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May 25, 2001: Like riding a bicycle

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A duet with piano and organ, my father proposes. Even as I inwardly wonder why on earth I am doing this, I have agreed to it. I have one week to get ready. I will have to practice, probably every night. I get home from work late enough as it is - now I must throw in a trip to my parents house, since practicing requires an instrument, and it's been far too many years since I had free access to a piano.

He hands me the music to look at and I give it a quick glance. Only two sharps and nothing too scary, it seems. I sit down at the piano, hunched over the keys, peering at the music. My fingers curl and stretch clumsily into patterns nearly forgotten. I fumble through the music, inwardly wincing - my fingers may be rusty in the skill but my ears are still sharp enough to hear and recognize each mistake. I resort to tricks learned long ago - play half the chord, not all. Counting under my breath, one foot on the pedal, slowly finding my confidence again.

He sits down next to me and I scoot over to the left. We both spread out our music and he counts off a measure and we start; his fingers flying over the keys as if there is no effort; mine still searching for the right notes. We start and stop a half dozen times but make it through. The music comes, haltingly at first but then with more surety.

We have done this in the past, he and I, beginning when I was too young for my feet to reach the pedals. He taught me the keys and the time signatures and the music, and awed me with his own ability. He can pick up a piece of music and play it cold. I did not inherit this talent from him. I am still in awe of it - his strong sure fingers drawing music from the keyboard, changing key signatures, adding in harmonies and descants. I can do simple arrangements from a tune, painstakingly creating harmonies only if I write them down first. He can compose music.

It is not the same, playing with my father, as it is with my sister. Older than me, she got that knack of sight-reading, and so we would pull out the duet books and I'd take the lower part, knowing it was going to be a bit simpler for me to muddle through. Sometimes we would sing in silly voices, sway back and forth on the piano bench in time to the music, collapse in giggles. With my father, it is somehow more serious. My sister and I are closer in skill - he is far beyond, and I find myself wanting to prove myself - show him that I can do it.

My family gathered around the piano, one or two of us on the keys, while the others sang or accompanied on any other instrument we happened to be playing at the time. Growing up I didn't know this was anything but ordinary. Now I know how odd it seems to everyone else, and yet it is something I still look forward to when we are all together. My nephew is learning the tradition, and when my niece visits, she will learn it too.

My fingers, given the taste of the keyboard again, itch to play, and it only makes me miss having a piano even more. Music is a bond between the members of my family just as strong as blood, and how can I refuse?

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