Birthday Bash Day 2: The Pianist Child Prodigy

For complete context about why I’m not having a birthday party for my 27th birthday this year and how you can still celebrate with me, read You’re Invited to My 27th Birthday Bash.

Erica playing the piano at her very first recital.

Tiny me at my very first piano recital.

In 1989, I got Barbie Beat for either my birthday or Christmas. Barbie Beat came with a cassette tape, which played Barbie and her friends’ theme music. You were encouraged to sing along with them. Like a good little girl, I’d spend hours jumping on my bed and singing my little heart out. (My bed actually collapsed once as my constant jumping on it loosened the screws enough that it fell apart. While I was jumping on it.)

My maternal grandma, whom I love and adore, used to tell me I was such a wonderful singer. She’d whip out her child’s recorder — all primary colors and big buttons — and record me singing whatever new songs I’d learned in school. Grandma still has those tapes as she played them for me a few holiday gatherings ago.

Like every small child in the US, I wanted to be a famous musician. However, I’m both completely tone deaf and have a bad voice. My singing career was cut off at the knees. Only my grandma would defend my voice today.

At 7-years-old, I started playing the piano at my mom’s insistence. When I first started playing the piano, I had to play inside the barn. My mom had been dragging around an upright piano rescued from a friend’s summer home, and the barn was where it was stored. I’d sit inside the hay-filled barn, listen to the mice, and play “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” over and over. Then I’d go pet the cows. By the time winter rolled around, my parents moved the piano inside the house, where there were modern amenities like heat.

Then there were the recitals. I had to wear ridiculously puffy dresses to my recitals. To this day, I’m pretty sure scratchy tool constitutes as child torture by the UN.

Grandpa helps Erica get ready for her first piano recital.

My maternal grandpa helps me with my shoes. Look at the hair! And the tool! I blame my mom.

Our recitals were held at the local community college, and we played on a grand piano, in the biggest lecture hall. My piano teacher Shelly, a wiry woman with curly old lady flame red hair, would pretend that she was actually Alex Trebek who’d come to host the recital as Shelly was running late. No one knew either. No one ever laughed. But she did this every year, introducing us and the pieces we were playing one-by-one, while pretending to be Alex and telling us how proud Shelly was of us. Shelly decorated the piano with an ugly clown doll, and to this day, I have clown fear. We students always went in order from newest student to oldest student, in age, not talent. I remember playing some selections from The Nutcracker, and one year, I got to be really badass and play the theme song from Beverly Hills Cop. When I played that, my dad was actually excited to sit through a recital.

Jonathan, Shelly, and Erica with the creepy clown.

Jonathan, Shelly, and I at a recital. Check out the clown and my and my brother's matching haircuts.

As I got older and continued to take lessons (soon joined by my younger brother Jonathan), my family grew more and more invested in me being a piano-playing childhood genius. I was going to be a famous pianist if I just kept practicing. My grandma still to this day will get a wistful look in her eye and say, “If only you continued playing…” Eventually the words “child prodigy” comes out of her mouth, and I have to change the subject.

I grew to loathe and then hate playing the piano. I had screaming fights with my mom about practicing. Which usually led to me pounding out a few rounds of “The 1812 Overture.” No one ever told Jonathan he was destined to play with world-famous symphonies.

Erica sitting at her new baby grande piano.

Me sitting at the new baby grande piano.

One frightful summer day, my family all went to Costco, and they were having a special piano display. At their special Costco prices that you will NEVER see in your lifetime again and MUST BUY NOW or else. (My brothers and I used to call Costco the $200 store as my mom could never leave without spending that much.) My parents had been causally discussing getting me a better piano as ours was a hand-me down, old, and always needing to be tuned.

But I was in a hurry that day. I had to go over to my friend Annie’s house as we were breeding our rabbits and this was very important. (I raised rabbits for many years and showed them just like people do with dogs or horses. Only with less running and jumping. Sometimes.) I was wrapped up in bringing Matilda over to meet Curry, Annie’s buck. I was living in the future of 28 days later, when Matilda would give birth to six little babies. I was definitely not thinking about what requirements I, the pianist child prodigy, needed to play the “Preludes” by some guy named Chop-IN. But my pregnant rabbit and I came home to a baby grande piano sitting in my parents’ living room (where it still sits) that my father had bought me.

The result was that from 1994-2004, my dad and my constant arguments looked a lot like this:

Dad: “Yes.”
Me: *hysterical and stubborn* “No. You don’t understand or love me.”
Dad: *hysterical and stubborn* “Why do you think I bought you a baby grande piano?”

I’ll leave the therapists among you to psychoanalyze that.

By the time I was in middle school, Shelly had moved somewhere warmer, and the church pianist taught us for a couple years. But without Alex Trebek orchestrating recitals and Jonathan and I growing teenagers, my mom gave up and we stopped our piano lessons. No more itchy dresses or weird clowns. And I certainly wasn’t playing songs out of a hymnal.

I played piano for 8 years, but haven’t touch one in about 13 years. However, I have developed an ear for music and an appreciation for piano playing. My favorite piece of classical music is “Suite 2 for 2 Pianos” by Sergei Rachmaninov and my all-time favorite musician is Tori Amos. Now she can rock the piano. Especially compared to say Jewel, who’s “Foolish Games” I learned to play after about three times through.

If you enjoyed reading about how I could’ve been a child prodigy, please consider donating to Geek Girl Con, a convention and unapologetic coming together to celebrate geeky women. While I can’t make any promises, you might be treated to my vocal stylings at a Buffy: the Vampire Slayer “Once More, With Feeling” sing-along at Geek Girl Con. But as Sting says, “Don’t stand. Don’t stand so close to me.” Your ears will thank you.

About Erica

Erica McGillivray spends too much contemplating the socioeconomic importance of the bananaphone. Ring, ring, ring. Bananaphone. She loves bunnies, soap opera plots in comic books, and dreams of flying in the stars. Erica works for Moz in inbound marketing, which means sometimes, she'll talk about that.
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2 Responses to Birthday Bash Day 2: The Pianist Child Prodigy

  1. marisa says:

    shelley was my piano teacher too! and i completely forgot that you went to her and forgot about alex trebek and the clown…
    i actually loved shelley and after she moved i think i went to 4 or 5 different teachers before giving up because none of them taught in the same way. maybe because shelley was crazy and i liked her photo copied music with crazy notes written all over them. she lives here in portland now… we actually kept in touch until i was in college. i’ve thought about looking her up sometime…

    • Erica says:

      Glad I could bring back the Alex Trebek and scary clown memories. :D

      Despite everything, Shelley was a good piano teacher. I think her crazy worked. Because yeah, I couldn’t handle other teachers.

      You’ll have to look her up and tell her she’s famous on the internets!

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