I took piano lessons for, maybe, ten years of my life and played flute for probably 5 of those years and today, I cannot read music.
I wish I could say that I’m some sort of savant who can hear any song and immediately play it without so much as breaking a sweat but I sweat a lot. I don’t even have to try. I’d say I’m a sweat savant but I’ve been quarantining for almost a month and my roots look like they’re giving birth to an albino lasagna noodle and my manicured nails are anything but so I’m looking pretty rough and I don’t think buckets of sweat do me any favors.
I had to practice daily and work my ass off to be awesome on the piano and I had to practice erratically and work the lower left, two-inch quadrant of my ass off to be mediocre on the flute, but in both cases, I could read music.
And now I can’t.
I have a mental block when it comes to reading music.
Mental blocks have an undeserved reputation of negativity. I collect them like it’s my job. I have a huge assortment, including ones for math, portion control and euchre. Unlike antiques or artwork or a Mr. Potato Head pez dispenser, mental blocks are widely available and they’re cheap! Unless you accessorize them with therapy in which case, stop it. Why ruin a good thing? Try pairing them with anxiety instead.
My mental block with reading music has nothing to do with music, per se. I love everything about music, especially visually and I secretly covet the prospect of a large wall in my house plastered with the lyrics and notes to anything and by anything, I mean Someone Like You by Van Morrison. But, that’s pretty labor-intensive and there’s that whole sweating thing so I’d settle for having Van Morrison on speed dial so I could have him sing Someone Like You at my whim because nobody has done anything at my whim in a very long time and I’m pretty sure my whim ran away from home.
My mental block for reading music could be attributed to the decade I spent attending my weekly piano lessons at Mrs. LaDoux’s house where my mother, a formidable and domineering woman with an eyebrow arch that scared me in utero, ignored the kitchen table where every other mother waited out her thirty minute sentence and instead, took up residence on the living couch. The kitchen table was nowhere near the piano but the living room couch was planted directly behind the piano and this made it much more convenient for my mother to pierce my back with a steely glare and a loud “humph” every single time I missed a note which was often because my ten year old self was no match for a death stare and a freakishly high eyebrow arch with attitude.
Mrs. LaDoux, a wonderfully kind and gentle teacher, eventually retired from piano and I was shuffled off to Mrs. Coughlin to continue lessons and by the grace of God, those lessons lasted only one winter and I’m pretty sure it was because Mrs. Coughlin, a tiny but fierce woman, didn’t have a couch and instead, firmly steered Mom and her attitude-y eyebrows to a hard bench in her dark and drafty vestibule.
The end of my piano career might also be credited to the young man whose lesson immediately preceded mine. I saw him only briefly as he was typically leaving when I was arriving, and we were both bundled up in winter coats at the time and we’d smile at each other in passing and that was that.
But one day, we were early or he was late and I sat with my mother and her eyebrows on the hard bench in the vestibule while our teeth chattered. We could hear this young man play and it sounded as if there were three or four of him because the cyclone of music coming from that room was incredibly loud and brilliant and wonderful and beautiful and I sat there, awestruck, biting my nails and worrying myself into a stupor over the possibility that Mrs. Coughlin had started some sort of group class that I was going to have to join and my mother’s eyebrows would have a thousand field days and I’d never be allowed to quit piano and I’d wind up playing through menopause. I wasn’t sure exactly what menopause was at the time, but I knew it wasn’t good.
The music stopped, the door opened and this young man came out, smiled shyly and walked by me with his coat and music tucked under one arm and I’d like to say he waved to me with the other arm but no, he waved to me with that same arm BECAUSE IT WAS THE ONLY ARM HE HAD. And I was all WHAT THE FUCK JUST HAPPENED except I didn’t say fuck because no one said fuck around my mother’s eyebrows because they could slap you into next week.
I think it frustrated my mother that I was damn good on the piano but loathed the process of becoming damn good on the piano. I think it frustrated both of us. That young man clearly loved to play and I bet he didn’t liken lessons to having his teeth pulled out with a spork. I barely tolerated my lessons and once called up Mrs. LaDoux in a fit of tears and offered her $4.30 and my mood ring if she’d join the witness protection program.
I found Mrs. LaDoux on Facebook last week and reached out to her. We reminisced a bit and when I attempted to offer an apology forty years in the making for what I remembered as tense and stressful lessons, she gently reminded me that mothers do strange things when they see potential in their kids.
I can’t read sheet music anymore.
And I miss it, almost as much as I miss my mother, eyebrows and all.