By Joanna McFarland Owusu
Growing up, I was never really a joiner. I didn’t play team sports or run for student government. I joined the obligatory club or two in high school because I was supposed to, to pad the college applications. But I was always more comfortable in smaller groups, finding my own tribe, or by myself. I wonder if my parents recognized the quality, since they both shared it, to a degree. I didn’t know the name for it as a child, but I do now: introversion.
But from an early age, I gravitated to the piano in my grandmother’s house, sounding out melodies by ear. My parents found a piano teacher for me, and I began lessons at age 6. There were more than a few rocky years in my piano tutelage, years I begged to quit. I generally liked it and progressed fairly quickly, but it became a decidedly uncool pursuit in my preteen years. And then there was my paralyzing fear at recitals. Dad started giving me a crisp twenty-dollar bill after recitals, a small reward for a job well done, to take the edge off what was an anxiety-inducing few minutes for me.
But something happened as the years passed. I stopped begging to quit.
I forged a bond with my teacher. I was shy at school and had teachers I was fond of, but I was never exceptionally close to any of them. I recall only a few teachers who really understood me, maybe recognized a kindred spirit. I spoke up only when called on in class, but always had plenty to say with my closest friends. Outside of my tight circle, I was always more comfortable in my own space, in my own head.
That’s how it was with piano: an escape, in my head. Diving into Mozart or Handel or Schubert, I was transported. I began listening to my dad’s classical CD collection. I found this took me to the same place: the place that showed me the universe, the possibility of God.
My piano teacher understood me, I think. I’m not sure I ever confided in her during some tumultuous years – parents separating (then reuniting), friendship dramas, typical teenage angst. But she was a steady presence, a fount of unqualified encouragement. I remember her saying, after I performed well with a small chamber music ensemble, that I showed the audience what I wanted to show them, if I felt inclined. The comment stayed with me, because she understood me before I quite understood myself.
I’ll never forget my piano teacher pausing during the end of a lesson my senior year in high school, to talk about my college plans. She said to me, as gently as she could, that I shouldn’t plan to major in music. Only the tiniest fraction of musicians have the talent to make a career of it. And I remember being shocked that she felt the need to say this. I had never even considered it. I knew, at heart, that this thing I loved could not and should not be my livelihood. It was something private. I place I went to by myself, for myself.
We had some lean years during my childhood. I know there were periods when writing the check for my lessons was a strain. I know the purchase of the piano, the most prized possession in my house to this day, took years to repay. But I never heard a word of hesitation about it from my parents.
I see, in my son, some of those same qualities. He’s quiet at school. His teachers enjoy him and appreciate him, but I’m not always sure they see him. As a parent, maybe it’s what we most want for our children as we let go of them a little more with each passing year: to find the people who will see them, value their strengths and accept them, as they are.
He sometimes resists practicing piano. I suspect a day will come when he begs to quit. But I also catch glimmers of moments I recognize, as he gets lost in concentration playing a song. His little brow, too often furrowed, relaxes. He makes quick corrections, hearing where the music is supposed to go before his fingers find the keys.
Thirty-plus years later, I see it. It’s still my best and safest refuge. Mom and Dad, you saw me, even when I didn’t see myself yet. I’m not sure I ever said thank you.
And my little boy…I see him too. Play on, son.
About the Author
Joanna McFarland Owusu is a freelance writer and editor based in Dallas, Texas. A federal government analyst in a former life, Joanna now spends her time wrangling two not-so-little boys and a toddler daughter. Her work has appeared on The Huffington Post, scarymommy.com, www.bust.com, and www.bluntmoms.com.