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My Friend, the Piano
Editor's Note from Susan Richman: I know you are all going to feel inspired by Ginger Frack's wonderful major personal essay about her experiences over many years in playing piano-- and I wanted to give you a sense of why she happened to write this paper. In the PA Homeschoolers Accreditation Agency (PHAA) guidelines for high school English credit, we require students to write at least one major paper that's at minimum 2500 words long each year-- this is roughly 10-pages double spaced typed. Ginger is one of my (wonderful!!) evaluation students, and this was her paper for this past school year -- her 10th grade year. I think this paper is a terrific example of what we're hoping to inspire by this writing requirement-- and may inspire other students to consider tackling a personal topic rather than a subject area 'research paper'. I always hear from families each year that somehow thought we were requiring only a formal research paper. Though those types of writings can certainly meet this requirement, a personal experience extended paper like Ginger's is also a very meaningful way to meet this goal-- and in Ginger's case, I knew this paper deserved a broader audience as I think she has a lot to say to other homeschooling families about the persistence that needs to be shown, and the key role of positive experiences with others, before real motivation might actually 'kick in'. Enjoy this thoroughly-- and know that Ginger is just as delightful and lively in person as she shows herself to be in this paper. I know she has a very meaningful future ahead of her-- and I'm so grateful that she shares both her growing up years with her piano and her future musical dreams here through this paper.
My Piano... My Friend
My number was given; my name called. As I walked past the rows of distraught faces I wondered what had happened to the beautiful world that I had known just hours before. Here, shut up in the dimly lit room with so many others who wished for an escape, I trudged to the front to face my doom. This was my first time, but I had heard many tales of horror from those whom fate had also chosen to undergo such torture. This was….my first piano recital.
I can hardly remember life without the piano. When I was very young, my grandma promised her three children, (my mom, my uncle George, and my aunt Gwen) that she would buy them all pianos if they would get lessons for their children. The entire family took the bait. Through this choice, the piano has changed my life, and I believe that God is going to continue to use it to change my future.
I began taking piano lessons when I was only four years old. I can still remember Miss Julie putting a blue crayon sticker on the back of one of my hands, and red one on the other. I couldn’t believe I had to know my right hand from my left hand to be able to play that huge black monster. Was piano really going to be this hard?
After about a year of lessons, we had our first piano recital, which my teacher combined with her sister-in-law’s students for the year. My grandma was quickly able to recognize the difference in experience, amateur vs. professional, and before I knew it my teacher was no longer Miss Julie, but Mrs. Joy…I was glad for the switch.
Mrs. Joy lived up to her name. She was (and still is) a beautiful, happy, mom-like lady that I immediately liked. This didn’t stop me from bawling my eyes out when I practiced at home, however. I would have quit at this point, had it not been for my grandma’s constant looks over my shoulder, and the right to brag to my cousins at holidays about how far I was through the book. The competition was on!
Before I knew it, it was time for our next recital. I climbed up into Mrs. Joy’s huge chair (which seems to have shrunk since then) and watched her play through all my choices. When she had finished playing all of the songs, she turned and asked me which one I would like to play for the recital. I chose “none!”
Now don’t get me wrong, my mom is no pushover, but through constant begging I finally won her over. I didn’t have to play in this recital, but the next one would be a must. I was the happiest 5-year-old on the planet, and didn’t have a care in the world! That is, until I received a bright purple award in the mail.
Up until this point, all I knew about awards was that they were supposed to be exciting, colorful, and fun. Thrilled to get a piece of mail when it wasn’t even my birthday, I ripped open the envelope and found my certificate. There in bold font with regal lions in the corners, read “THE LION HEART COURAGE AWARD.” I was excited until I kept reading. The last sentence caught my eye: “…given to Ginger Frack for having the courage to participate in the piano recital.” Great.
My mom had already been wary about the slack she had given me over the piano recital, and that solitary piece of purple paper was all she needed to pull back that slack. Who knew paper could be such a sharp weapon? Apparently, Mrs. Joy did, for with it she had sealed my fate.
The night of the recital was here. The church it was held in was right across the street from my cousins’ house, which turned a usually pleasant road into a lane of terror. We walked in and were greeted by overly happy students handing out schedules. I wondered how much they were getting paid.
