“Michael, I’m not going to tell you again. Get into the living room and practice.”
“Because practice makes perfect, because you’ll thank me later, and because I say so!”
The last reason carried the most weight. Michael sighed as he dumped his baseball glove on the hall table and went into the torture chamber.
There it stood—eighty-eight keys’ worth of misery. Michael thought he knew how knights of old had felt when advancing to certain doom. “We who are about to die salute you,” he muttered under his breath.
“I don’t hear anything,” his mother called from the kitchen.
There was no way out. Michael placed his fingers on what he hoped were the correct keys and began to play. It sounded like the time the high school drum major had tripped in a parade and knocked down a drummer and half the woodwinds.
“That’s better,” his mother called over the cacophony.
“If only it were,” Michael muttered wearily.
Half an hour later he knew he had reached his breaking point. “Kitten on the Keys” sounded like the cat had just had an unfortunate run-in with a train. Resolutely he headed to the kitchen.
Mom was at the table, gluing together rocks that she painted with cute faces and sold at the craft store in town. The house was littered with the things. They paid for Michael’s piano lessons.
“Uh, Mom,” Michael said gently. “I think you should stop painting those.”
“Why?” she asked, putting a base coat of paint on something that vaguely resembled a frog.
“Because I’m quitting piano.”
The rock frog quivered, then fell stickily apart in Mom’s hands. She turned to face him. “Oh no you’re not.”
“Look, Mom,” he reasoned, “you’re throwing money down a well here. A deep well. I have no talent. I’ve learned to face it, why can’t you?”
“Nonsense,” she replied briskly. “You just need to practice more. Anyone can learn to play the piano. How hard can it be?”
At that, Michael snapped. “If you think it’s so all-fired easy, why don’t you take the lessons?”
“Me?” Mom asked, taken aback. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Don’t think you can do it, huh?” Michael replied triumphantly.
His mother looked thoughtful for a moment, then smiled. “All right, you’re on! I’ll take lessons too.”
“Too? No, no, no. Instead. You’re going to take them instead of me, right?”
“No—too. Here’s the deal.” Mom looked him in the eye. “We both take lessons. If, at the next recital, I play better than you do, you keep taking lessons. If, however, you play better than I do, then it’s your choice.”
Michael saw that this was the best chance he’d get. “OK.” Now, at least, there was a possibility of escape. The next recital was in two months. Mom couldn’t possibly catch up and pass him by then. After all, he’d been taking lessons for almost a year. It was a sure thing. He could relax.
He stopped relaxing after two weeks. To his horror, he discovered that his mother was swiftly progressing from one-hand to two-hand pieces, from scales to chords.
“It’s not fair!” he announced, coming home from school to hear “Kitten on the Keys” played as if the cat had almost completely recovered from the train accident. “You can practice all day, and I have to go to school.”
Mom just smiled and launched into “Elephant Antics,” finishing with a flourish before presenting him with the piano bench.
Michael began to panic. He got up early to practice. He zipped home after school and flung himself at the keyboard with the desperation of a drowning man learning to swim. Mom had lined up a critical audience of stone creatures along the top of the piano that seemed to eye him as he played, daring him to improve.
To his amazement, he started playing better. To his horror, so did his mother.
The piano was practiced from dawn until bedtime. Michael’s father took to inserting earplugs as he walked through the front door every evening. The dog decided to spend its time in the backyard. The neighbors kept their windows shut.
Finally the day of the recital arrived. Michael sat on the stage with the other piano students—a line of kids, with Mom sticking out like a basketball player at a jockey convention.
Sweat trickled down his back; Mom looked cool and collected in pink organdy.
“She’s just trying to psych me out,” he told himself as he ran a finger inside his sweaty collar, trying to loosen it. But she hadn’t let him hear her practice in a week. How good is she? he wondered.
Pretty good, he groaned to himself, when he heard her play. Her fingers moved swiftly across the keyboard, and he counted only three mistakes. The applause when she finished sounded like the final nails being pounded into his coffin.
He was next. Nervously he approached the piano, sat down, raised his hands to the keys, and played.
To his amazement he sounded good. No, he sounded great! He’d been so busy the last few weeks worrying about his mother that he hadn’t really been listening to himself. Well, I’ll be! Mom was right—practice does make perfect!
The applause, when he finished, seemed to rock the room. He was surprised to see Mom clapping the hardest. At least she was a good loser.
“You won fair and square,” she said as they walked home. “So what are you going to do, Michael? Are you quitting piano lessons?”
“I guess not.” He shrugged. “After these last two months, a half hour of practice a day will seem like a vacation. Besides,” he added, pretending to buff his nails, “I’m getting pretty good at it.” He paused. “What about you, Mom?”
“I’d like to keep taking lessons, too,” she said, “but I don’t know if my painting can support two lessons—it takes time to find good rocks, you know.”
Michael stooped down, picked up a couple of likely rocks, and handed them to her. “Don’t worry, Mom. I’ll help you.”