the smell of my desperation has become a stench

Wherein her long limbs come in handy

Leta is rapidly coming up on three years of piano lessons, the one extra curricular activity that I’ve required she stick to. I’ve already let her give up wrestling, bobsledding, welding, and scab collecting, but piano? Nope. It hasn’t been easy. I’ve had to strap her to the bench a few times with some bungee cords and drip water on her head until she hit the right notes, but it worked.

The truth is, it hasn’t always been easy. New songs for her can be frustrating and every time she brings one home there is the eventual meltdown wherein she slams her hands on the keys and proclaims she will never be able to play it, but then two weeks later she has it memorized and can play it upside-down while eating a bologna sandwich.

Fourth grade homework and projects have for her been a painful introduction into what time management and self motivation looks like, but when it comes to hard work I’m not sure there has been anything more revelatory to her about it in her life than piano playing. It takes a lot of hard work to learn a new song. It is then even harder to perfect those pesky sixteenth notes. What is hardest, however, is stopping a game on the iPad to sit down at the piano to spend valuable afternoon hours practicing a song written in the 17th century. WHY CAN’T SHE JUST PLAY THE THEME SONG TO FROZEN.

The problem is that she’s good. She’s really good. And now that I know and her teacher knows how good she is, it would be a tragedy to let her stop. I’ve recently written about some more serious things here (GROSS SELF HELP REVELATIONS) and, sorry, I’m about to do it again: in the next few years there is a window of opportunity for Leta’s talent to grow, and I am fortunate enough to have the resources and time to help her. I feel a duty to her talent as her mother, and I know that if I don’t work as hard as she does toward feeding it then I will deeply regret it. Helping the piano player that is in her fully develop is one of the greatest gifts I can give to her.

Recently her work and project load got so busy that even though she could play most of her pieces well she would dramatically slump on the floor when I told her it was time to practice. She even started to race through practicing, and the two pieces she had to have perfected for an upcoming Federation were no where near where they needed to be in terms of precision. Since she has far surpassed my ability to read and play music I talked to her piano teacher about this, about what I could do to encourage her. Should I go back to dripping water on her head? Maybe lock her in an empty, dark room and blast the sound of crying babies through a set of speakers? Dress up like Kathy Bates in “Misery” and nibble the handle of a baseball bat?

She suggested that we split up her practice sessions, twenty minutes here, twenty minutes there, twenty minutes back over here. Breaks in between. I decided to augment this approach by sitting in the room with Leta to give her words of encouragement. This is time I can give her since I work from home and have a laptop. So that’s what we’ve been doing for the last month. We’ve been practicing piano together with a timer set for twenty minutes. Within days of starting this technique her attitude had done a total 180. Instead of knocking herself backwards with the momentum of her rolling eyes, she started skipping to the piano. And not just because I was shooting a gun at her feet.

Those two Federation pieces have been at the center of every practice, and can I just say that when I looked at the sheet music I got a nervous rash, died and was unable to be resuscitated by professionals. I’m still dead and blogging this from the Spirit World. MORMONS WERE RIGHT DAMMIT.

Have a listen:


“Sounds of Madrid”

There are very specific spots, specific transitions in both songs that have given her problems since the first day she started learning them. Who wouldn’t have problems? Those guys in the YouTube videos surely had problems and if they didn’t then it must be really nice having poop that doesn’t stink.

Federation was Saturday afternoon, and in the days leading up to it those specific spots were still rearing their heads. We’d been concentrating on those spots during practice, but my god, those songs are hard. She had rarely played through either piece perfectly, and on Saturday morning she asked me how I thought she would do in front of the judges.

“Have you been preparing?” I asked in return.

“Yes! Every day! Multiple times every day!” she responded.

“Do you feel prepared?”

“I do. But some parts are so hard.”

“I know. Some parts seem almost impossible, don’t they? I’m already so proud of the work you’ve put into working through those parts. You’ve worked really, really hard. I think you’re prepared, Leta.” I then hugged her as hard as I could and kissed the top of her head. One day she will be too tall for that and she’ll wipe the kiss from her shin.


She was a total bundle of nerves as we got dressed and ready to leave. She was more nervous than she ever has been before one of these events, pacing, biting her lip. I could tell she was counting out the music in her head. This stark change from previous times let me know that this really meant something to her, and when I realized this I was like OH GOD OH GOD OH GOD. That feeling a mother bird has when it watches its baby falling out of the nest and is thinking flap your wings, flap your wings, flap your wings JESUS CHRIST WHY DIDN’T I INSTALL A PARACHUTE.

