I am not a classically trained pianist. I did not grow up taking lessons or doing recitals in frilly dresses and Mary Jane shoes. My education consisted of Mom showing me Middle C on the old upright and giving me the books she learned with. Fascinated, I plunked away, but nobody in my family wanted to hear me play. It’s hard to listen to somebody just learning an instrument, all those stops and starts and wrong notes. Inevitably, my parents would tell me to stop or they would come in and turn the TV on and glare at me because they couldn’t hear their show.
I became a stealth piano player, stealing time when no one was around. In college, I would sneak into the practice rooms for an hour between classes. I made progress, but not on the level of someone who is working with a teacher, playing in front of other people all the time. Some things, like fingering, I learned incorrectly. Now I have friends who are piano teachers and I watch their 7-year-old students do things I still can’t do in my AARP years.
Yet somehow I play the piano for money now. I also play it for solace and for fun. But I play it at Sacred Heart Church in Newport for Mass every weekend and occasionally for funerals. At first I was a nervous wreck. Gradually, I almost relaxed. When the choir is singing and I can simplify the arrangements to a comfortable level, most people can’t hear my mistakes. In my head, I know they’re not even listening to me. I feel blessed that the little girl who loved the piano so much that she played whenever she could sneak in a little time at the keys is now sitting up in front of the church playing for the congregation and getting paid for it. I have worked hard. Playing different songs every weekend at church while singing and leading a choir forces one to practice every day and get better at it. Thanks to Fred, I have my own piano, which I can play whenever I want.
Last Saturday, I played for a funeral where they wanted “Ave Maria” and “Pachelbel’s Canon.” “Oh Lord,” I prayed, “please help me do this.” I practiced till my fingers were sore, and I was shaking as I played those first few notes in the deep pre-funeral silence. I’d like to say the songs just flowed from my fingers like magic, but they didn’t. I made some mistakes, but overall, I got through them, and those who don’t know the arrangements might not have noticed my errors.
I was so relieved when all we had left were the normal songs of the funeral Mass, all things I have played many times. Most families choose the same basic songs: “On Eagles’ Wings,” “Be Not Afraid,” “Amazing Grace,” “Song of Farewell,” “Shepherd Me O God,” “How Great Thou Art.” Plus we sing the parts of the Mass. No problem.
I had a choir of three sopranos and me, everyone else traveling or busy with the church picnic getting started outside at the same time as the funeral. We launched into our songs and it was good. And then, cocky because I conquered those two big classical hits, I totally screwed up the “Amen.” I started in the wrong key and had to start over. Then I did the same thing for the “Lamb of God.” Being in church, I couldn’t curse. I could only swallow my pride and play as if every song was “Ave Maria.”
Up in heaven, God was laughing hysterically.