Live and learn (and cringe)

By Mir
October 24, 2009

Chickadee had a piano recital today. It’s been a bone of contention around here for quite a while, because Chickadee loves playing the piano but she hates to practice.

Go ahead. I’ll give you a minute to puzzle that one out. (If you figure it out, could you let me know? Thanks.)

So the recital pieces got handed out, and Chickadee promptly did that thing that kids do, the thing where “Oh, it’s fine,” is the answer to everything. It was fine that she wasn’t practicing, or practicing for just three minutes at a time. It was fine that really, this was supposed to be her PRACTICE piece in preparation for a harder one, but due to her failure to actually learn this one with any alacrity, she’d never been promoted to the next piece. The recital would be fine, MOM, SHEESH.

I went to her teacher and asked what I should do, and was told that I should just let her be. So I did.

I stopped nagging her to practice and she stopped practicing. Until we were down to this past week—the last week—and I started bringing it up again. And it was still all perfectly “fine” and finally, in a fit of frustration, I asked her what she thought was going to happen at the recital.

“I dunno,” she said. “I’m sure it’ll be fine.”

“Really?” I said. “It’ll be fine when you get up to play and don’t know your music and can’t play your piece and you realize that the five-year-olds are playing circles around you because you couldn’t be bothered to practice?”

She rolled her eyes.

We got there this morning and she looked around and three months of pestering alternated with stony but meaningful silences all came WHOOSHING back to her and she promptly began to freak out.

“Mom. MOM. I haven’t practiced enough! I can’t do this!”

Fortunately, I’d brought my stapler. I was able to use it to staple my tongue to the roof of my mouth. That way my teeth were still free to chew my gum.

“You’ll be fine, honey,” I said.

“No. NO I WON’T. It’s going to be terrible! I’M going to be terrible!”

I pulled her aside and leaned in close. “You know what, Chickie? It will be whatever it is. How much you did or didn’t practice is over, now. Today you’re getting up to play and you need to concentrate on breathing and getting through it. That’s all you can do, now. I know you can get through it.”

She seriously looked like she was going to puke on her shoes. I felt bad for her, but I also knew we were in the midst of a life lesson, here, and the best I could hope for was for it not to hurt too much.

We sat and listened to the students playing. Some of them were positively amazing. And then one little girl went up just a few slots before Chickadee. She began her piece and played well for about ten measures. And then she stumbled.

She stopped. Thought a moment. Moved her fingers. Started again. And stumbled.

She looked at her teacher, panicked. The teacher nodded encouragingly, and she tried again. Two measures, then another stumble.

Her lip began to quiver. She set her fingers down gently and tried again, as the first tear slid down her cheek. Again, she stumbled.

She put her hands up to her head and a quavering wail escaped her lips. We all sat there, every parent in the audience welling up on behalf of this poor little girl, as she burst into noisy sobs, clutching her forehead as she balanced on the piano bench, gasping and choking out to her teacher that she couldn’t do it, she’d messed it up too many times, she couldn’t possibly.

With a bit of calming down and coaching, she managed to get through a repeat of the flawless part she’d already played, then stood up and bowed (and was met with the sort of thunderous applause that can only come from an audience thankful the pain is over), and headed to her seat to collapse in tears again.

Every student who hadn’t yet played looked completely stricken.

The recital continued, but there weren’t any more flawless pieces. Everyone was rattled. Even the kids who were clearly the prodigies in the lot, playing complicated music at breakneck speed, had a few little stumbles.

Chickadee’s turn came and she seated herself, began to play, and didn’t make it two measures before she erred. She kept playing, but there was no rhythm (unless you want to count “grim death march” as a rhythm), she missed notes, skipped an entire section, and both looked and sounded like she was being burned alive.

Afterward she was fine for about fifteen minutes—as her teacher patted her and we praised her for getting through it—and then the adrenaline wore off and she realized exactly what had happened.

“I was terrible,” she cried. “I should’ve practiced more. It was all off. I skipped a whole section! And the rest sounded awful. I never want to do this again. EVER.”

I hugged her and smoothed her hair and let her rant. “You got scared when that little girl messed up, didn’t you?” I asked.

“Yes!” she said. “Oh my gosh, I felt so bad for her, and then I felt bad for ME because I was afraid I’d do the same thing. I DID do the same thing!”

“No you didn’t,” I said. “You got through it, and you didn’t cry. This was a good learning experience, honey. You toughed it out.”

She sniffled and gulped. “What did I learn, other than that I should’ve practiced more?” She wiped her eyes. “Like you always said,” she added, leaking fresh tears.

