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My nemesis, the piano

Learning to not be perfect, one note at a time.

An illustration of a woman playing piano and a larger figure in repose. Sol Cotti for Vox

Part of the Leisure Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.

A few years ago, my husband Matt offered to get me a digital piano for my 41st birthday. A digital piano is like a keyboard, except the keys are weighted and it feels more like playing a real piano than the Casio you might have had in the corner of your bedroom as a teenager. Matt knew that I had taken piano lessons as a kid, but I’d stopped in seventh grade, right around the age when the idea of spending Saturday mornings at music school started to feel less appealing than, say, going to the mall.

I was game for a digital piano, but skeptical — it was a really extravagant gift, and I wasn’t sure I was actually going to play it that often. But Matt was persistent. He reminded me that I’d idly mentioned wanting to play the piano again, but to me, I’d brought it up in the same way that I might casually say I wanted to try skydiving, which is to say it was something I would never actually follow through on. Still, when he suggested we go to a music store just to look, I agreed. At Guitar Center, we found one that seemed, well, perfect. I sat down and tested it out. “Okay,” I said. “Let’s get it.”

We bought it and set it up in my office. I bought some sheet music — some classical stuff that seemed around the same level I was at when I’d stopped playing, and a book of “easy” rock and pop songs.

Matt collects guitars and will often just pick one up and start strumming the Beatles; I think he had it in his head that once I had a piano, we would be able to duet, like other famed husband-and-wife duos such as Sonny and Cher, John and Yoko, Beyoncé and Jay-Z. … Really, our potential was endless.

But I was rusty — very rusty — and I’d been classically trained, which meant I was more comfortable reading music than just jamming. After a few painful renditions of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” I gave up, and the piano sat, mostly untouched, in the corner of my office for the next couple of years.

Besides, I was too busy to take up an actual hobby; the idea of having a hobby — something I did just for the enjoyment it brought me — seemed almost confusing. You mean to say that I could do things that weren’t some kind of side hustle or attempt at social media clout? I could do something that was … just for me?

I’d made half-hearted attempts over the years to take up various hobbies, mostly craft-related ones like knitting, cross-stitch, and even paint-by-numbers, as a way to unwind and relax. Nothing really stuck; I still have a half-finished scarf I started more than 20 years ago, which has moved with me to no fewer than 10 apartments, and a plastic storage container marked “NEEDLEPOINT” that contains an embroidery hoop, various patterns, and some thread — as though I would one day be inspired to finish the scarf and/or figure out how to cross-stitch something more complicated than a pattern intended for children.

My methods of unwinding and relaxing remained thus unchanged: yoga, reading, watching TV.

I had enough to do, I told myself. There was no point in adding another thing to my plate that was probably just going to stress me out.

I started taking piano lessons in second grade through a music program in my town. The lessons were held in a music classroom at the high school, and classes were always letting out as I maneuvered my way through the halls. A few years later, when I was 10, I enrolled in a Saturday music program at the New England Conservatory that included private piano lessons, a music theory class, and choir. There were levels and evaluations and recitals where we had to play from memory the pieces we’d learned. The program took itself extremely seriously. On my year-end evaluation, when I was 11, my piano teacher wrote, “Good work, has made the transition from trying to do just enough to get by, to preparing adequately for performance.” (“Preparing adequately” was what counted as praise.)

My teacher wasn’t wrong — I had generally practiced only out of sheer obligation, or when my mother cajoled me into sitting down at the baby grand we’d inherited from my great-grandmother, which was always slightly out of tune.

I suffered from the classic gifted child cliché of simultaneously being a perfectionist and also expecting everything to come easily to me, because a lot of things did come easily to me. But being able to pick up something quickly is not the same as mastering it, and I had a tendency to lose interest once whatever it was that I was doing became a little bit difficult, and so I was kind of good at a lot of different things. I had quit ballet when we got to pointe shoes because it was too hard, and I was a decent swimmer but not a great one, and so on.

