Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,
To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.
– William Congreve
My childhood piano instructor was an exacting teacher. Under Mrs. Leonard’s tutelage, I learned correct posture and hand position (“like holding an egg in each hand”), keeping time (The metronome came in handy), and how to read music (Every good boy does fine). My younger sister and I were expected to be prompt and prepared each week for our lessons.
To that end, my mother enforced a strict 30-minute-per-day practice policy. Our piano was in the basement, and my mother was recently recalling how my sister and I would dawdle up and down the steps, checking the clock over and over again to see if our time was up.
Back then, I did not realize that my parents were giving my sister and me a timeless and treasured gift. None of my other siblings were afforded piano lessons, although my brother did take up guitar and saxophone for a time. Yet it wasn’t until years later when I resumed lessons that I appreciated the gift of music.
Studies have shown that learning to play an instrument enhances some neural connections in the brain and can lead to better aptitude at subjects such as math. Recently, I read about an elderly man with advanced Alzheimer’s disease. Bert Rose had been a professional pianist for more than 60 years before succumbing to this cruel disease. He can no longer remember much of anything, including his heyday performing with such stars as Debbie Reynolds and Brooke Shields. Yet when he sits down at the piano, he can still play all the old standards he once performed for audiences a bit larger than the residents at his nursing home. (Source: Chicago Tribune, March 8, 2015)
My current piano teacher talks about muscle memory and encourages me to stick with difficult pieces, knowing that eventually, playing them will become automatic. That same muscle memory must come into play for Bert Rose. And the gift is that it brings him out of his memory fog and uplifts the spirits of the other nursing home residents.
As I was growing up, I was surrounded by music – my mother’s singing, my father’s records playing on the “hi-fi,” my sisters’ harmonizing while washing dishes on Christmas Eve. My sister and I were called upon occasionally to play a duet on the piano for our family.
Each time I sit at my piano, I am so grateful for the gift of music and all the joy it brings to my life.