“Hey Chickie, you know what really stinks, when you’re a mom?” She shook her head. “Being right when your kid is sad. It stinks. Takes all the fun out of it.” I poked her and she didn’t quite smile, but it was close.

She sat there for a little bit. “Next year will be better,” I told her. She nodded, rather than insisting she’d never do it again. Progress, maybe.

I’m pretty sure I aged ten years today. At least.


  1. Hannia

    “Being right when your kid is sad. It stinks.” I have a 6th grade girl of my own (and 2nd grade girl, too). I’m so totally going to use this.

    I’m sorry Chicadee had such a rough experience. She sounds like an amazing kid. Monkey too. Kudos to you, mom.

  2. natasha the exile on Mom Street

    Oy. Good on you for not letting her chicken out.

    Learning the hard way is, well, the hard way. And often the only way. Sigh.

  3. meghann

    She did learn a good lesson. If you want to tell her this, tell her that even professional musicians mess up. But when they do, they keep playing like it never happened. It’s an essential skill for a musician, to not let mistakes stop you. That, combined with a good practice regimen, and she’ll turn out to be a wonderful pianist.

  4. Nelson's Mama

    That one is SO hard, we walked that very road last spring and I so remember the pit I had in my stomach.

    My daughter was just about the same age, had even composed her own piece of music, but then didn’t practice…the results were about the same.

    I know that she will always remember that and it was a lesson well learned, but as a Mom I have a very hard time letting those situations play out when I know how much they are going to hurt.

  5. mamabird

    In performance, it is not always about playing your piece flawlessly, but how you deal with a few imperfections here and there to make the overall work beautiful.

    I have a MMus and am still a person who never likes to practice but loves to be in the thick of it. Hopefully one day I’ll like to practice.

  6. Jess

    Aw, poor Chickie.

    My daughter (7) also loves to play the piano but hates practicing. Seriously, it’s like I’m doing dental surgery or something to get her to work on stuff. Thank goodness, no recitals yet. ;)

  7. susie

    That was brave of Ms Chickie to get up there and go through it – life lessons are rarely easy.

  8. Anna Marie

    Oh man, that brought back horrible memories from my own piano recitals…and the teacher who rolled her eyes and tsked every time I messed up.

    Poor Chickie – she has my sympathy. And I’m impressed by your letting her learn that lesson. It’s a hard one.

  9. Jomama

    We went through the same thing with Teddy’s recorder concert last spring. He was so proud…right up until they got to the song he hadn’t passed and he had to sit down with the other kids who hadn’t learned it yet.

    He got the point THAT day. Can’t see that the lesson has stuck, though. Hope Chickadee is smarter.

  10. Randi

    It’s definitely a hard life lesson to learn, but it definitely is one that we all need to learn. Unfortunately no one tells you before you have kids how much it’s going to hurt to have to watch these lessons play out! Go get a drink, mom, you deserve it!!

  11. Half Assed Kitchen

    Ah, God!!! You did the right thing. So totally. But, ouch. You’re a good mom.

  12. Sarah

    I remember piano recitals when I was about 6. I played “The Sleepy Kitten” and it had a tricky bit” the second and third lines were the same, followed by the rest of the piece. However, I had it memorized, and got stuck in a loop.
    I don’t remember the details but I’m told I played that line 5 or 6 times – with a growing look of panic on my face – before my teacher came up and gave me the note I needed to get out of the loop.

    Piano can be great fun, I hope your daughter sticks with it as long as it is fun.

  13. MomCat

    Painful as it is, better something relatively small in the grand scheme of things to learn that lesson. Pats on the back to you both!

  14. mama speak

    Kudos to you and the teacher for making them deal with it on their own. But man, I’m not sure I’ll be able to stomach it when it’s my turn.

  15. Tam

    Oh poor Mum!! Chicky learnt one heck of a lesson, and your right, it totally does suck to be right when your kid is sad. I had this AWFUl piano recital, the thing that really sucked was that I SUCKED even after practicing. No musical prodigies here!

  16. Suebob

    See, this is exactly what I was warning against. Activities! And learning! And life lessons! Next time, let the poor child loll about on the sofa, watching reruns of whatever it is children watch these days. That way your brow will remain unfurrowed.

  17. Suebob

    See, this is exactly what I was warning against. Activities! And learning! And life lessons! It’s just too much to contemplate.

  18. Jennifer Joyner

    Can I just say….you are such an awesome mom! I have learned so much from reading your experiences, especially because I recognize alot of my 5-year-old daughter in your descriptions of Chickadee. Please…keep the advice coming!

  19. elizabeth

    poor Chickie, but she’s got an awesome mom. that was hard.

