May 20, 2011

Has-been, though could again...

I like to be good at things.

The trouble is, to get good, you have to practice.

Fine. Seven years of classical piano training. Painful hours of scales, theory books, and little ditties with names like "Bubble Gum March" and "Waltz of the Wizard." My piano teacher remains the nicest person I've ever met, and likely the most patient. She never gave up, even when I missed the same F sharp six times in a row. While many talented musicians develop a keen ability to play new material with ease, I struggled to sightread even simple music. After a few hours of practice, I could figure out all the notes and approximate a rhythm, but never on-the-spot. By the time recital season came around, I'd have my piece memorized just like everyone else. In private I could play with emotion and expression, but as soon as people were watching, my soul floated out and just watched my helpless body play the notes in the right order.

Despite my shortcomings, by the end of eighth grade, I was a proficient piano player. I had also taken up the clarinet, and experimented with other woodwinds. That was my musical peak. I sat first chair clarinet, edging out my best friend in a brutal display of chromatic scales. At home, I was pounding out a recital piece aptly titled, "Warrior's Song" for the actual athleticism it required to play that many notes at once.

Then I made the JV volleyball, and varsity swimming squads at my high school, which catapulted me into a new world revolving around practice, tournaments and little free time for things like music.

"Warrior's Song" would be my last recital piece. I was so upset about my decision to quit piano that I made my Mom call the teacher and explain. I was able to keep playing in the band, though I began slipping down the ranks of clarinet. I had stopped practicing. The band teacher suggested I switch to bass clarinet--an instrument with the same importance as the triangle. I was a damn good bass clarinet player, first chair out of two.

Around the time I was quitting piano, I was beginning to learn German--the language of Ramstein, the Nazi's, and to my peers, presumably of Hell. "Don't forget my Stepdad; he's a German citizen," I told those who were making lists. Frau Schroeder took an immediate liking to me because I was somewhat normal, and I wanted to learn German for purposes other than decoding Ramstein lyrics or "Mein Kampf". For a German class, this is exceptional.

Although we spent 90% of the time trying to figure out how to say perverse things, I came out of high school with basic language skills. I attribute most of my knowledge to visiting my Oma and Opa in Germany, but I suppose I wouldn't be able to conjugate without Frau Schroeder's memorable version of Old McDonald. Ich bin; Du bist; Er ist, sie ist; Wir sind; Ihr seid; Sie sind, sie sind.  Und sein, sein heir, sein, sein da, hier sein, da sein, ueberall sein, sein...

I get depressed when I think about how fluent my German was during my semester in Austria. Not only could I conjugate professionally, but I was writing auf Deutsch! I knew I had reached the apex as I was delivering the finest book report this side of the Alps in my B2 Lese- und Schreibtraining course.

From the moment I stepped back on US soil, however, my German was doomed.

It's really frustrating to put "fluent in German" on resumes and job applications, and then struggle to form a sentence on the phone with Oma. All those years cramming adjective endings into my brain! And the painful declensions that accompany so many parts of German speech. Genitive case.

Ten years later, our beautiful 1920s baby grand piano sits by the window, mocking me. Bet your fingers aren't so limber now, are they? Can you tell me the key signature for A flat minor? How about "The Luckiest"--are you going to play that from memory? Of course not. You'd be lucky to remember where Middle C is. When I do sit down to play, I feel almost scared to touch the keys. It's a feeling similar to the choking effect of not wanting to make a mistake in a foreign language.

I may not be able to tell you the accusative masculine adjective ending (I think -en), or play "The Luckiest" in its entirety, but sometimes I surprise myself. Muscle memory, a clever device of our bodies, retains information about movement for our entire lifetimes. It's like riding a bike.

Muscle memory is exactly why I can still sit down and play pieces of songs I once knew if I don't look at the keys; and why I understand linguistics discussions about genitive case and the palatal, velar, and uvular fricative sounds that make German an "ugly" language. By the way, French has them too. Ever heard a French "r"? Not so nice.

The moral here is that investments in our abilities shouldn't be neglected. For all things that are not bicycles, our bodies need practice to stay skilled.