As I got older, I wondered whether it was laziness or, in some twisted way, my perfectionist tendencies coming out again: I didn’t want to fully commit to something, to really give something my all, because what if I did and I still wasn’t the best at it? Better to just jump ship before I put in any real effort.

In April 2019, I had a baby, and the piano became even more of an afterthought as I became consumed with breastfeeding challenges and poop diapers and trying to get him to sleep; the idea of having a “hobby” was the furthest thing from my mind. Just a few months after I’d stopped breastfeeding and was starting to feel like a human again (I was going out to dinner! With friends! And not worrying about having to pump!), we went into lockdown. I had time on my hands that I’d never had before, and I needed things to fill it. I learned how to play mah-jongg. I read every Bridgerton book. I got a Peloton. I didn’t feel like I needed to go on a self-improvement quest, exactly, but I was also trying to stave off anxiety and depression, and finding activities that weren’t doomscrolling seemed important. Then, this past March, a woman in a local parenting group I belong to on Facebook posted that she was looking for someone to teach her piano, and another person responded with the name and website of her daughter’s harp teacher, who also teaches piano.

At that point we had been in lockdown for more than a year. I was working, and I had a memoir coming out in a few months, but my nights were generally free after I put my son to bed — and, of course, there was the matter of the expensive keyboard sitting in the corner of my office, taunting me. My son, who was now almost 2, had figured out how to turn it on and loved to bang on the keys. At least someone’s getting some enjoyment out of this thing, I thought every time he gleefully marched over and started pounding away. Maybe, I thought, piano lessons were what I needed.

I started lessons with Emma a couple of weeks later over Zoom. “I haven’t taken lessons in literally 30 years,” I said by way of introduction, “so I have no idea how this is going to go.” Even as I said it, I realized I was qualifying myself, prepping Emma for my imperfections. We started with some scales and arpeggios, and then I had a book of sonatinas that I’d bought when I got the piano, and we decided to work from there. She chose one by the composer Anton Diabelli for me to start with. Cautiously, I went over the first few lines with her, playing each hand individually, picking out the notes one by one. I could still read music, which was reassuring, although there were some notes I no longer knew by sight. I found myself getting anxious as I tried to figure them out quickly. Breathe, I thought. It was just a piano lesson. No one else was watching; no one else cared. It was just me.

“I’d try to practice 15 to 30 minutes a day,” Emma told me, “but of course, whatever you can manage will be fine.” I nodded. Surely I could handle 15 minutes a day?

It turned out that I could handle 15 minutes a day. I could also handle 30 minutes a day, and sometimes, I could handle 45 minutes a day. I started practicing at night, after my son went to bed, and found myself looking forward to that time. It was time when I wasn’t on my phone, but it was also time when I could plug in headphones and be totally, completely immersed in the piano.

Practicing now, as an adult, was completely different than when I had practiced as a kid. To the extent that I felt obligated to practice, it was an obligation to myself — not to anyone else. The repetition calmed me; going over tricky bits in each piece I was learning was incredibly satisfying. I also found that I loved to listen to the pieces I was learning and follow along on the sheet music — there was something almost religious about it, like I was following along with the Hebrew text at synagogue. I don’t plan on ever performing for an audience, I’m not monetizing it in any way, I’m not doing it for anything other than sheer enjoyment and the satisfaction of seeing myself get better at something solely for the sake of getting better at it.

To my great surprise, at age 44, I have an actual hobby. I don’t duet with my husband (yet), but I did recently buy the sheet music for the Roxette rock ballad “Fading Like a Flower,” which has an earworm-worthy piano melody and a driving guitar, so I wouldn’t rule anything out.

Doree Shafrir is a writer and podcaster whose work has appeared in the Cut, the New York Times, Slate, and elsewhere. Her new memoir, Thanks for Waiting: The Joy (& Weirdness) of Being a Late Bloomer, was published in June by Ballantine Books.


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