Marlo loves accompanying us to these events because there are long halls through which she can run and pretend she is a kite. A deranged kite with a death wish. When we arrived at the building and found the performance room Leta and I did our best to indulge Marlo while we waited, although every other minute one of us was whisper-shouting KEEP IT DOWN. Several times Leta took in a huge breath and held it for a while, an involuntary way of dealing with her nerves. Several times Marlo came up and butted her head into Leta’s stomach causing Leta to cough out that breath, Marlo’s voluntary way of dealing with the fact that not only was this not her show but it hadn’t even been picked up for another season.

Finally the woman in charge peeked her head through the door of the small room and called everyone in: us and other groups gathered for two other piano players. We all clambered in, the three of us at the very back of the room. SEE: DERANGED, HEAD-BUTTING KITE. We barely had time to settle into our chairs before Leta was called to the front to begin playing. FLAP YOUR WINGS OH MY GOD.

Within seconds she had placed her sheet music in front of the judges, announced her pieces and sat down on the bench. Both she and I took a simultaneous gulp of air before her fingers hit the keys. And so it began.

Audio and video recording are not allowed during these events, but if I had broken the rules you’d see my gangly ten-year-old sitting in front of that piano delivering every note with an accuracy she had not ever performed, an accuracy and a feeling for the movement and rhythm of the music that goes to the heart of why she is so good. She understands music. My child couldn’t have played either piece better, and the best part is that she knew it. She was so proud of herself. THIS. This is what I want for her. This. THIIIIISSSS!!!!!!!

When she came to sit at the back of the room her face was beaming and flushed from hours of nerves. I was smiling so wide my face hurt. Marlo had climbed into my lap by that point and was cradled in such a way that I couldn’t release one of my hands to give Leta a very quiet high five. She leaned over and whispered in my ear, “I did so good, didn’t I!” It was most definitely not a question.

Good job, my little bird.


Marlo fell asleep about two seconds after Leta sat down and remained out cold for both of the other performances. A couple of times she verged on a jarring snore but I shifted my weight enough to stop it from happening. THAT would have been so awesome.

“Sorry my child interrupted the song you’ve been practicing for the last six months by snorting like a dying pig.”

When it was over and everyone stood to leave I tried to maneuver her onto my shoulder so she could continue to snooze, but she jolted awake.

“I TOOK A NAP!” she shouted before anyone stepped foot out of the room. “I TOOK A LONG NAP! I JUST WOKE UP!”

Super. Great. Love that last part.

Might as well tell those other kids that their piano playing is so boring that you’ve taken shits that had more expression.

  • femmegypsy

    2014/02/25 at 5:48 am

    This gave me goosebumps! You are an excellent mother and I love how you encourage Leta.

  • kmpinkel

    2014/02/25 at 6:25 am

    Congratulations to Leta! Well done, mom! And Marlo, I feel the exact same way when I take a nap! Shout from the roof tops ladies!

  • Iain

    2014/02/25 at 6:33 am

    Go, Leta, go!!

  • Chris

    2014/02/25 at 7:11 am

    I wish I could hear her! Love what you said about it being your job to help her develop this talent of hers. So exciting for you both (minus all the practicing, teeth pulling, and hard work)

  • Lauren3

    2014/02/25 at 7:27 am

    Love this, so hard. Why do I feel a swell of pride in my chest for a child I have never met? Please tell that dear girl that Random Interest Person is so happy that she kicked major ass in her performance (because duh, of course she would), and that I admire her for her talent and dedication. xoxoxo

  • Kristan

    2014/02/25 at 7:36 am


    Also, this piece makes me want to sit down at my piano again, something I haven’t done in far too long. I was never as talented as it sounds like Leta might be, but I faced some of the same attitudinal problems, and was rewarded with some of the same valuable lessons. Thank you very much for the reminder of what it’s like to love something so challenging.

  • kacy

    2014/02/25 at 7:59 am

    Awesome, way to go Leta. I can feel how proud you are of her through your writing….gave me chills and tears!!

