A girl in a blue dress sits at a piano bench and music drifts from her fingers.
Design by Tamara Turner.

The piano that sits in my den right now is almost as old as I am. I still remember the first time I sat down at its bench — my little legs swinging in the air, unable to touch the ground beneath. My parents saw the musical talent in me before I ever did, and we bought the piano from a family friend — a music teacher — just before I started kindergarten. Its age is starting to show: The wood stain is fading, a few keys are chipped and its tune is degrading from the last time we had it fixed. Despite the countless years of lessons, playbooks and recitals, I don’t play it nearly as often as I should. It’s one of my biggest regrets.

Music has always been a passion of mine. I would spend hours on the swingset in my backyard with my headphones in, screaming the words to all the songs I had on repeat. I try to go to at least one concert each year, and I spend too much of my free time listening to movie soundtracks. It’s no surprise, then, that playing the piano was so amazing for me. If I could find the right sheet music, I could learn how to play all of my favorite songs. 

Throughout my childhood, I’ve had several piano teachers. My first was the same woman we bought our piano from. Those years were mostly spent learning the basics: how to read music and teaching my left and right hand to play two different things at the same time. My second piano teacher, Mrs. Gumina, was my favorite. I was old enough then to start learning pieces I had always wanted to play, like “Für Elise” and “Linus and Lucy.” She also bought me song books with pieces from my favorite movie franchises, like “Harry Potter” and “Pirates of the Caribbean.” With my growing skills and music library came a newfound level of responsibility. Mrs. Gumina organized two recitals for all of her students — one around Christmas and one in the spring — as well as an annual evaluation in a national festival. Ever since I was a little kid, I have never liked being the center of attention, so the anxiety of having to play in front of people wasn’t easy to overcome. But I still memorized my pieces and earned high scores, plus learning to play “Hedwig’s Theme” made up for any residual stress. By the time I reached high school, my commitments with the drama club gave me no time for anything else, even piano. Eventually Mrs. Gumina retired, and my family tried two other teachers, but nobody could fill her shoes. Thankfully, she’s back to teaching lessons now, and she meets with my youngest sister once a week.

Even though all of my siblings and I have gone through piano lessons, I’m the only one who has the ability to play by ear. I remember when I was first starting out, whenever I got stuck on a certain note my dad would whistle it until I could match it on the keys. As I got older, I could even teach myself certain songs — I figured out how to play Adele’s “Someone Like You” and performed it at one Christmas recital. I didn’t realize how big an accomplishment that was at such a young age, but I knew I hated all of the attention that came with it. 

Any time we had people over to our house, the same argument would ensue:

“Come play something for me,” my dad would say. It felt like everyone in the house would freeze — they had heard this enough times to know what was coming. I would ignore him for as long as possible, until he eventually came and found me. I’d say, “I don’t want to,” as if it were ever that simple, but I knew he wasn’t actually asking. Still, I’d try for as long as possible to avoid a performance. I’d sit down on the bench and not move, or I’d take too long to “look for my music.” I would keep saying, “I don’t want to,” but my dad didn’t care. Of course, he would always win the argument. Too many times I sat at that bench and played through teary eyes. 

Looking back now, I can clearly see that my dad always had the best intentions — he loved to hear me play, and he was proud of me and just wanted other people to hear what I could do. I think it was not only being put on the spot that I hated, but the compliments that came from everyone afterwards: “That was beautiful. You’re so talented. I still remember when you taught yourself that Adele song!” No matter how genuine those compliments might have been, they still felt like pressure to me in some stupid way. Eventually I stopped playing whenever my parents were within earshot because I knew they would say something. After a certain point, my talent turned into fear, and a grudge I couldn’t let go of. My mom would beg me to play by saying, “I won’t say anything, I promise. I just want to listen.” I wouldn’t do it. 

As I’ve grown older, I still have a hard time understanding why it bothered me so much. Once I started taking part in musicals, I didn’t mind having so many eyes on me anymore. Compliments on those performances never made me uncomfortable. Despite all the bad memories, I still loved to play the piano, too. Even after I stopped having weekly lessons, I would play the songs I still had memorized on the piano in the drama room before rehearsals began, where all my friends could hear me. But to this day, I can’t play the piano in my own house when I know my parents are listening. I hate how it came to be this way. 

Lately, I’ve been working on overcoming this fear, as well as trying to play more in general. I’ve been told that I don’t really need a teacher anymore — it’s easy enough for me to pick up certain songs, and I still know how to read music if I ever get stuck. Right now, I’m teaching myself Debussy’s “Clair de Lune,” one of my favorite pieces. Hearing the song take shape as I hit the keys feels like home. I’m still playing mostly for myself, since the only times I really get to play are during my days off of work and when nobody else is home. But there have been times when my parents walk through the door when I’m at the bench, and I keep playing instead of leaving the room. They both said something to me about it — “I heard you playing; it sounded beautiful” — and it didn’t bother me at all. Someday, I’ll be able to play the whole song, and I’ll sit at the bench with the den doors open, without the damper pedal down. The music will ring through my house, and my family will hear it all, and I will be happy. 

Daily Arts Writer Hannah Carapellotti can be reached at hmcarp@umich.edu.