Gratitude: Thank you, practice pieces
This week, as we celebrate Thanksgiving in America, I like to take time to think about things I'm grateful for in different areas of my life - including writing.
Today, I thought I'd share a story about becoming grateful. I haven't always appreciated the value of my practice pieces that don't "go" anywhere other than on the shelf in my writing journals. Here's how that changed:
My seventh year was the year I started playing the piano, something I would do nearly every day for the ten years that followed.
My parents began lessons for my two sisters and me that year, but only I continued to play for more than a year or so. My mother would tell me I was talented and enjoyed listening to me play as the years went along.
In truth, I lacked talent in the way she meant (a natural aptitude for playing music). In fact, the better I got at playing the piano, the more obvious this became — to me and my teachers. My mother, however, never stopped believing I was a natural at the piano, but I believe this is because she is certifiably tone deaf, a fact that my sister and I both loved and dreaded when it came time to sing hymns in church.
I took piano lessons for ten years, and I played or practiced nearly every day. As I got older, my teachers went from young music majors in college who were working for a few extra dollars to women who had played professionally and took the art of teaching seriously.
My last piano teacher was a matronly and proper woman who always wore long shirts with stockings and blouses in a time when it seemed everyone wore jeans. She kept her hair styled in a way that reminded me of old movies, up and twisted, shellacked.
To become her student, I’d had to audition and write an essay. To stay her student, I had to take part in monthly performances, turn in monthly composer reports, and show progress at a rate acceptable to her.
She required me to play for the Piano Guild, suffering through evaluations I dreaded knowing that unlike my academic evaluations, which came back with comments like “Exceeds Expectations,” my Guild evaluations said things like, “Needs Improvement” with a list of areas to work on.
Still, I kept playing. I’d always loved music, and there was something about making it out of thin air that enchanted me. While practicing was, at times, painful, I enjoyed the pay off when I mastered a song, measure by measure.
More than that, though, I loved the way practicing piano allowed me to play with the music. I knew I should play according to the way the composer wrote it, but I enjoyed changing the tempo, creating repeats, shifting the key. I liked to make up silly lyrics to classical songs.
I couldn’t do any of this at my lessons or during my monthly performances. But when I was practicing, I could play my way.
Other times, though, I thought of my years of playing and practicing piano as a waste. I'd never be good enough to play on stage or even as the church pianist. I felt bad for all the money and time my parents spent on it, yet I knew deep down that lessons as a kid were the end of the road for me.
It wasn’t until the summer before my senior year of high school, that my years of piano playing paid off, though not in the way my mother had hoped it would when she'd started me with lessons ten years before.
The summer before my senior year, my piano teacher and I had a separate meeting to discuss my music plans for after high school. It was obvious to both of us I did not have what it takes to apply to music schools, like many of her other students my age.
Yet she wanted me to keep playing, to consider a music minor, to join a group in college. I disagreed. I argued that there really wasn’t any point — I would go nowhere with music.
“Kaecey,” she began. Something in her voice drew my attention, and I remember sitting up straighter, the hairs on my neck joining in and coming to attention. “You haven’t been ‘gifted’ with music and are not a musical genius.”
My stomach hardened. I knew this. Of course. I’d frustrated both of us with my playing and scores at the Guild many times.
Even with that knowledge, though, this blunt statement was still difficult to hear. Instead of what she said, I heard, “You have zero talent and are a waste.”
She must have seen that reaction in my face because she rushed on. “But,” she said, taking my hand and patting it. “But you have something else. You enjoy music. And you have the gift of practice. Don’t give up the piano. The practice is the point.”
I didn’t understand then what she meant, but the words stuck with me. At first, they discouraged me. I stayed with my lessons that year, but my heart wasn’t in it, and I stopped playing altogether after I graduated from high school.
But the words, the practice is the point, floated to the top of my thoughts again and again over the years, long after my years of playing piano ended. But it wasn’t until I’d been writing regularly for a few years that their meaning clicked for me.
I was re-organizing my large, walk-in closet where I kept a writing secretary. On the desk’s shelves collecting dust sat the journals and notebooks I’d filled steadily over the years. I pulled them down and set them on the floor, thinking about what to do with them.
I’d filled so many pages with practice pieces and scenes from prompts and half-formed poems and bits of memoir and brainstorming lists and observations. Looking at my stack of books, I remember feeling torn.
On the one hand, I was thrilled — proud, even — at the amount of writing I’d done. It was an achievement to see my practice laid out before me and know that I’d done what I set out to do — write.
On the other hand, I was sad and perhaps a bit embarrassed. I wrote nearly every day, but what was the point? Why bother? It wasn’t going anywhere; I hadn’t even tried publishing, and I doubted my ability to do so along with my sanity.
I read through some older practice notebooks, then some newer. While all the writing sounded like me, I saw development and growth. I could spot why I’d had trouble with some practice pieces, where the poems needed revision, why a scene didn’t seem to go anywhere.
I laid back on the floor and studied the ceiling, taking in deep breaths as I thought about the writing on the floor next to me.
My teacher’s words came to me, so clearly I could almost read them on the off-white paint above me. “The practice is the point.”
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath to steady myself. As I inhaled, I imagined all the words in the journals and notebooks next to me floating through the air and into my body. I imagined them entering my lungs, then heart, then being sent throughout my body.
It was like being released from a prison I didn’t know was holding me. I felt free. And I felt renewed as a writer.
The practice of writing fueled me. It helped me work out my thoughts and emotions. It was with me on good days and bad. It fostered my growth as a person and a writer. It was where I played freely with words and tried new things.
It didn’t need to “go” anywhere because it was functioning perfectly as it was. The practice was the point.
I flipped back through the years in my mind to that day with my teacher. I thought about how different things would be for me had I kept practicing after high school. How much I would have enjoyed playing Christmas carols during the holidays and soothing myself on a rough day with my favorite pieces. How my girls would have grown up with my music, albeit imperfect, in their memories. How I could have continued to make my mother happy by playing her favorites when she visited.
I had made a mistake in giving up the piano. And I grieved for those lost opportunities for a moment.
Then I thought about my writing practice and decided I wouldn’t make the same mistake again. I wouldn’t dismiss the progress I’d made, the pleasure writing brought me, the joy writing with my girls brought me, the fun I had teaching writing and fostering the growth of the young writers I worked with.
I understood. The practice is the point.
This week as you write, I hope these words encourage you and help you see your "practice" pieces in a new light. And during this week of gratitude, I hope you can find a way to be grateful for what practice brings.