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Spilling Over

21 Apr

spilling overFor a very long time  I carried a feeling of wanting inside me, like I was a hollowed out tree trunk and if I could just fill up that space with proof of my extraordinary accomplishments, I’d be fulfilled. As a young girl, I chose to spend endless hours practicing the piano thinking that my talent and musical endeavors would be enough to fill that void inside of me. I gave concerts, won competitions and went on to major in piano performance at a prestigious music school, only to find that the accolades from the outside world wasn’t enough—the space inside of me still felt cavernous.

Through my twenties, thirties and most of my forties, I couldn’t see that all I had in my life—my happy marriage, my four beautiful children, my successful piano teaching career—were more than enough to fill up that hollow space, but I’d been in the habit of feeling empty for so long that even having it all wasn’t sufficient to fill that void.

Looking back on all the time I wasted feeling dissatisfied and empty, all I can say now is thank goodness for old age. I finally understand that old adage, “Youth is wasted on the young” is absolutely true. It’s unfortunate that we don’t live in reverse as  I’d like to enjoy a youthful body to go along with the wisdom, patience and understanding I have now that I’m middle aged.

I’m wise enough now to realize that the center of my universe is right there within me, and my reality is only what I create in my mind and what I see through my own eyes. What I choose to think and feel is ultimately what will fill up that empty space inside of me—the approval or admiration I get from others means nothing if I don’t believe it myself.

But old habits always die hard and I realize that finding the joy and goodness in the little things in life is always going to be a struggle for me, but at least I realize that all the accolades in the world are meaningless if I don’t first feel them within me.

Yesterday our extended family came over for a barbecue. We did the usual things—ate delicious food, talked, joked around and shrieked with laughter for most of the afternoon. Years ago I would have thought of it as just another stressful family get-together—I would have fretted and worried and been angry  that I had to do all the work. I would have been too resentful to enjoy myself.

But I’m different now. Now I’m able to see that  it was a perfect chance for me to spend time with the people I love most in the world and all during the afternoon I felt my universe expanding with the love they feel for me.

My once hollow tree trunk spilled over with joy and gratitude and I realized that life couldn’t get any better.


Taking a walk with Rene and Isa at dusk on Easter Sunday.

Taking a walk with Rene and Isa after the party.

Just a Piano Teacher

24 Jul

photo (12)Over the past twenty-five years, when someone asked me what I did for living, I would say, I’m just a piano teacher. It’s been a fact of my life that every weekday afternoon and most Saturday mornings, young children between the ages of five and eighteen (and the occasional adult) show up at my house with a stack of music (sometimes practiced, sometimes not) and proceed to sit down at my Steinway concert grand piano and play for thirty to sixty minutes at a time. They listen (or sometimes don’t) while I correct them, praise them, and encourage them to become better pianists and musicians.

I’ve always thought of myself as just a piano teacher because I seem to say the same things at every single lesson: Sit up tall with your feet flat on the floor; curve your fingers, relax your shoulders, play softer; play louder; play faster; play slower; count out loud; pay attention to the fingering; make your staccatos crisper, your legato smoother; LISTEN to your tone quality; pay attention to the dynamic markings; shape the phrase like a vocalist would sing a melody; and for God sake, please stop banging on the keys—you’re hurting my ears! Most importantly: Practice, practice, practice, and then, PRACTICE MORE!

I’ve always thought of myself as just a piano teacher when I tell my students how important it is to be consistent—that good practice habits will spill over into their everyday lives; that studies show that learning a musical instrument will make them smarter; that doing weekly music theory homework will allow them to understand the complexity of music; that performing in recitals will teach them how to be confident in front of an audience, and that above all—to be able to sit down at a piano, pull out some music and play for the sheer pleasure of it is one of the greatest gifts they can carry through their lives.

I can say with all honesty that my career as just a piano teacher has been rewarding as well as fulfilling, but lately I’ve been thinking that perhaps my job is so much more than that.

The truth is, I’m more than just a piano teacher when my interactions with my students don’t involve music at all—like when their eyes light up when I tell them how much I like their new red tennis shoes or how cute their new haircut is, or that I notice they’re missing a tooth and I’m as excited about it as they are.

I’m more than just a piano teacher when I listen to my students talk about how much they loved reading the Harry Potter or Hunger Games books (as I did) or how cool the new Disney/PIXAR movie was, or how the most recent video game they just got for their birthday is totally sick. I’m more than just a piano teacher when I allow them to chatter on about it for a moment before I gently redirect them back to the lesson.

I’m more than just a piano teacher when a student walks into the lesson looking upset and tells me that so-and-so was mean to them at school and now they feel like they don’t have any friends. I’m more than just a piano teacher when I tell them that I know exactly how they feel—and that the same thing happened to me in junior high, but it got better when I started high school. I’m more than just a piano teacher when I hand them a tissue to wipe their eyes, give them a hug and tell them it’s going to be all right, I promise.

I’m more than just a piano teacher when they reveal to me that they have a crush on someone; or about who asked them to the dance; or how they got (or didn’t get) that big part in the school play; or how much homework there is in their AP World History class; or how they’re terrified of blowing the SAT. I’m more than just a piano teacher when they run into my studio giddy with joy because they just passed their driver’s test and actually drove to their piano lesson by themselves for the first time.