  • Alison Toback

    2014/02/25 at 8:01 am

    I love this so much! I started taking piano lessons when I was about 6 (my Mom-Mom had taught me to read music and plunk out some tunes around age 4) and I took lessons all the way through college. It got me some serious money for college (even though I majored in biology!) and music has always been such a joy in my life. I now teach piano to a brother and sister pair (5 and 9) and they make me smile every week. It’s so wonderful that you’re cultivating Leta’s talent and that she is doing so well. The gift of music is truly special and I think she is beginning to understand that as she sees her own talent grow. Feel free to tell her that Leta has a random internet cheerleader in NJ and that those 16th notes will eventually come easier to her. Keep up the awesome work, Leta! (And keep being an awesome mom and human, Heather. We need you.)

  • Brigid

    2014/02/25 at 8:01 am

    Oh god, I remember those Federation performances. Panic-inducing. And so, so, so much time practicing.

    That’s a wonderful trick of going 20 minutes at a time so she doesn’t learn to hate the piano. This happened to friends of mine, the mere thought of the piano still triggers resistance to them. I think it was still a chore to me until I was in eighth grade? But then it became a wonderful source of stress/emotion relief. Hang in there. This can be a beautiful way for Leta to relax her psyche in a few years.

  • MissCaron

    2014/02/25 at 8:02 am

    Love love love this. Wonderfully written. Wonderful story. Thank you for sharing.

  • Sara

    2014/02/25 at 8:09 am

    When I was little my mom would make a chart of all the things I needed to practice on violin in a day. Each day I completed all the pieces (and number of times) on my practice sheet I earned a letter to spelling out a predetermined “prize for practicing.” Usually it was a book (with a horribly long title) but it was a “go-pill” enough to keep me going and practicing.

  • Heidi

    2014/02/25 at 8:26 am

    I love this. Way to go, Leta! I’m proud of her for you! Good job, Heather, on teaching your daughter what it takes to nail something so, obviously, important to her. I also love the pride and love I hear in your writing of your kids. That’s something pretty damn special.

  • Heidi

    2014/02/25 at 8:27 am

    I feel the same way. I’m so proud of Leta! I think of the accomplishment she must feel, and the lessons she is learning from all of this. Amazing.

  • Allyssa Wheaton-Rodriguez

    2014/02/25 at 8:48 am

    I seriously just cried reading this. Great life moment.

  • tmb

    2014/02/25 at 9:04 am

    as a music teacher, if playing the theme from “Frozen” keeps her motivated, LET HER DO IT. She will learn other things about music and life by choosing something *she wants to learn* —in fact, considering what you’ve told us about her personality, I’d say let her try and figure it out by ear—she will persevere at it because *she* picked it, and figuring it out by listening will keep her from obsessing about the little black dots on the page. 🙂

  • Amy J.

    2014/02/25 at 9:14 am

    I can totally relate. We have three more years on you with piano! We started Sarah before she was seven (which was stupid, lol). The fact that we were pig headed and started her so young because she goes to a gifted magnet and we thought “smart” translates into EVERYTHING, mean that it took alot longer for her to develop the basics…mostly because her hands and coordination weren’t even ready for piano yet (coughs the stupid mother who ignored that stark fact). Anyway, it was hard on her…playing was difficult. She hated it and didn’t want to do it. Practice was a battle!! MANY times none of us (her piano playing father especially) thought it was a colossal joke and waste of time to keep on. But her teacher said she was a “natural”. We would look at her like she was nuts and hand her another check. Year after year we continued. And the first time she had a recital I was so nervous for her because I honest to God admit I thought she would get up and just sit at the piano staring blankly like Tommy (…can you hear me). But, at a wee 8 years old she got up, sat down and played perfectly. Me and my family stood up and cheered and clapped like she was on a gameshow (in the small crowded living room of the teacher’s house, lol) She has done this every time…shocked us that indeed it’s working and no we haven’t wasted her/our time. We started our youngest (our very own Marlo for sure) two years ago. We are now on rinse/repeat with her. She had her first recital last year and shocked us again that she indeed (with her LONG perfect piano hands that match the rest of her body…and lack of coordination) is made for piano.

    So, BRAVO Leta!!! Make yourself and your family proud girlie! One day you’ll sit in your home, at the family piano, playing songs at Christmas for your kids and feel so thankful for your mother’s “torture”…or so my husband tells me : ).

