A Youthful Regret

Every few months or so, I go through a closet or drawers and get rid of stuff I don’t really need to hang on to. I’m close to getting rid of some of my notebooks from my days as a middle school dean. Yesterday I came across a folder my dad had kept on me with my report cards, awards, old pictures, and such. I found a newspaper clipping of me with other winners of a piano competition that had been held at Yale one spring. I was probably a freshman in high school at the time. It brought back many memories.

I started piano lessons when I was ten, full of enthusiasm and desire to be great it it.  Mrs. Guthin, who had studied under someone like Bela Bartok or Zoltan Kodaly in Hungary as a child, was just the right teacher for someone like me.  She was very demanding and expected perfection.  I tended to be lazy, but I was also fearful of getting fussed at.  So I had to work hard or suffer the consequences at the next lesson.  I had some natural talent, but most of my success was due to hours of practicing and my desire not to disappoint my teacher.  With each lesson, she became more and more convinced that I would some day be an excellent performer, maybe even a virtuoso.  But I couldn’t let down for a moment. The more excited she became over my growing talent, the harder I practiced in my effort not to disappoint her. Sometimes I felt as if I were deceiving her. Did she really think I had so much natural talent? Did she realize how much I practiced?

When I memorized a piece, only my fingers retained the memory, not my brain. I could remember nothing of chord progressions and theory. I knew if I were to forget a piece in the middle, I would have to go back to the beginning and try again. The only way I could memorize a piece was to play it over and over until my fingertips automatically picked out the right keys.

Mrs. Guthin’s best friend was also a piano teacher. This friend had a prize pupil whose name was Barbara. Barbara was a natural talent. I knew she was better than I was, even though I usually tied her or even surpassed her in many competitions. But I knew it wouldn’t be long before I reached the peak of my abilities and Barbara would continue to soar.

I was Mrs. Guthin’s best. Barbara was Mrs. Guthin’s best friend’s best. And we were at the same level. You can imagine the rivalry and the pressure. The difference was that Barbara desired to be great for herself, and I wanted to do it for Mrs. Guthin.

Finally, in my junior year of high school, I could take the pressure no longer. I hated the endless hours of practicing. I was tired of Mrs. Guthin telling me I would go to Oberlin College and major in music performance and become a virtuoso performer. I hated her disappointment in me when I failed to perform to her satisfaction. Most of all, I hated the realization that I just wasn’t talented enough.

I changed teachers that year. My mother, bless her heart, was understanding and became the intermediary to break the news to Mrs. Guthin. My new teacher was our church’s organist. Though a talented performer, he was a rotten teacher. He had no hopes or dreams for me. It was a job to help supplement an inadequate income. Nothing more. I lost interest and quit halfway through the year. I always regretted leaving Mrs. Guthin. Sometimes, a good teacher can give you motivation that you wouldn’t otherwise have.

About Coming East

I am a writer, wife, mother, and grandmother who thinks you're never too old until you're dead. My inspiration is Grandma Moses who became a successful artist in her late 70's. If I don't do something pretty soon, though, I'll have to find someone older for inspiration.
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17 Responses to A Youthful Regret

  1. pattisj says:

    My music talent consists of the ability to turn the radio knob.

  2. Shary Hover says:

    I was always a teacher pleaser, but somehow that didn’t give me enough motivation when it came to piano lessons. I played to release emotion, but never really dedicated myself to practicing and never got very far. Like you, I played through muscle memory and even now, if I sit down at the keyboard, snippets return to me but once I lose the thread, I’m lost. Sometimes I wish I’d been more dedicated, but I always loved dance more and I’m still dancing years later. Performance tonight!

  3. notquiteold says:

    I spent years in piano lessons. My sister was talented and I was not. I was jealous, but in reality, it also took all the pressure off. Low expectations can be freeing.

  4. My daughter had an English teacher in her Junior year of high school, who was no doubt the male version of Mrs. Guthin. The way my daughter spoke about him I imagined him as some sort of bridge troll. He was the BEST teacher she has ever had in her life! Thank goodness at the end she realized what he did for her and thanked him in her graduation speech. Now as a Sophomore in college, she still refers to things she learned in his class.

  5. dorannrule says:

    Oh Susan, you remind me of me. I played the flute in our high school band and practiced incessantly to do well in competition I practiced and practiced and finally memorized Flight of the Bumble Bee (the fingers did it all though) and I achieved first chair. Eventually I dropped out of band but have regrets to this day that I didn’t try harder to actually read and understand the music. I love the sounds of the flute to this day,

    • Coming East says:

      I loved hearing you are a musician, Dor. Even though you don’t play anymore, you will always be a musician, have you ever thought of picking it up again, or trying the recorder instead? It would be wonderful for you to be able to make music again. You don’t even have to be good at it to enjoy it. I can attest to that!

  6. so true. I had piano from Sister Antoinette. She had great dreams for me, but she scared me. She could be abusive and I was in a state of constant fear when it came to piano. I quit after having a melt down while practicing. I regret not sticking with it. I still have my music books, but we gave the piano away when we moved last. Another move I regret. I am certain you were wonderful! Good post. DAF

    • Coming East says:

      Wish you could have a piano again, DAF. When we moved to Virginia and I retired, I finally traded in my old spinnet for a Yamaha upright. I am so glad I did. I enjoy playing so much more now that I have a good piano. I don’t sound any better, though.

  7. Yes, teachers are important; they can change lives. I too took piano lessons but sadly was never disciplined enough to take it seriously. Of course, I regret it now. I can sight read a bit but just never seem to make the time to sit and play. It’s on my “to do” list.

    • Coming East says:

      I think there are a lot of us ex-piano students who regret giving up, Grandma. I still play, but it’s only for me, and I only like to play things I don’t have to practice very hard.

  8. Dianna says:

    Wonderful post, Susan! I took piano for several years; I don’t know about natural talent, but I definitely had a love of the piano! Still do, although I don’t have a piano now….

    • Coming East says:

      I still like playing, Dianna, but I’m terrible at it now. These old fingers just don’t want to do what I want them to do. No, that’s wrong. They WANT to do what I want them to do, but they CAN’t. You should think about getting a piano!

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