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Lesson II


She set an egg timer in the kitchen. It was hard to practice even the fifteen minutes every day. There were distractions: tennis, basketball, and a never-ending supply of books. There were Legos, there were K'Nex and Brio. There were stories that I had to figure out how to tell. The piano held only one small part of attention.

The ticking was audible from in the living room. I would look at Czerny exercises. So many scales with the left, so many with the right. There were sonatas to try to memorize, but I could hardly read the music. If I stared too long through the curtains into the neighbors' yard, I'd hear "Why aren't you practicing?" from the kitchen.

Discipline. Did I lack it already? Does it elude me even now because I couldn't figure out then how to get my hands up and down the keys for 15 concerted minutes? Writing for an hour each day now, or trying to get into this routine -- when I want to do it -- is hard enough. But was I learning habits of avoidance at, like, eight years old?

Certain things were already becoming hard for me, but not enough that I couldn't find easier things that still counted as productive. I would sit there, with my left leg under my butt, staring at the pages and trying to figure out how to read the notes. At lessons, I was too scared to admit to my teacher that I didn't know what the symbols meant. I learned how to play the pieces by hearing them and watching her freckled hands intently. Then I would sit at the keys and just do what she had done.

These things came naturally, who knows why? For a time, that's something I could do: just watch someone's hands play a section of music and then play it. Maybe because I didn't know how crazy it was to be able to do that. Maybe because I just didn't think too hard about it and dedicated all of my brain to watching and internalizing the movements. Maybe that's why I could do it at all.

At a certain point, I started questioning myself. It had to be a problem that I couldn't read the music but could simply play what I heard. I learned how to fake my way through lessons, sitting in her apartment and pointing abstractly to sections of music that I told her were difficult to play.

She would play them for me. "Oh, I get it," I'd say. And then I'd sit and play them. Not perfectly, but good enough for her to say, "Tres bien, monsieur. Alors." And then she would move me to the next section.

Maybe she knew. Maybe she just figured that it was easier to teach me that way. To teach appreciation and observation instead of reading the notes. Playing them methodically and mechanically. I wish I'd learned the disciplined way, the way that would have required me to admit that I didn't know something. That I wanted to work for something. Maybe I wouldn't have ended up wondering constantly if I had the discipline to go to places I hadn't already explored.