The Gift of Music

Part 1

Once again, I wrote a book about a character with a profession that’s not my own. My protagonist Abigail is a pianist and a singer. I am not. My occupation is in NERC CIP IT Compliance. If you can write an interesting novel about that field, my hat is off to you. Music, however, played a role in my life, and inspired me to write some chapters of my novel, Abigail’s Song.

I still remember the first note I wrote to my parents and grandparents. When I was four years old, I realized that words have staying power when captured on paper. My note said, “Mama, Papa, Grandma, and Grandpa. Please get me a piano and lessons.” 

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My family thought my note was cute. A solid effort at printing, spelling, and grammar. As for the message, they shrugged. “You were already tested. You are not gifted in music.”

American parents reading this may think this is a strange and cruel message to give a child. In defense of my family, they raised me in the Soviet Union of 1980s, and the attitudes to childrearing as well as resources of most families were different. In the USSR, activities such as sports or dance lessons were free, but they were for the children showing aptitude for these things. The state wouldn’t pay for future soccer players who will not score or ballerinas who will not leap. 

As for piano, the music school may be free for those who pass the audition, but the parents would need to find room in the apartment for the instrument, purchase it, maintain it, and pay for private lessons. If they possessed a piano already, possibly the one they used to play years ago, they hoped for their children to be a musical and play the instrument so it doesn’t collect dust. If they didn’t have a piano, they prayed there would be no need to purchase one for any little music prodigies.

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I had no recollection of being tested for my musicality. My imagination showed me in my toddler years, standing in front of some committee members who were shaking their heads at my singing. The test that branded me “unmusical for life” turned out to be simpler than that. My grandma asked a woman she knew, Nina, to test me. I don’t know what Nina’s qualifications were as a musician. But apparently, when she heard me sing, or had me clap after her, she declared me tone deaf and unrhythmical. What a relief it must have been to grandma and the rest of the family. No need to purchase a piano or make the child practice daily for two hours, something they would likely do if Nina declared me talented. But thanks to my examiner’s verdict, my piano journey was over before it started.

In elementary school, I still pined for a piano. I can’t explain what drew me to music at that age. A handful of children in my class played, and a few even studied another instrument. Perhaps I was jealous or hoped to prove Nina wrong.

One day, a young woman came to my class for a musical demonstration. Her silver instrument gave a sweet, light sound. An angel song. I was instantly smitten with this magic wand called the flute. Maybe Nina’s test didn’t cover the ability to play it. I was ready to settle for this lovely instrument that wouldn’t take up much room. 

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When the musician explained that some of us may sign up for lessons, excitement tingled through my fingers. My classmates lined up to blow above a tiny hole in the instrument to see if we could make a sound. If they did, the flutist asked for their name and address.

When it was my turn, I folded my lips like the young woman instructed me and blew. No sound came. I looked up at her to see if she would give me further instruction or some encouragement. She shook her head.

“Alina will not be able to play the flute,” she declared not just to me, but to all of my class. “She has fat lips.” I staggered away with my head hung in shame. 

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The eight-year-old me should’ve known better. Adults in my life often pointed out that I have fat on my waist, thighs, and cheeks. And now there were fat lips to feel bad about. The state or parents shouldn’t be obliged to pay for flute lessons for a child who has fat lips.

By age twelve, I was living in the United States. I quickly noticed that the proportion of musical children in my new school compared to one in my home country was much greater. About half of my classmates played in the school band or orchestra. I struggled to understand how all these kids were given chances to play. Did they all pass their tests in early childhood?

The Gift of music

The saddest thing was, I needed an outlet badly. At school, I was trying to speak English from 9am till 3 pm on subjects such as American history and baseball. By the last period, I was so tired that my head throbbed, and hands shook. 

After my school day, I would get home to hear my parents and grandparents fret about jobs, money, and my mother’s cancer. My stomach would twist from anxiety. After two hours of homework, I would close my eyes and imagine my fingers gliding over piano keys. In my mind, music would lift me up from my worries and loneliness.

Without access to music lessons, I spent my free time reading. By the time I finished high school, I’ve read every book we had at home, including War and Peace, the Forsythe Gaga, and La Misérables. Those books would serve like a weapon if you hit someone over the head with them. Also, I kept a diary. Writing down my feelings wasn’t the same as pouring over the keys, but notebooks and pens were easier to come by than baby grands.

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We should’ve let you learn piano,” my grandma remarked once, watching me complete a ten-page essay on Hamlet. “I’ve never seen a child so good at sitting.” Yes, ‘butt in the chair’ ability should not be discounted. It served me well in high school, college, and in two careers. If sitting was part of Nina’s test, I’d pass with flying colors. Grandma’s statement at that time shocked me. Did she mean that natural ability was not ALL that was needed to play? Could determination, diligence, and resilience help overcome the lack of talent? My family couldn’t afford a piano or lessons, but a seed of hope planted itself in my mind.

To be continued…

Tell me about your musical experience as a child. Did you face a major obstacle?

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