Practice: Piano, Parenting and Partnership

This sermon starts with our family piano. It is a Steinway baby grand, which came into our family in 1917, a gift to my grandmother Charlotte in celebration of her high school graduation. The piano was given to Charlotte by her maiden aunt Emma Roedter, an accomplished concert pianist and piano teacher who was apparently eager to encourage similar interests in her niece. I remember my grandmother as an avid musician and organizer of many musical societies. So, from the beginning, even the piano itself has represented a legacy of connection between the generations of our family.

I learned to play on that same instrument in my childhood home in Boston. When my daughter Madeleine began to ask to play the piano, my father was thrilled to help move it to our home in Holyoke. The piano was delivered exactly a week before my son.

For the better part of a year Madeleine and I approached the piano bench in an unstructured way, playing around as the opportunity presented. Initially, it was a bonding spot. I clearly remember one hot afternoon on a walk when we both melted down and were definitely not using our quiet voices with each other. I asked Madeleine what we could do to start over in a better way, and she said, “Let’s play piano together.” In that moment music did soothe the savage beasts we had become. We came back to ourselves and to each other through a shared joy.

After Madeleine began piano lessons and our practices became regular and structured, this was not always the case. While we still find moments of harmony, we also have moments of intense struggle. Here’s where this sermon circles around to its second point of departure.

This past winter I participated in one of the Spiritual Reflection groups offered by Reverend Bush. Our assignment was to begin with a recent incident that we thought might prove fruitful for reflection. Janet specifically asked us to work with something that wasn’t a big aha moment, didn’t (at least as yet) have a big reveal, just something we felt might warrant further exploration. What follows is a revised version of the piece I wrote for this wonderful group, which included Barbara Smith, Harriet Diamond, Margaret Humbert-Droz, Nan Wiegersma, Noele Sandoz, the Three Jan(et)s (Jan Nettler, Janet Spongberg, and Janet Bush), and three Katherines (Katharine Nelson, Kathryn Denny, and myself). They all have my profound thanks. Some of the insightful questions they asked me structure my further reflections at the end of this sermon.

Here is the gist of what I wrote for them:

My daughter Madeleine has been taking piano lessons for three years. The morning of our first spiritual reflection workshop, she and I spent some time arguing at the piano bench. My request for her to play a piece again led to a sudden case of the flops, a time-tested time-waster in which the piano bench becomes the only thing which keeps Madeleine from being a puddle on the floor.

“It sounded fine!” she insisted. “I wasn’t saying it was bad; I’m saying you’re almost there, and it will sound better if you keep working on it.” Arguing, arguing, arguing, which ended with my insisting, in a tone no doubt much too harsh: “If you had just gone ahead and played it, rather than arguing, you’d be done by now!” As we left the bench, Madeleine said, “I hate piano. You are always yelling at me.” At moments like this I panic, I feel it in my gut—why am I spending so much of our time together on an endeavor which brings us such conflict? And yet, what sort of loss would I feel—would she feel—if we stopped playing the piano, if we fixed that conflict through avoidance?

The next day she spent 20 minutes playing two lines of The Entertainer over and over until the notes sung out from her fingers beautifully, all without a word from me.

Reverend Janet had urged us to let our minds wander out from our story until we found an image to explore in our writing. Sitting quietly and letting my mind wander was a recipe for a tired mother to fall asleep, but some days later I somehow latched onto the image you likely all remember from so many wildlife shows of a mother lion holding her cub gently in her teeth by the scruff of the neck. As I puzzled over it, what spoke to me about this image was the idea that the mother lion, to carry her child in this way, has to make one of the most dangerous parts of herself, her mouth, into an instrument of care. It also struck me that although lions don’t “talk” in the way humans do, the image suggests that the mother must be silent to help her child get where she’s going.

