piano teacher he really likes, you’re home free. Practice makes perfect, so the logical goal is to make piano practice fun. Once the budding pianist falls in love with daily practice, all difficulties disappear.

The goal need not be to become a “concert pianist.” The thrill of performing a Beethoven sonata or a Chopin étude or a Bach fugue well is the true province of the amateur pianist. Even for the accomplished pianist, the quintessential audience is himself, herself. For therein lies the rapture, the life-enhancing joy of personal creativity.

Patrick Dunne lives and writes in Houston, Texas. After a career teaching literature and writing, he entered law school at age 53 and practiced immigration law until his retirement in 1999.