  • Keri

    2014/02/25 at 9:27 am

    THIS!! THIS is why I come back here to read of your adventures with your family and friends; your butt; your asshole mutts; your kicking depression and anxiety’s teeth in; the gut-laughter your writing brings. Most of all I love that your words about 2 girls I don’t even know bring tears make me want to mother my own daughters better; cheering them on and loving them in through the ups and downs. THANK YOU for this! And Leta?!?! You go girl. Someday when you sit and read your momnma’s years of blog entries, you will smile knowing their are far-away weirdos who want love seeing you and Marlo’s amazingness.
    A Connecticut stalker, Keri
    Misery?? ….”I’m your number one, Fan, Heather.” Yup, that’s me. :):)

  • Carol

    2014/02/25 at 9:27 am

    My children are now grown, but there were many moments when I wondered why my heart did not explode, because that is what it always felt like. Love this so much.

  • Jennifer Cafferty-Davis

    2014/02/25 at 9:46 am

    Congrats to Leta! And kudos to you for nurturing her talent. <3

  • Christy

    2014/02/25 at 9:47 am

    I just got proud for her. Oh my gosh, so exciting! Congrats!! What an amazing accomplishment!

  • housepea

    2014/02/25 at 9:51 am

    Way to go Leta!!

  • Jen Moore

    2014/02/25 at 9:52 am

    I just teared up reading this…I call my son Baby Bird and I’m his Momma Bird. So precious. BTW I love this new easy to post feature app that you installed. I’ve been reading your blog for years and never posted below. XO

  • junipergreen

    2014/02/25 at 10:00 am

    Well done – all three of you 🙂

    You’ve given me some food for thought in my ongoing battle with performance anxiety. I’m remembering the early days of those first piano competitions, the all-state auditions on clarinet, the school assembly solos… Recognizing that my nine year old self could do it (with not a little bit of trepidation) is giving my adult self lots to mull over. You’re giving Leta valuable tools for self-presentation later in life, not to mention a life-long appreciation for the arts and the gift of music. Um, brb, gotta go call my mom…

  • Kelli

    2014/02/25 at 10:17 am

    I have tears. I have no idea why I have tears, but I just loved this so, so much. It’s incredible to watch a child completely and totally rock something they’ve worked so hard for.

  • Aundrea

    2014/02/25 at 10:18 am

    I’m crying! What an incredibly proud and happy moment for your family. Way to go, Leta, you rocked it!

  • houpley

    2014/02/25 at 10:24 am

    Good grief! I was so nervous. I think I was holding my breath, too! Congrats, Leta. You earned this.

  • kr

    2014/02/25 at 11:13 am

    Just played those videos and wow. Leta can play those?!? That’s astounding. Way to go Leta! What a gift you have!

  • Katybeth

    2014/02/25 at 11:18 am

    She knew she nailed it. Best feeling ever for both mother and child.

  • Liz Masters

    2014/02/25 at 11:32 am

    I played that Arabesque once upon a time. 😉

    There was a time I begged my mother to let me stop my piano lessons, and she finally gave in, saying I’d regret it some day. I did–and a few years later I asked if I could start again. (I did give her the satisfaction of saying she’d been right.) Keep at it, Leta! You won’t be sorry. And mixing some favorite “pop” songs in with the classical is a great way to keep it fun and fresh. Technique is technique, no matter what era the song was written in.

  • Rose Marie B

    2014/02/25 at 12:11 pm

    THOSE times, they take my breath away, even when I’m reading someone else’s experience. This is one of your best posts Heather, thank you so much for sharing. When my kids were that age, when we went to a performance for one kid, the other would sit next to me and side-stare at me until I started to cry (which was almost immediately) and then mock me for days. I never expected to be so fragile, watching them become humans…OH MY GOD, FLAP YOUR WINGS!! Please tell Leta that she has a huge fan in Oklahoma City. 🙂

  • Sara

    2014/02/25 at 12:48 pm

    Did you tell Leta how proud your butt was?
    In all seriousness, way to go, little lady! The interwebs are so so proud of you.

  • Peggy

    2014/02/25 at 1:00 pm

    Thanks for making me cry and I’m so proud of you, Leta!

  • Carin Sweerman

    2014/02/25 at 1:13 pm

    Beautiful piece, Heather – the pride you feel for Leta is just pouring off my screen. So very jazzed for you both. And if she doesn’t yet, Leta will thank you one day for all the bungee cords/water dripping on forehead.

  • KC

    2014/02/25 at 2:24 pm

    Wow both of those pieces are so beautiful and intricate. I am so glad that Leta was able to get past her nerves and perform so beautifully. I can only imagine how proud you must have been!

