Saturday, December 31, 2011

Private Music

While piano-hunting, the salesmen repeatedly pointed out the benefits of the earphones that can be plugged into a digital piano. They told us how great it is to be able to practice without disturbing the people around you. I can see benefits there. If you live in an apartment, you can play without annoying the people upstairs. If you work odd hours --or if you awaken in the night and want to play hymns for comfort-- the earphones make it possible for you to make your music while the rest of the household slumbers away. If you're learning a piece and embarrassed to be heard, you've got privacy because of the earphones.

And yet ...

Is that good?

Isn't there something good about all of you hearing the same music? Isn't there something good about learning to take turns -- someone playing piano for a while and then someone else listening to the tv or radio -- sharing the airwaves? Isn't there something instructive about listening to a person learn to play, whether it's the primer book, simple scales, or more complicated pieces? Isn't there something good about the whole family hearing Jill's piece for the recital 287 times in one week?

When we use the earphones, we disassociate with each other. But that's not all. We also take away our exposure to someone's fumbling about while in the learning-stages. And that's not a good thing. Especially in our day of recorded music (where there might have been over 100 attempts at getting the recording Right before the entertainer finds a "keeper") it's important that we experience the process of learning. Children especially need to see that mistakes are made, and that we all do a cruddy job in the beginning phases of gaining a skill, and that it takes work and practice before a piece is smoothed and polished and refined.

I'm not going to toss my piano's earphones into the trash. We will keep them. Sometimes we will use them. But for the most part, earphones seem like another wedge to family togetherness, as well as another way to portray excellence while hiding the path of hard work and the plethora of errors that led to that excellence.


  1. Well said. And knowing all the practice and bumps along the road make the cd my children gave me all the more special.

  2. So does this mean you got a piano?

    I agree with your thoughts here, although I am thinking that for myself I might start playing scales and classical repertoire again more often if I could plug some headphones into our piano and not worry about others hearing me! And yet I have found that I am so used to our piano being played that I almost don't hear it anymore when someone is practicing and when I actually hear the person play a piece in a performance setting it is like I am hearing it for the first time and I am amazed. So I shouldn't feel so self-conscious about my own playing (just hard not to in this house).

    We have been told by neighbors that people refer to us as the piano house--the one where when they walk by on the sidewalk there is always music pouring forth. So not only do headphones deprive the family, they deprive the neighborhood!

  3. Agree...we have had piano played around here for so long. I know so many pieces...not the title of the piece or composer...but I KNOW the music. And music brings so much joy. Good post and a wonderful insight.

  4. I'm used to hearing piano at all hours of the day and into the night, but thanks to empty houses and college practice rooms, I'm used to practicing alone. I think this has made performing harder for me. I don't know how other people would react to this circumstance, but I wish I didn't care again if people heard me practice.

    On the other hand, it's impossible for me to practice singing if someone's playing something else on the piano, so if you expect multiple musics to happen at once, headphones would be great.

  5. Cheryl, this post wouldn't necessarily mean that we bought a piano. I was writing this post in my head for the last few weeks before I got it written down. But yes, we did buy a Clavinova. What with finding a really good deal on a discontinued model, we could buy one with our Christmas gift-money that had been set aside for a couple of years with the stipulation from the givers: "Do not use this for anything necessary or for paying bills; do something special and enjoyable with it." So right now, I'm very glad we didn't hunt up something special on which to spend that gift-money earlier, but waited until an ideal opportunity stared us in the face.

    Cheryl and Maggie, I totally understand what you mean about embarrassment. But Cheryl, in your case, isn't going to be important to Evan to hear somebody practicing at a less-than-Phil level? I've heard stories of the baby in the family thinking they'll never learn to read because, obviously, everybody else in the house can do it, and there must be something wrong with the kid who hasn't learned yet. I can see the same thing in your house with piano.

    And Maggie, yes!, I can be playing just fine in private but then, when somebody sings along or if I know a good musician is overhearing, I get so flustered that I make gobs of errors. I need to make more mistakes in front of people besides my family so that I learn that I will live through the humiliating experience of being less-than-perfect. ;-)

    Laura, I was thinking of your vast knowledge of music when I was writing this. I think your Before-Mom-Days training in music was much like mine. But your kids have exposed you to so much good music that has enriched your life.

    Cheryl, what you said about the neighborhood ... yes, I was pondering that too. Sometimes it makes me nervous to play, knowing that the neighbors can hear. But I keep sweeping that out of my brain (for nervousness' sake) and telling myself that it's probably good for people. But what's more important is when our neighbor was playing. When we first moved in, the woman across the street worked. But she quit her job when their first baby was born. When spring arrived and the windows opened up, I was hanging clothes on the line one day when I heard music floating from that house. It always delighted me when she sat down to play!! Don't you think it's important for regular people to realize that other regular people make music, and that music isn't something that comes only from CD's and Pandora? And that it's not always perfect, but is still a blessed way to spend your time and efforts?

  6. Glenda, there is something special about knowing the path that it took someone to arrive, isn't there? It's like when your own kids learn to talk or go potty or walk. When you're there through all the mistakes, the falls, the bumps, the wet beds, the mispronunciations, you have a greater appreciation and love for the end result.

  7. Susan, you make a really good point about the importance of Evan hearing people struggle on the piano. I think he probably experiences a little of that "I'll never be that good" feeling as a result of growing up in the family he's in. But you know what's interesting? He is not shy about practicing and he is not at all shy about performing on recital whereas as I've shared elsewhere we had a huge hurdle to get over when it came to singing in the children's choir. He was completely intimidated by that and it took some doing to get him over it.

    One good thing about my teaching piano lessons is he does hear a lot of kids struggling just like him. :-) I'm not sure that hearing me practice (which does happen) is of any benefit to Evan in the way you suggest because, as hard as I am on myself, the level is still quite advanced. It seems in middle age I have been gripped by a lot more self-consciousness about my playing than I used to have when I was younger.

  8. P.S. Congratulations on the piano! It was the last paragraph where you were talking about keeping the earphones that made me think you had actually made a purchase!