How do I come to terms with childhood deprivation?
July 21, 2022 2:46 AM   Subscribe

I've wanted to learn the piano since I was young but my impoverished, lower-class background made it impossible.

I grew up in an abusive family mired in inter-generational trauma, poverty and dysfunction. Money for basic needs was limited and housing was unstable. We moved a lot and were homeless at one point. My parents did not finish elementary school and despised the arts because you couldn't make money.

I begged my mother for a piano and she agreed to buy me one but it never appeared. I went to a terrible school in my infamous city slum neighborhood(not in the U.S.) that limited my educational options. In my school, it was normal for underage children below age 12 to drop out to work full-time for money as many of my classmates did. There was no hope and no aspirations. I was unable to transcend my roots and achieve middle-class respectability as an adult. My trauma caught up with me and I never made much money. I have trouble sustaining employment.

I feel sad when I see kids carrying their tiny violins or little girls in their ballet gear on the subway. I envy them for having opportunities that were never given to me. Recently, I was in a mall and saw a teacher teaching a little boy a Twinkle variation on the piano note by note through the glass window of a private music school. The little boy was slow and appeared uninterested but the teacher exercised infinite patience. How I would have loved having a patient teacher teach me everything I wanted to know! I am an adult but I was like a street urchin pressing my nose against the tempting glass window display of a sweet shop whose dainty wares I would never get to taste on my tongue.

I know I'm an adult and it's immature and silly of me but I've been feeling depressed and grieving ever since I accidentally saw that little boy through the glass window. I've been weepy and unable to concentrate on anything. I was basically left to fend for myself growing up since my parents were illiterate and my mother worked full-time in various factories because my father was on the run due to angry debtors who would pound on our door yelling and looking for him. I was only 4-5 years old and I was terrified of the angry strange men. I yearned for pretty princessy dresses and toys I saw on TV but I knew better than to ask my mother for them because she would just say they were too expensive and a waste of money.

I was a sort of feral child who wandered around the unsafe neighborhood after school(my neighbors were not the sort of respectable, upstanding citizens you would like to live next door to, to put it mildly). No one looked out for my safety or well-being. No one cared (no such thing as social services in my developing country during that period). I fed myself cheap hot-dogs out of cans after I got home by myself from elementary school. It's a miracle, in fact, that I survived to adulthood.

There is no easy way to get a piano in my country. There is a robust secondhand market for pianos in good condition because middle-class parents still buy acoustic uprights for their children. The only cheap pianos are cheap because they are in bad shape, require a total (expensive) overhaul and the owners are only selling because they are hoping someone will take them off their hands. This would be on top of the moving fees. In short, no one would give away or sell cheaply pianos that are in working condition. I can't even afford a weighted keyboard.

Moreover, piano lessons are really expensive. It's impossible to learn classical piano without a teacher.

I taught myself music theory from scratch because I couldn't afford a teacher (took about two months of lessons and then had to stop due to time and money limitations). I managed to pass my ABRSM Grade 5 Theory with Distinction (UK people may be familiar with the system). This is as far as I can go without a teacher or a piano.

Even if I somehow got my hands on the money and started right now, I would never be as good as someone who started young. Physically, it isn't optimal to start as an adult and adults do not have hours a day to practice as children do. There aren't many ensemble opportunities, music camps, competitions or professional opportunities as there are for those who started young.

I have to accept that life is unfair and I may never be able to get my hands on a piano. It's not just the piano but also all other opportunities like studying abroad that my middle-class peers enjoyed and took for granted but which were never extended to me. I never felt safe, loved, nurtured or secure.

How do I deal with the grief and how do I move on in life? People have given me tough love advice to just get over it because I am an adult now and responsible for my own life. Or they tell me to push my children to learn piano instead. The folly of living through one's children aside, I was never stable or comfortable financially enough to settle down and reproduce. I am envious of people who have normal, loving families of their own.

My parents had me despite having no money and coming from problematic backgrounds themselves and it ruined my whole life.

I will probably regret posting this. Some people will probably tell me to suck it up and stop whining. That I am poor because I'm lazy and I deserve it.
posted by whitelotus to Society & Culture (57 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
I don't think anyone is going to tell you that "you're poor because you're lazy and you deserve it". That's false, and it's also cruel - so I REALLY don't think anyone is going to tell you something that's false and cruel.

Also, RIGHT NOW on the main page, there is a post discussing an article about being in your 40s and learning something new - and everyone there is talking about the new things they're learning in their middle age, and how it's rewarding and even a little liberating to feel like they don't HAVE to be "as good as someone who started as a child". They aren't doing it to be as good as someone who started as a child; they're not doing it to compete at all. They are doing things to make themselves happy, and for the joy of it.