I’m more than just a piano teacher when they let me in on where they’ve applied to college and what do I think about that particular university? I’m more than just a piano teacher when they come to their final lesson to say goodbye and I always cry (and sometimes they do, too) because our time together has come to an end.

Yes, I’ve loved being just a piano teacher, but it’s the more than parts that have made my job such a joy.

My job has allowed me the privilege of spending consecutive years with a student, getting to know who they are while never giving up hope that they will mature into a gifted musician. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t—it doesn’t really matter.  The important part is that I’m there when they perform in recitals and festivals and I get to watch their parents beam with pride after they’ve had a successful performance and know that I had something to do with that. I get to tell the story about how I never give up on any student—EVER—and how for years I would dread the lesson of one particular boy because he just wouldn’t practice; how one day a light went on in his head and before I knew it, that boy was playing Bach Preludes and Schubert Impromptus with the musical maturity of a concert pianist.

Little brother Cyder reading during Merckx Dascomb's piano lesson.  Photo credit: Tatiana Johnson

Little brother Cyder reading during Merckx Dascomb’s piano lesson.
Photo credit: Tatiana Johnson

By being just a piano teacher, I have been able to earn an income by sharing my love of music with children; more importantly, through the process of teaching them over the years, I’ve had the privilege of becoming their friend.  By being just a piano teacher I have been given the gift of loving them as if they were one of my own children.

So I guess the next time someone asks me what I do for a living, I’ll say the same thing I always say: I’m just a piano teacher, but this time, I’ll understand what that really means.

fingers on keyboard

A Novel Idea

12 Sep

I have a secret: I’m writing a novel.

There—it’s out there. Whew. I’m uncomfortable telling you this because it sounds so ridiculous. Sure, I can play a Bach Fugue on the piano, grow exquisite flowers in my garden and bake a delectable batch of cookies. I can even write a good blog post once in a while. But write a novel? Keep dreaming, girl.

Voice of tiny person sitting on my shoulder whispering in my ear:

Why in the world are you telling people that you are writing a novel? Keep your big mouth shut, you idiot. Now they’re going to expect you to finish it someday!

After all, who am I to think that after only a few years of semi-serious writing I could possibly have a novel in me? Although this past year I’ve devoted a myriad of hours developing my writing skills (well, not quite a myriad) I still have a difficult time believing that I am clever enough, captivating enough, or focused enough to actually get it done. And even if I did get it done, would anyone actually care about what I have to say?

Voice of tiny person sitting on my shoulder whispering in my ear:

I’ll answer that question: Nobody cares!

Unfortunately over the years, I’ve romanticized the dream of being a writer in my head, yet I ignored the crucial part of turning this dream into a reality: I never wrote down the words. I just let them run through my mind like quiet conversations or static background noise, too afraid to listen in and take stock of their meaning and validity. Instead I suppressed the urge to create through words and focused on playing and teaching the piano because that’s one thing I knew I could do well.

But words, not musical notes, have always been my true love. Since I was a child and discovered that a good book could take me to a place where I could change into someone else—into someone better, I’ve always been most comfortable losing myself in a good story. As I age, I’ve become even more of a voracious reader and often read two or more novels a week. Yet now that I’m finally writing regularly and becoming more aware of the writing process, I find that reading a good book can be agonizing at times because every so often, my little friend Envy rears her ugly green head. She’s more than happy to tell me that no matter how hard I try, I’ll never be able to string words together in a seamless succession of perfect stitches the way a really good writer can.

Recently I read a fantastic book by Gillian Flynn called Gone Girl and I’ve got to say, I supremely enjoyed it.  The disappointing part is that now I almost have to dislike Gillian Flynn because she is so good at doing what I have yet to learn to do: crafting a story with fascinating and fallible characters, creating an out of the ordinary plot, and writing riveting dialogue. I almost have to dislike her because I know that for a very long time I will not be able to compose word such as these:

“…the sun climbed over the skyline of oaks, revealing its full summer angry-god self. Its reflection flared across the river toward our house, a long, blaring finger aimed at me through our frail bedroom curtains.


This is probably what I would’ve come up with:

“….the sun came up over the trees in an angry red haze. It shone on the river behind our house and came through the windows, shining in my face like a bright light bulb.”

Voice of tiny person sitting on my shoulder whispering in my ear:

Trite, trite, trite. Dull, dull, dull. TRY AGAIN!

Okay, I’m playing around here—I could do better than that. The point is, I’m like one of my adult piano students who comes to the lesson and enthusiastically exclaims: “I really have this dream of playing ‘Fur Elise’ (please God, any piece but that one) And even though I only took six months of piano lessons when I was seven, I know that with a little bit a practice I can learn this piece!

Now, the old me would mentally roll my eyes and kindly tell this student that Fur Elise is harder than it sounds (and that would be the truth) and that one should never start with something difficult because you may get frustrated and sad and end up truly resenting Beethoven for writing such an exasperating piece. (Oh, and by the way, you’ll never in a million years be able to play it well.)

But the new me might say, Why not? Anything is possible! And then launch into my spiel about the importance of consistent practicing.

The truth is I can’t expect something magical to happen without putting in the time and the work. And maybe—just maybe, if I spill my guts and tell you my secret, I’ll feel more obligated to put in the time.

Because if I write it down, it becomes more than just a possibility.

And to the little person sitting on my shoulder whispering all those negative comments in my ear: Take a hike, baby.