After a quick search I found the not-so-happy corner (mostly made up of my cousins) and joined their group. Mrs. Joy walked to the front of the church with a microphone and asked everyone to get settled - I was as settled as I was ever going to be in this place. Everyone sat down, and began diligently studying the schedules they’d been given at the door. I followed their example and opened my program - another paper from my teacher that caught me by surprise!
My cousins and I were hardly even listening as Mrs. Joy’s fun, bouncy voice continued to thank everyone for making this year of piano study a “huge success.” Our not-so-happy corner had slowly erupted as we all felt the need to inform each other of when we had to face the stage. Whispers of “Lindsay’s first!” and “Ginger, you’re fourth,” were all we could hear, until we glanced up and noticed the glares from our parents. Why were we all at the beginning? Of course, I now realize that the recital schedule starts with the beginner students and moves on to those with more experience, but at the time it felt more like a conspiracy.
A few kids went before, and then I was up. I walked up on the stage as Mrs. Joy rattled off my little bio: “Ginger is in Kindergarten and is home schooled; she takes swim classes at her local YMCA…” When she had finished, my teacher handed me the microphone. I turned to face the group of parents and siblings that seemed like a multitude. I had already been educated on what to say: “I would like to play for you this evening,” or “Hello, this evening I would like to play for you…” followed by the name of my song. I stood on the big steps on the way to the piano and mumbled that I wanted to play my song for them, feeling like quite the liar. My parents held their breath as I approached the bench, and for good reason; when I was only half-way through my piece, my mind went completely blank and the piano keys looked like a huge jumble of black and white. I sat up on the bench in front of everyone and bawled my eyes out. My dad, who couldn’t play more than chopsticks with his pointer finger, walked up on stage and sat down with me. Slowly we worked through the song…together. When we finished, everyone clapped, and I tottered down the stage to flop into my pew. What a mess!
So, this was my first experience with the piano. Not so good you might think. I was afraid to try, and failed when under pressure. Yet I mentioned earlier that God has used the piano to change my life. How? Well, first, in my self-discipline and motivation. I have come a long way from the little girl who didn’t want to try. And I didn’t change by my own doing, especially in the beginning, but by the grace of God in giving me a teacher, parents, and a grandmother who pushed me. From that first recital on, as much as I often wanted to quit and cried, they made sure that I practiced for fifteen minutes every day; then thirty; then sixty. Don’t get me wrong, this took YEARS, but through my parents’ encouragement and the help of an excellent teacher, I gradually began to enjoy the keyboard. Slowly, I trudged my way through “Ham and Cheese,” “Two Black Cats,” and many more embarrassing recitals.
I became involved in the Junior Music Festival at Duquesne University every year. This program takes you through piano theory levels 1-12, requiring you to memorize short composer bios, definitions, and symbols. You are also required to be able to transpose, harmonize, and match instruments with their families according to your level. On the flip side, there is also a piano performance category, where you are obligated to learn and memorize both a contemporary and a classical piece from your level. You are then judged by a panel of two piano teachers, and receive a trophy every 3 years according to your score.
In 2009, I competed in the Fine Arts competition through the Assembly of God denomination and made it through the sectional, regional, and national levels in piano solo. We traveled to Orlando, Florida in the middle of August (not sure whose brilliant idea that was) and I performed “His Eye is on the Sparrow” in front of a panel of judges and a room of nervous students and parents. I didn’t place or get a call-back, but I ended up in the top 18!
During this time, I also played my Fine Arts piece for the worship pastor at our church. Little did I know how much this song would get me into, or maybe how much God would use it to change my life. Pastor Chris allowed me to play my song for special music, and for awhile that was all. I received a lot of compliments, but soon everything died down, and I was happy to have it over. Then one day Chris told me that Emily (the main keyboard player for the worship band) was taking two months off starting in February, and that he needed someone to take her place. I happily agreed, not realizing what a big decision this would turn out to be!
When February finally rolled around I was in for a few shockers. First, the time commitment. I had no idea that the worship team practiced on Thursday nights and on Sunday mornings! And not just Sunday mornings, but Sunday mornings at seven a.m. This meant getting up at 5:00a.m. to be ready and get to church from our out-of-the-way neighborhood.
