The New York Times has a nasty habit of running front-page stories, often on Mondays, from what I think of as the “Oh, how horrible!” genre. You know, the ones that uncover or bring greater attention to some gravely troubling commonplace of modern American life/the digital age/late capitalism that we didn’t even realize was a commonplace because we’ve become so wrapped up in modern American life/the digital age/late capitalism. The stories that cause us to exclaim “Oh, how horrible!” out loud or in a Facebook post. They’re typically about the loss or destruction of something that used to be important and beloved in the past but that we no longer think we need, usually because of technology or “progress.” Books are a recurring favorite topic. This week, it’s pianos.
These stories trouble me because they allow readers to confuse being troubled (or having their awareness “raised”) with taking action on the immediate problem exposed (or the larger, systemic problems simultaneously hinted at and obscured)—to experience horror as political agency. I’ll leave the details of this dynamic for another time and place and only mention that they’re related to my current scholarly work, which is concerned with instances of writing as a form of radical political action. Though what follows is much less ambitious than such texts, this piano story provoked me enough to write something more than a Facebook post.
Whether reading an actual newspaper or online, the headline “For More Pianos, Last Note Is Thud in the Dump” and the accompanying picture of a mover rolling a piano off the back of a truck onto another mostly destroyed piano in a transfer station are hard to resist. This is likely so for everyone, but especially for anyone who has ever played a piano, and even more so for someone who has yearned to have one at home. I’m in this last camp—or was as a child.
I never got a piano, for the standard parental reasons: “It’s too expensive.” “Where would we put it?” “How much would you actually play it?” I never took piano lessons either. Instead, I took to strings—the result of a field trip to the local symphony orchestra. (Do schools even do this anymore?) I remember understanding on some level that I was being admitted into an Important Civic and Cultural Space that day. I also expected to be bored. Instead, it blew my fourth-grade mind—the sound filling up the room and overwhelming me, the sight of all of the bows moving in unison, the interplay of the instruments. And kettle drums! I didn’t want it to stop. At the family dinner table that night, I announced that I wanted to learn how to play the violin. And I did (thank you, Julie Ivanhoe!), followed by cello (taken up when my sister abandoned it), then bass (playing tuba parts on the upright in the concert band performances of a school without an orchestra). Music was one of the few constants in my itinerant young life; I found a way to play everywhere my family moved as my father changed jobs during the boom-and-bust-and-boom ’80s and ’90s.
At some point I switched from wanting to play the piano to being proud that I didn’t. Everybody played piano, especially girls. I played cello! And a giant bass! But I eventually found that if I truly wanted to learn music, piano was essential. In early high school, I had arrived at that inevitable fork in the road of all arts: deciding to remain an amateur or become a professional. In a classic all-or-nothing high-school move, I quit playing all together; as I saw it, becoming more serious meant growing to hate something I loved. College was a chance to start again, but I wasn’t good enough to play with the orchestra. So I started playing bass guitar in basements with friends in bands, picking out Smashing Pumpkins and Breeders songs at unholy hours on the weekends, and became a DJ at the college’s radio station. Immersed once again in music, I declared myself a major and started the required intro composition class.
It kicked my ass. Middle C? The circle of fifths? Voice leading? I remember that I mistakenly wrote something in Dorian mode as part of our homework exercises, which were all piano-based. (I still don’t know how I did it, or what Doric mode sounds like.) I tried to translate from violin, but somehow that didn’t work. Even now I find it hard to explain what I was doing wrong because I didn’t understand what I didn’t understand. All I knew is that it felt like making music into math (my other academic brush with failure), and once again, that joy was becoming confusion and pain. Somehow I didn’t fail the course, but I did switch to an English major (sweet refuge of failures!).
Once there, I directed my energy into becoming a Serious English major, then a grad student, then an academic. It took all of it; as a result, music was something I continued to listen to avidly, but only very occasionally played, most often as a break from writing. As I was finishing my first book, I moved the vintage bass I’d bought in college from its case to a stand. I tried playing along with records only to find how little I remembered—or maybe how little I knew in the first place. Something that was once good at once had become something I could hardly do, and it was frustrating—all the more so as I was supposed to be an expert in my professional life. Which brings me back to the dumped pianos.
