Strawberries and Octaves


Over a breakfast of strawberries and muffins, my family gave me the word on 5:00 A.M. practice and self-discipline.

There are many exotic ways of building self-discipline—practicing yoga, walking over hot coals, memorizing logarithms. However, after years of experience, I feel I have discovered a superior method—piano lessons.

It is entirely possible that 99 percent of the population of the United States dreads the jolting buzz of the alarm clock. But piano lessons make the alarm obsolete. For example, just the other morning while sleeping as soundly as Cinderella in a feather bed, my conscience began mumbling: “5:00 A.M. … piano lesson … self-discipline … out of bed … 5:00 A.M.

“Quiet!” I yelled.

Hearing my own voice woke me. Since I was awake anyway, I decided to get out of bed and practice. I perched myself on the piano bench. First came the scales. C major. One-two-three-four—up and down the piano endlessly. The repetition tended to hypnotize me; my head dropped.

At breakfast, over strawberries and muffins, my little brother complained that he had been awakened at 5:00 A.M. by a C major scale. My mother told me she didn’t mind if I practiced, as long as I didn’t wake the family and then quit. I explained that I had merely dozed off in the middle of a scale. At this point my father added a gem of advice: “JoAnn,” he said, “discipline yourself to eat right and be in bed before 9:00, and you will be alert and awake at the piano.” I quickly ate another strawberry.

Self-discipline is a big part of getting ready for a piano lesson; it makes it possible for a person to get to the piano and then stay there. After jumping the “I-wish-it-were-possible-to-practice-in-bed” hurdle and landing squarely on the piano bench, self-discipline again takes over.

Most people count with the aid of their fingers, but in piano playing a new difficulty arises. The fingers are busy and not available to be counted on. And interpreting music correctly demands self-discipline. Playing a soft, sentimental piece of music loudly has the same effect as smashing a sugar cube with a sledgehammer. Music has a story that must run smoothly yet dramatically. Accomplishing this requires thought and work.

Included in this program of self-discipline is a weekly half hour of torture. I walk into my piano teacher’s home. The piano teacher motions me to the piano, and I begin playing. In the middle of a stirring rendition of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” I suddenly stop, staring wildly at the black-and-white page before me. Where is the next note? Where? Where? Vaguely, through the haze of pressure, I hear a faraway voice: “You are on the wrong note. Name the notes.”

“Oh … I don’t know … A, B, C, D, E, F, G.”

“That’s right. Which one is this note?”

Suddenly self-discipline emerges.

“A!” I cry.

The sun breaks; the piano teacher smiles; and I realize that with the discipline gained through piano lessons, I can now do anything. Well … almost.

[photos] Photography by Steve Bunderson