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The Wrong Note

I’m off on a musical tangent of discordant sounds, of minors mixed with majors, all the wrong chords, everything going utterly, totally wrong

I sit down at the piano and begin playing. It’s been months since I’ve played this song. My brain has forgotten the notes, but my fingers haven’t forgotten the melody.

I let the first tones linger in the quiet air. There are so many things I need to do: Lesson plan. Laundry. Organize my desk. Errands. Sort through piles and piles of papers.

But now, I am going to play.

If you’ve ever had piano lessons, you remember the hours it takes to memorize chords and scales, and the painstaking practice required to master a single melody. But when the learning period is complete, the body stores the tune. The fingers know the way. The mind can relax.

Now, my fingers dance across the keys, and I’m flying. Sunlight and a fresh breeze outside. Iced coffee and delicate flowers in a small glass vase next to me. Arpeggios and staccatos and the delicate threads of a rising crescendo. The world melts away, and I let myself lean into the melody. I’m transported. I’m the picture of confidence.

Scenes surface in my mind. Years of teaching blur and meld into a composite, and I see faces, bright eyes, giggles. I hear sparkling laughter and the exuberant sound of a student jumping into the air when she finds out that she got 100 on her test. I see the girls who sail through school. The ones who play all the right notes, skipping their way through the hallways. The virtuosos.

And then, I hit the wrong note.

Failure, I hear in the back of my mind. Go back to the beginning. Stop playing.

I instinctively start to rise, get off the bench, go back to my lists and errands. I’ll leave the song unfinished.

But then I hear something else. My own voice, repeating the words I’ve said to my students hundreds of times.

Keep going. Mistakes are part of learning. You don’t have to do it perfectly.

I must practice what I preach. I continue to play.

Stumbling across the faded ivories, my hands start to settle into the rhythm again; I feel a resurgence of confidence.

In a perfect world, I’d be hitting all the right notes now. My inner muse would take over again, and the long-forgotten chords would emerge like magic. My family would come crowding around me, watching a masterpiece unfold. The birds would chirp along.

But I keep slipping up, keep making mistakes. The harder I try, the worse I play. Now, I’m hitting all the wrong notes. I’m off on a musical tangent of discordant sounds, of minors mixed with majors, all the wrong chords, everything going utterly, totally wrong. It’s the frustrating feeling of waking up to a forgotten dream: It’s in my memory somewhere, but the details are elusive. I can’t grasp this, no matter how desperately I want it.

In my mind I see slumped shoulders and crumpled looseleaf papers. Darting eyes and fidgeting feet. I hear the staccato attempts of kids struggling to read, and even worse, the silence of the ones who don’t want to read at all. I listen to the sighing of students who tap their pencils and watch the clock, waiting for recess, when they can finally, for 15 minutes, feel good at something.

I see the brave smiles and soulful eyes of little human beings who are weighed down by much more than the books in their backpacks. As I continue to play all the wrong notes, I think about the children who experience struggle every single day.

I’m still playing piano, but I’m not speaking this musical instrument’s language anymore.

Falling behind. Losing motivation. Not following instructions.

I’m not in the mood to pull out the sheet music, slow down, learn the tune from the beginning. It’s too hard. Instead, I speed ahead, smashing the keys.

The melody is gone. Now, I am excelling at one thing: doing it wrong. And in between the blacks and whites, I sense the tension of the students who wish they could fly. I see children who want to play all the right notes, but can’t do it, no matter how hard they try.

My energy winds down, and my fingers falter. A trail of sound. An unfinished measure. An inconclusive note. And finally, without any oomph or triumph, the song collapses. I’ve reached the end.


And then a sound coming from the birdcage in the corner. Chirp. Chirp-chirp. Chirp.

Years ago, when I was learning to play this melody, the birds learned along with me, chirping in perfect harmony. Now, our cockatiel and parakeet are singing that same rhythmic tune. Their whistles echo in the silent room. They persist, repeating the melody.

They’re just birds, I remind myself. But my shoulders straighten. Those birds heard my efforts. They knew what I was trying to do. It’s been months since I’ve played, but where I heard mistakes, they heard music. They heard potential.

Tomorrow, I tell myself, I’m going to look out for songs in my classroom. In the hallway. By the lockers. I’m going to help students find their melodies. I’m going to listen to their faltering, stumbling tunes. My eyes are going to light up. Hopefully their eyes will light up, too.

And maybe they’ll understand that when it comes to what really counts, they’re playing the right notes after all.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 894)

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