A Weekly Column
By Joseph Walker



I wasn't asking much from piano lessons. I only wanted three things.

I wanted to be able to play "Love Is Blue," so I could make 6th grade girls swoon.

I wanted to be able to play "Nearer My God to Thee," so I could get Mom off my back.

And I wanted to avoid hand contact with my teacher (who was a nice lady and a terrific church organist, but she had the coldest, boniest hands this side of Russon Brothers Mortuary).

That's all I wanted. No scholarship. No concert tours. No organ solo from "Light My Fire." Just get me to "Love Is Blue" and "Nearer My God to Thee," and I would be out of the recital hall and back out to the ball field, where the only counting that mattered had to do with balls and strikes and even the coldest, boniest hands were covered with a mitt.

Two, three months max, I figured. Then I'd be good enough to quit. The first few lessons confirmed my hunch that learning to play the piano would be a piece of cake. I tore through "Pretty Little Flowers" like Jim Brown tearing through a defensive line. But then, it used only three different notes, and the rhythmic pattern was simple. I had it down cold in 15 minutes. Ditto "Echo Song," "Sailor Jack" and "Old Joe Clark." But then came "Quiet River" and-shudder! -- chords, and suddenly music was a mystery.

And I was no Peter Gunn.

Piano practice became a struggle from that moment on. I struggled to understand those little dots and squiggles on the page. I struggled to make my fingers hit white keys when black keys seemed so much more interesting. And I struggled against Mom, the keeper of the keyboard chronometer, who I know occasionally pushed my 30-minute practice time to 31 or 32.

After three years, Mom and I had both had it. I was tired of practicing, and Mom was tired of fighting to make me practice. As soon as I could play the agreed-upon hymns, I quit. I never did master "Love Is Blue," but I could do a pretty mean imitation of Herb Alpert on "This Guy's In Love With You." Which was great until somebody asked me to play something else, and the only other song I could remember was "Pretty Little Flowers."

You want to bring a teen party to a grinding halt? That's the song that'll do it right there.

Needless to say, I've regretted my decision to stop taking piano lessons just when I got good enough to quit. And I've felt a twinge of that same regret each time one of my children has followed my example at the piano pickin' crossroads (that point came early for Joe and Jon because we knew and liked their teachers and wanted to maintain friendly relations with them).

That's why I was pleased when my 11-year-old daughter Elizabeth recently made a different decision at the crossroads. She's been taking lessons for three years, and her teacher told her she was at the point where she needed to decide how far she wanted to go. She could keep doing what she's been doing and someday be a good pianist, or she could get more serious and more focused and become REALLY good. She thought about it for a couple of days and decided to stick with it. She understands the cost in terms of practice time and effort. But she's willing to pay the price to see how good she can become.

Without becoming good enough to quit.

# # #

--- Joseph Walker


Look for Joe's book, "How Can You Mend a Broken Spleen? Home Remedies for an Ailing World." It is available on-line through