Shocker number two came at my first Sunday morning practice. I walked in to find the chaos of band members swapping stories, making copies, turning knobs, searching for cords, tuning instruments, and jamming copiers: all the activities that I have grown to absolutely love. At the time, however, all I saw was a bunch of people I didn’t know, doing a bunch of things I didn’t know how to do. Nevertheless, with a little bit of help and a lot of confusion, I ended up with a fistful of chord charts, and a keyboard lowered to my size. Perfect.
Now before I go on to tell you about the service, I want to rewind and give you a background check on chord charts. Before Chris had asked me to fill in, I had only had a small bit of exposure to these jumbles of letters and lyrics. Mrs. Joy had taught me two very simple charts that were rarely played at church, so these new chords were a little hard to swallow. Having been classically trained using notes and a staff all my life, you can imagine how hard it was to know what to play for a chord progression labeled simply, “G C D C” and so on.
Okay, so back to my first Sunday morning service. We made it through practice, prayed in Pastor Mike’s office (the point at which I realized that I was the only one not married with kids) and headed out to face the congregation. Up on stage, I looked longingly down at the seat I usually took, now occupied by another church member. Remember how I said that I used to fail when under pressure? Well, apparently the habit wasn’t completely broken, for during the offering prayer I tripped over a cord and muted the whole band. Thankfully, our awesome and alert sound/tech man recognized the problem (me) part way through the next song and ran up to reconnect the wire. Oops.
After eight weeks of struggling through Sunday morning worship, Emily returned. For some strange reason, however, I wasn’t quite as excited as I thought I’d be. I had gotten to know these crazy, chaotic copy-makers, and maybe even started to enjoy them. As a result, I was psyched to learn a few weeks later that Chris had added me into the full-time rotation! Before I knew it, I was running right with them; jamming the copier, tangling wires, searching for microphones, and swapping stories. These truly were some cool people; even if they were two or three times my age.
After two years of the worship team, I was able to gain more opportunities. For the church’s musical this past Christmas, I was the sole accompanist (the only instrument) for the entire play and choir of 45 singers. This came with its own challenges and lessons. One of the first being that sopranos sing higher than altos (I always thought it was the other way around). This was my first lesson, but my first challenge was really the size of the music that I had to learn. I had expected just a few songs, so you can imagine my astonishment when I was handed an entire book full of them! This was also my first time playing accompaniment, which was a great experience, since it taught me to follow the singers and wait for them to give me cues, something I had never had to do when playing regular sheet music. I learned what warm-ups to play in order to get the choir ready. I also had to learn to play when actors were still talking, praying, or singing solos; something completely foreign to me. Finally I was getting a little better at performing under pressure! Through a lot of prayers and hard work, I was able to make the play a success and cover-up any small mistakes.
The piano has also helped me to develop into a better singer. I always liked to sing, but never in front of people. Through the help of my worship pastor I have been pushed to use my voice to praise my God and help others to do the same. I now sing during the Sunday services, and even had the opportunity to sing a solo during the offering recently. What an amazing gift!
God has used the piano in a mighty way to change me from an unmotivated, miserable little piano player to a self-motivated, disciplined pianist. So this is how my personality and past has been changed by my friend the piano, but what about my future?
First, I think that all my hard work at the keyboard will pay off - literally! I have recently begun playing for weddings, and have even started teaching piano lessons myself. I think that this will be a good side job that I can take with me even through college as a way to help pay for my tuition.
My piano studies have also influenced what I’m looking for in a college major. I always thought of missions as my calling, to spread the Gospel in another country. Because of this, I thought that I needed to go into nursing to counterbalance what I wanted to do. This all changed as I talked with a music major named Josh. Josh said that “however God wants to fit music into missions, He will.” Something clicked when he said that, and now I feel very relieved to not be going into nursing! I will just have to trust that God will use my music to glorify Himself. Wherever I end up in the world, there will be music, and I will be able to help others worship because of the piano.
The piano has changed my life, and God is continuing to use it to change my future. That first, dark, terrifying piano recital was a long time ago. In fact, at my most recent recital I received one of the two standing ovations, and my piano teacher laughed and said “and to think that this was the little girl whose daddy had to go sit with her on the piano bench!” So what will I do? I’m not really sure, but wherever my piano playing takes me, I hope that I can glorify the One Who gave me this gift. “Praise Him with timbrel and dancing; Praise Him with stringed instruments (piano!) and pipe. Let everything that has breathe praise the LORD. Praise the LORD!” Psalm 150:4, 6.
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