The next step Janet suggested was to “engage a religious or spiritual tradition.” I knew just where to start: a few weeks before, a college friend of mine who is an Evangelical Christian had posted a reflection on Facebook that spoke directly to my conundrum. This friend, Rebecca Holter, a brilliant woman who is homeschooling seven children, explained: “I find myself frequently deceived into thinking, through fear, that if I don’t express my irritation immediately and vociferously to my children, then they will become increasingly and incurably irritating…..” In the ensuing discussion, she elaborated further: “I’m trying to diagnose how I thought to produce in them humility and wisdom and peaceable natures by demonstrating indignation and contempt.” I felt that Rebecca’s willingness to be so honest was a gift to me at that moment. I know she is an amazing and loving parent, and yet, like me, she was battling to keep her mother lion’s teeth from becoming dangerous. Rebecca chose Proverbs 12:16 as what she called her “wake-up verse”: “‘The vexation of a fool is known at once, but the prudent ignores an insult.’” The mother lion, I thought, ignoring the swats of her cubs. But I was most moved by Rebecca’s own diagnosis: that, much as I was, she had been trying to stamp out unwanted behavior in her children by behaving in a way that did not reflect her own best intentions. We both wanted to make our actions match our beliefs.

I’m a skeptic when it comes to the parenting advice industry, so while I will admit here that there is one book I turn to regularly for parenting help, it may not be surprising that you’re unlikely to find it in that section of the bookstore. It is a book given to me by our piano teacher, Christine Olson. Helping Parents Practice: Ideas for Making It Easier is written by Edmund Sprunger, a Suzuki violin teacher and also, certainly not coincidentally, a trained psychotherapist. I opened to one dog-eared page and read: “Sometimes the most effective thing is simply to sit there quietly. In other words, don’t just do something; stand there. … I’m not just encouraging you to be lazy. You’re not being lazy if you just sit there as your child works. If you weren’t there, the child might not even be practicing—and might not even notice that something wasn’t working. Your being present and shutting up is very different from your being absent.” For me, this isn’t just useful advice about practicing an instrument. It isn’t just about parenting, either. A few chapters later, Sprunger talks about a father who took up knitting to calm himself as he supported his daughter’s practice: “The father’s attempts at knitting became something they both laughed at, but it gave him a way to channel energy that might have otherwise gone into attempts to over-control his child.” As someone who already uses knitting as a reflective practice (and a means of keeping myself listening rather than talking), this strikes home. Perhaps, I thought, I need to knit myself a lion cub.

About a year ago I read a piece by Shozan Jack Haubner about Zen monks and anger. The piece had caused some controversy because the author depicted the monastery as filled, not with pure souls, but with people battling their inner demons. “I used to imagine that spiritual work was undertaken alone in a cave somewhere with prayer beads and a leather-bound religious tome,” Haubner wrote. “Nowadays, that sounds to me more like a vacation from spiritual work. Group monastic living has taught me that the people in your life don’t get in the way of your spiritual practice; these people are your spiritual practice.” When I chose to write about my problems parenting at the piano bench, I was focusing on it as a struggle, an ordinary challenge of my daily life. And it is that. But the process of writing my reflection allowed me to remember that it is spiritual work, and part of the ongoing challenge of being the person I wish to be in both my family and the larger world.

Here, my sermon starts for the third time, reflecting on the reflection I wrote last winter. Members of my spiritual reflection group had a number of profound questions and responses, but I want to use two of them now as a springboard to talk about the dimension of partnership suggested in this sermon’s title.

Janet Spongberg reflected back to me how the piece and my reading of it allowed her to see me as the grounding force of what she called: “the being of two people I have come to know.” She was speaking to me about my parenting of my daughter and son, but what I saw at that moment was her, and how, in fact, she really does know my two children. Janet knows my children only through USNF, but I know that she has been, and will be, there for them both in profound ways. She is, in a small but nonetheless significant way, helping me parent them.

As I began to write about the family piano, this idea of the parenting partnerships I have found here at USNF was affirmed in a truly unexpected way. The family story has always been that my great-great-Aunt Emma was one of the founders of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Last week I decided to fact-check that and, indeed, the CSO’s online history page does mention her role as the association’s first president in 1895. Further sleuthing revealed that one of the earliest financial backers of this endeavor, someone Emma would no doubt have worked closely with in, was a man with a suspiciously familiar last name, a man who turns out to be the great-great-grandfather of my friend and fellow youth group advisor here at USNF, Lawson Wulsin. As I spend long hours with many of your children, often working with Lawson and with the other wonderful adults on the youth group and high school OWL teams, and as I appreciate the youth group members and other adults in this congregation who care for and teach my children, I truly understand how the work of parenting well is enabled by our partnerships with others.

