Recently, I found myself alone on a weekend morning with nothing urgent to do. This is unheard of. I have five kids and a full-time job. What to do with myself? First, I sat down and literally listened to the silence.
Then I drifted to the piano.
From the age of five until I graduated high school, my mother drove me one afternoon a week to piano lessons. The drive took an hour each way, in bumper-to-bumper traffic, to a remote canyon street in the mountains where the best piano teacher lived. This teacher agreed to take me on not because I showed early signs of brilliant technique but because she said my playing had soul.
So began 14 years of classical piano instruction.
I had to practice a minimum of one hour a day, no exceptions. She required specifically clipped fingernails and no nail polish, ever. I could not choose what I played, and I never learned songs adapted from pop songs like my friends did. To this day, my illegible handwriting most resembles my teacher’s, as she wrote out detailed instructions for my weekly practice.
A shy and introverted child, I dreaded the public displays that were part of the program: biannual recitals; Bach competitions; piano tournaments where I had to compete in theory tests and perform multiple memorized pieces before judges, who rated me on technique, ability, and musicality. Afterward, my teacher and I scrutinized the judges’ scores and written evaluations. I loved playing piano but hated being judged and rated.
When I did not practice seriously, there was no coddling at my next lesson. My teacher made me feel ashamed for wasting her time. Later on as a teenager, when I showed laziness, she told me that unless I shaped up and met her standards, she would fire me as a student.
It turns out shaming and high expectations work.
I became serious about my playing because I admired her, I knew she cherished me, and I did not want to disappoint her or myself.
During those years, I learned that studying piano in a traditional, classical way was about mastering discipline, not being afraid of hard work, and above all persevering. Those skills informed my academic work and have been instrumental in my career.
As an adult, I have also come to realize that knowing how to play piano has taught me resilience. By turning inward and claiming a moment all my own, I fortify myself and am able to face the world again–stronger, calmer, and centered. In a time of never-ending distractions and demands, playing piano is nearly the only time my phone is set aside, my hands are distracted, and my mind has a chance to wander. I often come up with my best ideas while playing.
I usually am at the piano for only five minutes before a child interrupts but even those few moments refuel me.
All of my children who are currently over age three have learned the piano. None thus far have wanted the classical training I received. I am not pushing them; I am fine with them only having the joy of playing without the discipline and judgment. Serious classical piano training comes at a cost–I did not have time for any other extracurriculars, and to this day, I do not like playing in front of others.
Yet the other night, I heard my eldest daughter, who most resisted classical piano instruction, working through a Brahms piece that my grandfather used to play and I now play. I choked up, hearing generations passing through the piano. I also felt a profound relief that by playing piano, my daughter too will have moments of introspection and a chance to center herself, no matter how busy or hard life gets. If I can give that gift to my children, just as my mother and piano teacher gave to me, I am grateful.