  20. Nicki

    Oh, it was tae kwon do all over again. Man, that hurt! Life is all about the learning experiences tempered with a good deal of growing pains.

  21. Debra

    Kudos to that piano teacher for teaching more than music theory. Kudos to you, Mom, for listening and heeding that teacher’s advice. Congratulations to Chickie for having the guts to get up there and do her best when she knows that by her own hand she isn’t ready for the task.

    What a wonderful Mom you are!

  22. Sarah

    I hate those recitals. That almost makes me not want to let my kids learn an instrument. They (and the memories the bring back) are so painful.

  23. joaaanna

    I loved the piano. I was NOT good a the piano. As a little girl I would insist that my mom sit RIGHT THERE while I practiced. I would cry! I would yell! I WOULDN’T practice. I had those experiences too. I learned to practice more and came to LOVE it. But I never had the talent – I think that’s why I gave up. She’ll get there. I think you taught her a great lesson. She’ll learn from this – I’m sure of it. Good for you Mom.

  24. ChristieNY

    Margarita? I think I could use one after just *reading* about the recital! Kudos to you, Mir, you’re awesome. Cheers!

  25. Susan (5 Minutes for Mom)

    Awwww… what a tough lesson to learn.

    I hated practicing the piano. I really hope my girls are better about it than I was.

  26. Megan

    I’ve played piano since I was six, I was never a prodigy – but at some point I got pretty good.

    My first teacher made me hate piano, there were too many competitions, too many recitals just for judges, and her perfume was too strong. After I switched (years after I started) to a different teacher, she put up with me for years until I actually started to Practice.

    My mom nagged me, my dad occasionally nagged me, I dreaded and hated recitals. My piano teacher was gentle but stern and occasionally gave me a hard time about not practicing.

    However, it wasn’t until high school that SOMETHING clicked. I would get home from school and play the piano for an hour at least – every day – just for fun. It was exhilarating being able to play complex pieces and it was a great escape from the difficulties of high school.

    I’m so glad I stuck it out till it clicked – it turned out to be something I was distinctly proud of. My last recital I was able to walk confidently to the piano bench, disregard how different of a piano it was from the one my parents have, and just automatically play fast and sure. And there’s no teen girl in the world who couldn’t use a boost of well-earned self-confidence.

    I hope Chickadee sticks with it. It was certainly worth it for me.

  27. Aimee

    Ugh — poor Chickadee. It’s a valuable lesson, yes, but no less sucky because of it.

    This reminds me of my own musical performance nightmare. I had practiced, but I was playing with an unfamiliar accompanist who insisted on playing my (lively) song at a funereal pace that could have got me disqualified since we had a limited amount of time to play that was being strictly enforced. And THEN, someone opened a door. My music flew off the stand. And I had to play the rest of the song from memory. I must have done okay, because I won the competition. But I still break out in a cold sweat thinking about it.

  28. Katie in MA

    That does bring on the MamaHurt, doesn’t it? I guess it’s better than her just blowing it off afterwards and insisting it was fine. But only by thiiiiiiiis much – that MamaHurt is truly awful.

  29. Megs

    My one and only piano recital I cried the whole time leading up until my turn, so the snot and tears ran down my face the whole time. I think I was about 7. Thankfully my parents never made me participate again, but I wrote a really funny story about it in Freshman English :-)

  30. Cele

    You’re a good mom.

  31. Liza

    Oh. My. God.

    That’s it, I’m not letting my kids grow up.

  32. Leila

    Oh, poor Chickadee. I’m glad she made it through no matter what, and I hope the glimmer of a lesson learned stick.

    I’ve seen the “one messes up, they all do” dynamic in gymnastics: one girl falls off of the beam at a meet and the rest of the team seems to as well. I’ve seen it at NCAA college gymnastics meets too, where one messes up a bars dismount… and the next three do too. So, yeah. Poor kids.

  33. mom, again, again

    My 23 year old, who always wanted to play guitar and finally is learning as a college elective: won’t practice.

    Her instructor is doubly frustrated: her written homework and ability to discuss in class is fine. She has several years of singing and flute playing, so can sight read already, and knows basic music theory type stuff. So, she’s likely the student who would blow the top off the class, instead, she sounds as lousy as all the ‘self-taught’ players who are struggling to learn to play properly and mostly not practicing either I bet.

    He only asks for 10 minutes a day, she could get away with a lot less at this point in the semester b/c ANY beats NONE.

    *sigh* at least there isn’t a recital. I don’t think.

  34. Mandee

    “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” That was the song that nearly did me in. I could get the first six notes and then BLAM. Much like Chickie, I finally just powered through, but I still feel a moment of panic every time I hear that song.

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