That my partnership with my wife, Cathy, is the obvious reference here does not make it any less important; without her I would neither be on this journey, nor would I have retained my sanity. But because this sermon is also about the piano, and the practicing, I want to share some of what I have learned from someone whose partnership has been much more than I expected: Madeleine’s piano teacher Christine Olson. When Madeleine and I began this journey I was determined that, because I regret not being able to play piano by ear, my child should learn to play by ear first. So, we chose a Suzuki-trained teacher. Christine was brave enough, and perceptive enough, and flexible enough to recognize relatively quickly that Madeleine needed another path than the one I had chosen, without giving up completely on what might benefit her from Suzuki. And Christine has also shown me where my daughter has skills I had not even recognized. Because, like my daughter, I sing along when I play the piano, I saw her doing so as nothing special; without Christine I would not know that this ability of Madeleine’s is a gift few children have. Christine allows me to see Madeleine in a different, often kinder, light. Perhaps most of all, Christine has given me and my daughter the gift of modeling patience at the piano bench.

The other partnership I want to talk about in this story of piano and parenting is the one I am building with Madeleine herself. Jan Nettler asked me the reflection question that opened this up for me. How, Jan wondered, does this practice of piano with my daughter compare with our experience doing circus arts, something Madeleine has been studying nearly as long as the piano. The easy answer is that they are different mainly because I know more about piano, whereas Madeleine is much better than me at circus. Circus keeps me humble. And when we do circus together, my support is often a little more literal—like when I am the base and she is the flyer in partner acrobatics. With circus, it’s easier for her to lead, easier for me to keep the cub in my teeth. And it can also be a little easier to see the high stakes. Last summer Madeleine went and tried the flying trapeze, and somehow she convinced me to get up there too, to try flying.

I read something recently that captured the rush—and its connection to parenting and partnership. This is from the recent memoir by Buzz Bissenger, whose adult son Zach was brain damaged by premature birth. Zach convinces his father to try a towering bungee jump at an amusement park. Buzz writes: “I pull the ripcord… We free-fall, our bodies initially parallel to the ground that rushes toward us. My arms are wrapped around Zach. His arms are wrapped around me. His eyes are closed. Mine are open. We fall faster than I thought possible…. Then we swing high, flinging out into the sky. I feel an exhilaration I have never felt before. I am screaming at the top of my lungs…. Zach and I merge into one, arm around arm, shoulder against shoulder, the press of his body against mine. I never had that when he was an infant in the hospital…. But now he is my lifeline, and I am his.” Recollecting this experience later, he continues, “The exhilaration of the bungee jump is still within me. I cannot forget his arms clutching me, needing me. Needing each other. Nor can I forget the liberation I felt, which occurred only because of his resilience in making me do something I never would have done without him.”

We began playing the piano together at her request. Then, for a long time, we continued only at my insistence. When I suggested to Madeleine that I might make a summer service out of my reflections on our piano-playing, she immediately offered to provide the music today. It doesn’t mean every day of practice this summer has been easy. But when we argued again at the piano bench last week and, I, in a fit of frustration (will I never learn?), complained that I couldn’t keep doing this if it was going to be such a struggle—it was Madeleine who insisted this time: she wants to keep playing the piano.

Unitarian minister Kate Braestrup, in her book Beginner’s Grace, says: “My piano teacher told me when I was about fourteen, ‘How you practice is how you play. It’s up to you. You can practice to play the piano. Or you can practice to not play the piano.’” Madeleine is practicing how to play the piano. I keep trying to practice how to be the parent I want to be, rather than practicing how to not be that parent. Together, we are practicing.

Buzz Bissinger, Father’s Day: A Journey into the Mind and Heart of My Extraordinary Son (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012)

Kate Braestrup, Beginner’s Grace: Bringing Prayer into Your Life (Free Press, 2010)

Shozan Jack Haubner, “The Angry Monk” from Buddhadharma, reprinted in Utne Reader online

Edmund Sprunger, Helping Parents Practice: Ideas for Making It Easier (Yes Publishing, 2005)