Applause for the Audience

May 17, 2015

On Friday, I attended my daughter’s end-of-the-year chorus and handbell concert at school.  The talent of the various singers, the ringers, and the stringed instruments was pretty impressive.  At one point, two students played a piano duet that was absolutely brilliant, and I experienced two emotions simultaneously:  Delight at the wonderful performance that had me grinning from ear to ear, and regret that I can’t play the piano like that.  It didn’t bother me that I can’t sing or play the cello, because I’ve never been able to sing or play the cello.  But I did used to play the piano, and so, because I’m me, I took it as an opportunity to beat myself up.  You know, because I can’t play the piano like that and, obviously, I should.

I started playing the piano in second grade and continued through college.  I picked up the basics pretty quickly, but though I had marginal talent and a good ear, I never practiced enough, and my technique was deplorable.  As a music major in college, I was required to take performance every semester.  After two years, I switched to harpsichord, and then organ, because I get bored easily, and because the harpsichord/organ instructor was a lot less demanding than my piano professor.

So I was an adequate pianist, but not a great one.  Then I went to law school, got married, and had kids, and I really didn’t think much about playing the piano.  It was all I could do to make a box of Kraft macaroni and cheese for dinner and sign off on the kids’ homework assignments, and this was before yoga pants and the internet were invented, mind you, so you can see why I didn’t have a lot of time to work on my Mozart.

Later, we bought an old piano for $100 from a bar that was looking to get rid of it (mice and all), and later, after my oldest had been taking lessons for several years, we bought a better model that now gathers dust, un-tuned and untouched, in the living room.  I sit down about once a year to tinker around a bit, and I have good intentions of finally mastering the Alla Turca or this Bach fugue that I’ve been working on since college, but billable hours, laundry, and driving my kids places sort of gets in the way of a regular practice schedule.  I’ve mostly accepted that I’ll never get around to that book of Chopin preludes that’s been sitting in the piano bench since 1985.  There have been other more important things to attend to.

Listening to those two young men perform on Friday night, however, I was reminded of how much I enjoyed playing, back when it was something I did regularly, but within three seconds, I knew that I’d never been as good as those high school students were – not even close.  Having studied piano for as long as I did, and having attended many, many concerts over the years, I know a good pianist when I hear one – again, I’ve got a really good ear.

So, I knew that these young men had more talent that I ever did (and, to be fair, probably practice a lot more than I ever did).  As I sat there, I imagined the concerts they would play in the years to come, formal and informal, and I thought of all the joy they would experience when they sat down, opened up the sheet music, and got it just right.  It’s a wonderful feeling.  It made me happy for them, and sad for me that I don’t get to do that anymore.  There’s not much time for creative pursuits these days; I’m pretty much tapped out attending to the immediate needs of work, family and home.  Because I’m me, I felt bad about that; if I were only somehow better, I would have found a way to fit in two hours of practice every day over the last 15 years—you know, between working upwards of 50 hours a week, taking care of my kids, scrubbing the bathroom and folding sheets.  I hate folding sheets.

But then, I had a teeny tiny epiphany – I’ve been having more of these lately, which I suppose is a worthwhile tradeoff for the increasingly frequent word retrieval issues I’ve been experiencing since turning fifty.  It occurred to me that art is a two-way street:  All of us volunteer to be the audience every time we go to a movie or a concert (whether it be Beethoven or the Rolling Stones), or buy a ticket to an art museum, or perhaps even when we pick up a book (unless it’s “Fifty Shades of Gray” or anything written by Danielle Steele).  We do that to be entertained, or edified; to learn something; to feel something; to watch someone do something amazing; to see something beautiful.  We the audience seek out and benefit from art, that much is certain.  But while the creative process itself is likely fulfilling to the artist regardless of whether anyone else ever listens to or sees the finished product, I think there’s some validity to the notion that ultimately, an artist needs an audience – at least some of the time, anyway – and that being that audience has some value as well, especially when the artists are our kids, who benefit from our attendance and encouragement and applause.

Perhaps this is a massive rationalization – me trying to find some meaning in my role as a suburban mom in jeans and DSW ballet flats clapping from the third row and remembering my own end-of-the-year concerts all those years ago when I took for granted my mother’s faithful attendance.  Perhaps I need to face the fact that playing the piano well is just one more thing I’m going to have to add to the list of Things Wendy Meant to Do But Didn’t Get Around To (and Never Will)…you know, like learning Italian or reading “Democracy in America.”  Suddenly, all that time I thought I had to read the great classics or become a serviceable tennis player has passed me by.  George Bailey knows what I mean.

I’m pleased to say that as I turned over these ideas in my mind, I decided that instead of feeling bad about the fact that I can’t play the piano the way I wish I could, I would congratulate myself on being an appreciative audience, which every artist needs, at least some of the time, especially when that artist is your kid, who probably doesn’t give much thought to the fact that you’re there, but would certainly miss you if you weren’t.

I can’t play the piano the way those young men can, but you know what? I’m a hell of a good audience, and at this point in my life, that’s enough.



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