I think that this frustration—this experience of being bad at something, both physically and mentally—is the reason why so many pianos are ending up at the dump. It can’t be because we don’t have room for them (after all, American houses metastasized in square footage from 983 in 1950 to 2,480 in 2011). It certainly isn’t attributable to hip-hop, as one commenter on the Times article suggested (ah, racism! Biz Markie? ’Nuf said.) And let’s not blame the digital for everything (ah, media shift! Remember how the birth of the synthesizer was the supposed death of the piano?). Instead, how about we hold ourselves responsible for once?
Specifically, I lay the blame at our frustration with frustration, at our failure to experience failure more often, especially as adults. I don’t mean the disappointments and even sense of defeat that characterize everyday life in modern America/the digital age/late capitalism—these are precisely what avoid taking on any more frustration. Put another way, we’re losing not just pianos, but the crucial experience of frustration and failure at something we’ve chosen to do, like learn the piano, and the pleasures born of this experience. Even in this age of extreme disempowerment, elective frustration is liberating, for the same reasons that it always was: it reminds that we don’t have to be—and can’t be—perfect at everything. And it’s transient and, thus, edifying—you start out bad, if not awful; you become better, and, in time, maybe even good. Or you don’t. Either way, you’ve learned something about yourself. (None of this is original with me, of course; see also Wayne Booth’s For the Love of It: Amateuring and its Rivals.)
Put most simply, if we don’t try, try again, what happens to the possibility of success? It gets destroyed along with the pianos. Occupy Zuccotti Park. Get kicked out? Take it again. Try another park. And another. Frustrated? Take a break; others will keep it up. And when you’re ready, try taking another or something else. Until we’ve occupied everything. Like practicing scales. Practice them all, backwards and forwards, over and over and over again, until you play anything. Save the pianos. Put one in every park. In every school. In every community center. In every home, no matter how big or small. Everybody who’s ever played, never played, or quit playing: start playing anything on pianos everywhere, no matter how it sounds. How else will we get better?
The last paragraph of this essay makes me jump out of my seat.
This is really so great, I like it more every time I read it. Also, somehow i think Kathleen Williams Renk will like the connection of music to political awareness–and also Jedediah Purdy!
And also, okay, it’s got me thinking about how this article might be called “doing things with frustration,” and so it sounds like the opposite of doing things with joy ( Peter Coviello) but is actually about how important it is to see FRUSTRATION AS A POTENTIAL SOURCE OF JOY, which is such an IMPORTANT POLITICAL MESSAGE, I am just saying, Marcy Dinius. really, this essay is SO GREAT.
Thank you for sharing this! This really hit home with me, not just as an adult piano student, but as someone who is always trying to find better ways of handling frustration (and teaching my kids to learn from it). Because, let’s face it, life is full of frustration. Feeling frustrated can’t be a completely useless exercise.
Re Sarah I take this to be about the pleasures – complex and multiform – of the things that resist you, and your already-present fluencies. Also, like I always tell the kids about education: it’s bound to be discomforting, since it is at root on confrontation with the frontier at which your knowledge meets your ignorance.
As I always say to my kids, my students, and myself: that weird ache you’re feeling in your brain? That’s called learning. And if you already knew how to do this, you wouldn’t have to be learning it in the first place.
Exactly, Pete. And Sarah H. Good luck with the lessons!
Yes yes yes. And what’s so great about the essay is staging this pedagogical problem as the political problem that it, also, is.
I’m sharing this to see what my musician friends think. Learning any instrument is daunting. I’m a total amateur but I’ve seen my son become a professional musician and it takes years of practice to reach any level of competence and then excellence. These dumped pianos seem so indicative of our short attention spans these days and the need to have instant gratification. I do think we’d be better off learning to deal with failure and mediocrity and then eventually reaping the reward of hard work and perseverance.