Tuned Out: Deborah Paul on Playing an Instrument

As fewer children learn piano, the rest miss out on lessons in more than just music.
My piano career was, at best, undistinguished. After several years of lessons, I could barely plink out a recognizable tune. I can’t blame Mrs. Marks, at whose northside home I took instruction every week. She was elderly (who wasn’t, in the eyes of a 10-year-old?), and I recall waiting my turn while seated on her living-room davenport, which, if memory serves, was edged with ropey fringe. My heart pounded in anticipation of my likely failure, and there was little to occupy me except to take in the old-people chairs, the old-people paintings, the old-people porcelain figurines.

Mrs. Marks nicknamed me “Teen-Insy” for my diminutive stature, which necessitated piling phone books on the bench so I could reach the keyboard. I never understood how my best friend’s brother could play “by ear,” sans sheet music, when I couldn’t successfully bring to life a simple melody. I banged each note with purpose but no passion—parts without a whole. Mrs. Marks was patient, sending me home with the same classical assignments to practice week after week. At least her lack of enthusiasm for recitals spared me the shame of performing before an audience.

In a burst of creative genius, Mrs. Marks at last decided a popular song might pique my interest and produce a more acceptable result. And that was how I came to master “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” which I played with dramatic flair, my confidence soaring as I sang along to my own accompaniment. Mrs. Marks was satisfied, if frustrated by my lack of success with the classics. Nonetheless, I still know all the words.

At long last, my mother allowed me to give up piano, since a single song in one’s repertoire hardly justified either the monetary or the emotional toll. No matter how many times I ascended that bench, I was never going to replicate my sister’s perfect rendition of “Flight of the Bumblebee.” My reputation for desertion was beginning to gel: Goodbye, Girl Scouts (unflattering uniform), needlepoint (lumpy stitches), and ballet (a clumsy jete). Farewell to horseback riding as well, after I was thrown from the saddle. (To tell the truth, the horse took an unexpected turn, and I jumped.) Mom called it right when she said the one thing I was good at was quitting.

So, why now, after all these years, did an Associated Press article about the decline of piano sales and children playing piano disturb me? According to the story, 1909 was the best year for new-piano sales in the United States, with 364,500. Since then, sales have plunged to between 30,000 and 40,000 annually. Partially to blame? Technology, of course. Kids don’t want to sit and play for an hour a day when they could be chasing cartoon chipmunks on their iPads.

Maybe all the effort was a big, fat waste of time, and nobody will miss the piano.

We do have electronic keyboards and The Big Piano at New York’s FAO Schwarz, but you won’t look into many living-room windows these days and find a kid pounding away at Beethoven’s Fifth on a traditional upright. Add to that the expense: The same AP article places the average cost of a new grand piano at more than $16,000. For an investment of that scale, I suspect most teenagers would prefer a Ford Fiesta.

The decline of piano unnerves me, for the simple reason that even if I couldn’t conquer so much as a rudimentary execution of “Yankee Doodle,” I was at least expected to try. I knew that practice was required every evening after dinner, concentration was necessary, and I would still be obliged to face Mrs. Marks that week, prepared or not. My mother insisted I know how to read music even if I couldn’t perform it, and maybe that was good enough.

Some people, like my brother, are blessed with natural gifts, and no lesson would make a difference. He could draw comic-book characters with amusing precision and play every sport with such prowess that he awarded himself the middle name of “Ball.” How many singers wind up on TV competitions after surprising their own parents with their God-given talents? And how many wedding receptions need we attend to recognize that some people can dance and others just plain can’t?

Whether lessons are ultimately useful for future achievement remains unclear. I remember a cousin of mine practicing piano for hours each day, her mother glued to a chair beside her, coaching every note. Likewise, the same girl’s lessons in petit point resulted in pillows and tapestries worthy of an art gallery. She was as much a virtuoso with a needle as she was with her music. Yet, as far as I know, she no longer plays or stitches, so maybe all the effort was a big, fat waste of time, and nobody will miss the piano if the instrument disappears entirely. When we’re lucky, we wind up doing what we like and what we’re good at, anyway. I can string sentences together, at times coherently; style my own hair; appreciate high-minded literature; and make pretty good spaghetti sauce. I never had lessons for any of that.

Likewise, I didn’t push my kids, and likely I’m to blame that neither of them plays an instrument or fluently speaks a foreign language. They are busy, productive, successful adults, and I assuage my guilt with the hope that a hobby perpetuated by a parent is perhaps not as sticky as a pastime a person picks up himself.

That said, I still wish I had my mother’s blond-wood upright piano, which has long since been passed along through the generations. She used to joke that she could have purchased a mink stole for the cost of the thing, and we kids would giggle at the thought of a cascade of ivory keys draped over her shoulders. At the very least, she provided an opportunity, taught us responsibility, and let us decide what to do with the craft ourselves. I doubt an hour spent fooling around with Grand Theft Auto would yield as valuable a return.

Email Deborah Paul here.