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Four Years at the Mount

The Graduate

Lost: Hobby. Found: Renewed Interest.

Nicole Jones
Class of 2014

(9/2014) When I was about ten I took piano lessons for a year. Once a week I went to a music shop, guitars hung from the walls and drums littered the floor, keyboards stood in corners and full size pianos sat in the back show room. I walked past the counter with my little bag filled with beginner piano books. I went down the short staircase to the basement where a narrow hallway led to several practice rooms. Sometimes a guitar student sat at the end strumming the same chords and practicing his fingering. I walked into the first classroom on the left and was greeted with the smiling face and gray hair of my piano teacher, whose name I have unfortunately forgotten. The room was barely large enough for the piano and the two of us, but it was all we really needed.

I sat on the black bench, back straight, feet flat on the floor, hands situated at C. Slowly I learned what each note and symbol meant: sharp, repeat, pause, staccato, and so on. I played simple tunes like "Happy Birthday" and "Lean on Me," then one day my teacher asked if I wanted to play in front of people. The idea made me nervous, and I don’t remember my exact response, but I must have said yes. It wasn’t long before I played at my first piano recital. Due to the piano’s digital additions, we were able to add a little horse-gallop sound effect to the end of my piece. Dressed in a velvety black dress, I sat down in front of the room of parents, my piano teacher beside me, turning the pages as I went and pressing the button at the end that allowed the horses to gallop across the black and white keys. There was polite applause; I stood and gave a little bow. It was a good feeling.

Several more recitals followed that. Some I wore that velvety dress, one I dressed up as a kangaroo, all of them were attended by my teacher and parents. One such recital was approaching quickly, and I had not been practicing my piece. I felt unprepared—because I was—and panicky. I tried to practice, but a certain key pattern tripped me every time. No one was placing pressure on me except for me, but let me tell you, I apply it tighter than a tourniquet. Eventually, it was so bad that I let my fear of failure better me, and instead of just saying I didn’t want to perform at the recital, I quit piano altogether. Of course, my teacher and parents were confused.

"Is there something we can do? Did something happen?"

"No," I always said, "I just don’t want to play anymore." What an outright lie. I was just too afraid to face up to my own failure. If I had simply practiced and not procrastinated, it would have all been fine. However, if I hadn’t quit, I may have never started horseback riding, but that is an entirely different story for a different article.

Eight years passed.

My freshman year of undergrad I had a professor who liked us to keep a journal. She would assign a topic, we would write a paragraph or two and email it to her, and she would send us feedback. It was a way to connect to her students and to monitor how we were adjusting to college. One topic asked if we had ever played an instrument or which instrument we would play if we could. I told her a condensed version of my piano saga, leaving out the part where I chickened out of a recital, and said that I wouldn’t mind taking it piano up again. When she wrote me back, she pointed out that the Mount offered piano lessons. I stored the information away, just in case I had the credits to squander.

Sophomore year my roommate started taking piano lessons through the school. She struggled to connect with the teacher, and found the homework very time consuming for a 1-credit course. She dropped the class, which lessened my interest in taking it should I have the chance.

Junior year I befriended a seminarian. One of our favorite talking points was music. We would swap band names and expand each other’s iTunes playlists. He had a particular affinity for talented pianists like Philip Wesley, come to find out that he had been the pianist in his high school garage band. He would come home from school and practice for hours at a time, and, I can only assume, he became quite good at it. Unfortunately, I was never able to sneak a peek at any of his garage band footage before he left, but I digress.

That entire summer I debated whether or not buy an inexpensive keyboard. Sure, it wasn’t the same as having the full 88 keys of a standard piano, but it was a good option for relearning the basics during my free time. I looked at models online and pored over their reviews till I found a keyboard I liked. I would go to work waitressing and come home with a pile of one dollar bills that could have easily bought the keyboard, yet I stashed it away for other purposes like school and a trip to Europe. The keyboard could wait a little longer.

Every now and then throughout my senior year I would peek at keyboard, but I never clicked "purchase." That year I became friends with a fellow Resident Assistant in my building named Matt. His mom was a piano teacher, and he liked to play guitar—though he would sooner die than let anyone hear him play. Eventually he found out that I wanted to relearn the piano, and it came up more and more frequently in our conversation.

After returning from Austria this summer, I decided it was finally time to buy that keyboard. I had waited a year, I was still interested, and there would always be more reasons not to buy it than to buy it. It was do or die. I told Matt I was finally going to click that "purchase" button.

"What? You don’t want to try it out first? You’re going to buy it online?" His response made me pause. To be honest, I hadn’t really considered that. I knew what I wanted and here it was in a bright high definition picture on my computer screen. Two clicks and it would be on its way to me, but I had already waited a year. What were a few more days if I could make it a bigger adventure and actually have the chance to feel the keys under my fingers before handing over my credit card?

One fateful Friday, Matt and I drove down to Frederick to an actual music store. We pulled up and right before we walked in…I suddenly and inexplicably became nervous. I took a second to pace the sidewalk and get the crazies out of my system before walking in and promptly asking the clerk what keyboards they had that were suitable for beginners.

The employee guided me to a corner of the small shop where several keyboards rested along the wall. Matt quietly shadowed me; this was all me now. The clerk explained the small difference between the keyboards, that one was touch sensitive—playing loudly or softly depending on how hard you played the key—while the other was not. Both came with similar beginner songs and lessons and the same number of keys. He pointed out keyboard "survival kits" that came with the necessary accessories to get up and running and explained which keyboard stand was better suited for these smaller keyboards. He turned it on and gave me a minute to play with it. Of course, there wasn’t much playing to be done as all I knew was "Hot Cross Buns."

"I’ll take it." That must of have been that man’s easiest sale to date. I wondered if he was paid on commission.

Several minutes later, Matt and I were strategically placing the oversized cardboard box in the trunk of his old Volkswagen only to unload it at my house several hours later. With boxes discarded and the stand assembled, I finally gazed upon my very own keyboard. I plugged in the headphones and pushed the "Lesson" button. The small LCD display highlighted the keys I should be playing and light, rhythmic tune played in my ears. When I pressed the right keys, new ones lit up, and so on, until I had played my first song. It was a simple tune with repeating patterns and notes that I couldn’t even read yet, but I still felt so accomplished. I played the song over and over until I had it memorized and could play it without even thinking. I tried to play it with one hand, seeking out the left keys with my right hand. I played it in the different voices the piano offered—flutes, saxophones, drums, guitars—until I had heard every voice. I played it an octave higher, then an octave lower. It was so simple but so very exciting.

Looking to the future, I can’t wait to buy several beginner books and relearn how to read music. Maybe I’ll use the record function and make up a ditty of my own. One day, maybe I’ll even be lucky enough to have a proper upright piano and play more complex tunes. Whatever may come of this little keyboard of mine, I am so excited to have found renewed interest in a long lost hobby.

Read other articles by Nicole Jones