    Growing up, I had a childhood friend who played piano. Her mom was a real stickler about her practicing for hours at a time. Our other friend and I would go to her home to see if she could come out and play, only to be told she had to stay inside to practice. We thought that her mom was so cruel to do that to her. We even came up with a stupid nickname for the mom, Hagatha. What did we know. Anyway, many years later, my sisters boyfriend was set to go audition for a band he hoped to play guitar for. He needed a ride, so I drove him. The auditions were in a really cool warehouse space. I sat and listened as someone started to play a really beautiful piece on the piano, only to discover that it was my long lost childhood friend. Boy did all those afternoons spent practicing pay off. She was awesome! As I sat there and listened to that undeniable talent, I thought why didn’t my mom make me take piano!

  • Frank Purrkins

    2014/02/25 at 2:53 pm

    So funny. Those were pretty much my thoughts, too. Thanks for making my heart feel like it’s going to burst.

  • Angela

    2014/02/25 at 3:16 pm

    I have to agree with you here. I quit piano because of this very reason. I’m not saying she shouldn’t do the stuff required, but maybe a reward for finishing her 20 minute sessions could be the fun piece?
    Heather be sure to tell her that we are all cheering for her! I absolutely loved this story.

  • MAF

    2014/02/25 at 3:30 pm

    Congratulations to Leta on spreading her wings and soaring! How wonderful that she is learning that lots of practice (and god knows practicing can be frustrating and even boring at times) results in excellence, and that nobody starts off being great at anything. It always takes hard work and lots of repetition. You must be really proud of her.

  • melissa820

    2014/02/25 at 6:18 pm

    I am an adult who is pretty new to the piano, just started lessons last year, and I just learned the theme to Frozen in my piano lessons. It was fun to play something I picked and my kids love hearing me play it!

  • Beth Rich

    2014/02/25 at 6:32 pm

    Damn, if I had you for a Mom I’d have won the Van Cliburn by now.

  • JL

    2014/02/25 at 6:39 pm

    Whenever I think of music lessons (from my past or for others) I always think about the book ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother’. Everyone associated with music, esp piano (mother of musician, the musician, sibling of musician, music teacher, neighbour who has to listen) should read the book. Just as a outside glimpse into the strangely comforting and aggravating relationship that everyone has with music at some point in their life.
    Note that I do not agree with everything in the book, but the parallels are JUST THERE!

  • Teal

    2014/02/25 at 10:17 pm

    I love the idea of breaking Leta’s practices into 20 minute increments. I do the same thing with my housework, and it works like a charm.

    I took piano lessons for a while, but had to stop when I had two major surgeries within 3 months of each other. It took so long for me to recover that I never was able to start lessons again.

  • Cecile

    2014/02/26 at 1:43 am

    This really reminds me of The Tiger Mom. It always stays with me that she says in her book ‘don’t American moms know the first hour is easy?!’) I think Leta pride in herself for achieving this speaks volumes, and she never would been able to do that if you allowed her to give up – well done to you!!! I think we can all do with a bit of tiger mom!

  • all bangla news

    2014/02/26 at 6:26 am

    nice collection.

  • americanrecluse

    2014/02/26 at 6:53 am

    I loved this post a lot. FLAP YOUR WINGS OH MY GOD almost made me cry.

  • issascrazyworld

    2014/02/26 at 10:03 am

    Congratulations Leta! Love this so much. My one wish, if I could go back and change something in my life, is to not have quit piano at 13 years old. I’d played since five. One day I’ll go back to it. One day.

  • Amy Goddard

    2014/02/26 at 11:20 am

    Totally feel the same way…so proud of a child I’ve never met! This brought a tear to my eye. Good job Leta!

  • Samantha

    2014/02/26 at 5:14 pm

    THIS IS ONE OF MY FAVORITE POSTS! I’m so happy for you and Leta. What a wonderful (and hilarious) story!! love love love!

  • lynda

    2014/02/26 at 6:53 pm

    Wonderful! Thank you so much for this post.

Heather B. Armstrong

Hi. I’m Heather B. Armstrong, and this used to be called mommy blogging. But then they started calling it Influencer Marketing: hashtag ad, hashtag sponsored, hashtag you know you want me to slap your product on my kid and exploit her for millions and millions of dollars. That’s how this shit works. Now? Well… sit back, buckle up, and enjoy the ride.

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