We first stuck Luke on a piano bench when he was, I don’t know, maybe 5. We had an old upright piano in our place in Marietta that Mary Jo’s friend Sophie gave her — Sophie was a part grandma, part travel buddy, part tutor who lived across the street from Mary Jo when she was growing up in Cincinnati — and Luke would sit in front of that piano, feet dangling under the bench, knocking out Mary Had a Little Lamb or Heart and Soul, or punching out some boogie-woogie. Sounded like boogie-woogie to me.
Not much later, we gently pushed him into formal lessons with a professional teacher. And he took them, pretty much every week, from then through most of high school. He took them from a couple different stern-looking women in their homes, from some forgettable teachers at those strip-mall music stores with the little practice rooms in the back, and occasionally from people in our home; first at Sophie’s upright, then on the one we bought a few years later after Sophie’s fell hopelessly and forever out of tune.
I imagine Luke complained about playing. He had to, right? I mean, we made him practice piano. I’d have worried about him if he didn’t put up a fight about it every now and then.
Still, if he did, I don’t remember much of it. Mostly, he took his lessons without any whining at all, and practiced with a relatively minimal amount of prodding.
Performances — recitals — well, those were a different story. They were way worse than practice. He hated them almost from the start. Getting up in front of a room of people, all dressed up, everybody looking at him. Before he’d trudge to the piano to play — at some house, or a recital hall, at the music store or in some old folks’ home — he’d offer up his sweaty palms to show us how nervous he was.
Then he’d rush through his pieces in terrified triple time. After he finished — these things were never more than a couple minutes — he’d stand up, manage a tight smile and a quick bow and whoosh back to his seat.
He hated recitals.
Still, he did them. And more. He played “Silent Night” solo in front of the church when he was 6 or 7 or so — chewing his tongue, concentrating on the music, looking at us to see if he had to play it again as people filed up to communion — he played “Gimme Some Lovin'” with his middle school jazz band in the rotunda of the school before classes began and he played in a band at church festivals for a while. (Bands were OK. He could just stand on the side, behind the keyboard, and do his thing.)
As the years went on, like a lot of kids, Luke started to pull away from practicing. Friends, girls, school, computers, just general kid stuff was calling, and he was answering. Still, we kept up the lessons. He didn’t mind. Once a week for an hour was not a big deal. When he got old enough, he drove to the lessons himself.
We, of course, wanted him to stick to it. He wasn’t ever going to Carnegie Hall, and we never wanted him to. But, we figured, with a good basis in piano, he could enjoy playing music — something he always has — for a long, long time. Plus, if he kept at it, I figured, he could impress girls at parties when he got to college.
I had a plan for that kid. I had a dream. It was my dream, sure. But what a great dream.
Well, Luke’s in college now. I’m not sure how the piano parties are going. But I know that, among the things we unloaded in his high-rise apartment at Tech a few weeks ago — along with a new electric guitar he bought this summer, an amplifier and some drum kit rapper thingy he hooks up to his computer — was a full-size MIDI keyboard. We could barely squeeze it into his room. But it’s there. He wanted it there.
A couple of weekends ago, when he came home for an extended Labor Day holiday, one of the first things he did was walk in the room at the front of our house, sit down on the bench in front of that old upright and start punching away. An impossibly fast “What’d I Say,” by Ray Charles. A slower, quieter arrangement of a jazz classic, “All of Me.” Some current songs I almost recognize but couldn’t name if you spotted me the first three words. Some strains of an Outkast song, I think.
He plays without us prodding, without some teacher standing over him, without the need for people to listen. He plays because he wants to play, because he actually enjoys playing and because, after all these years, it relaxes him.
He doesn’t hit all the right notes. Not even close. I’m not sure he’s played a song, beginning to end, in years. He’ll veer from one passage to the next, from one song to another, pull up some music on his phone and play along to it, then complain when I try to sneak into the room to listen. Maybe his palms still get a little sweaty when someone’s staring at him. I don’t know.
But Luke plays, on his terms. We listen, his mom and I, quietly from the other room. And like the first time he sat on that bench years ago, feet swinging underneath and the keyboard spread before him, nothing sounds quite so sweet.