A full-on piano may be expensive, but might it be possible to get a decent-quality electronic keyboard? They make ones that "feel" enough like pianos that they would be good to start out with. And as for lessons - there might be a kind and sympathetic piano teacher who can negotiate some kind of reduced-cost lesson plan for you, so you can start learning. Or perhaps you could do some part-time work at a music school in exchange for a discount on lessons.

I really think you should try to look into those ideas - because not only will they be satisfying your wish to learn piano, they could be VERY valuable for your feelings of deprivation. Your parents did fail you - but you are now old enough to take care of your own self, and you are giving yourself the things that your parents weren't able to give you. That can be a VERY powerful and encouraging feeling.

I urge you to try that. Don't worry about trying to compete with other students - do it for the joy of it, for yourself.

Good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:11 AM on July 21 [6 favorites]


Best answer: I’m sorry you’re going through this, and it must have been really hard to put it all down. I think there are two things going on here. The first is that it sounds like you’re still recovering from trauma. That level of poverty - not just doing without things, but (from the way you describe it) doing without the sense of being cared for, having your needs met by the people whose job it is to take care of you - is traumatic. And what you’re feeling right now isn’t immature or silly - and it certainly isn’t whining.

If you’re living somewhere where therapy is an option, having a therapist to talk to would be really helpful. Or if you are unable to see a therapist, you might look out for a support group - this isn’t such an uncommon issue. Because I’m pretty sure it’s not about the piano. The piano is just the most important way that it’s hurting you. You need to find a way to feel valued and supported, because everything stems from that. Parents who were supportive of your needs when you were a child still couldn’t have bought you a piano, but they would have helped you believe in your dream that someday you might play. It sounds like they didn’t give you hope, and you’re still suffering from that.

The second issue is the piano itself. The fact that you’ve already accomplished so much without one is remarkable! While it might be true that someone who starts late won’t achieve the same level of accomplishment as someone who starts very early, I think that’s only really the case when you are looking at professional-level pianists. Is that really what you are sad you can’t achieve? Because (as I’m sure you know), most kids - even the most serious about their music lessons - don’t become good enough to become professional-level musicians. I think you are conflating your desire to play well (which is absolutely something you can accomplish) with jealousy of those other children’s entire lived experience (being cared for, being bought nice things, having their basic needs met as a matter of course), which your brain is translating into jealousy of their musical opportunities. It’s not really about the music. The music is just where the bullet is going in.

I’m not in your country, so I don’t know what’s possible for you to do in the way of music lessons, but it sounds like you’re already motivated and able to be self-taught. There are tons of YouTube tutorials at this point. There are often used electric pianos available that are just as good for learning from as acoustic ones. I hope you’ll keep exploring alternative channels (community centers, churches, music schools), but I don’t know what resources are available to you so I won’t be Pollyanna-ish about it. Financial hardship is real and if you say you literally can’t get your hands on a piano I wouldn’t challenge you. But you need to separate that from believing you’ll never learn to play. Never is a long time, and playing piano well is learnable if you are committed to it, which it sounds like you are.

You don’t need tough love. You need love, and a little bit of luck, and the knowledge that you can be your own parent moving forward, and support your dreams. The luck part is the wild card, the other two are hard emotional work, and I hope you can get help with them. I know I’m an internet stranger, but if my opinion helps any, I completely believe that this is something you can overcome. A huge number of kids with piano lessons squander the opportunity and never become proficient, let alone good. Screw them. You deserved the same chance to squander opportunities too - to have your pick of what you wanted to achieve or succeed at. That’s the tragedy, not the music. When you can find a way to get past that, I have a feeling the music will come a lot easier.
posted by Mchelly at 4:13 AM on July 21 [24 favorites]


Oh, I also think that if you can afford it, you should buy yourself a princessy dress as well. You're a grownup and you have survived that sad part of your past - that means you are STRONG, and you deserve to celebrate that by giving yourself some of the things you wanted then.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:14 AM on July 21 [7 favorites]


Response by poster: EmpressCallipygos: I once met a piano teacher at a social gathering who claimed that she was willing to give me free lessons but only on a irregular basis. I was delighted, searched youtube for all my favorite pieces and we fixed a time and date for the first lesson, then at the last minute, she announced that she will be charging me $XX per hour but she will give me a special discount. I had to cancel the lesson and cried bitterly. I just had too many bad experiences with people like that who claimed that they were willing to help but were really just out for money. I have little money I could afford to lose.

The (non-Western culture) in my country is really different. People are pretty indifferent to people they are not related to. As such, nothing comes for free. You can get something only if you have money. People have children for utilitarian reasons like retirement, not because they feel children complete their lives but because there is no social safety net.
posted by whitelotus at 4:40 AM on July 21


Firstly, big hugs.

Secondly, while it won't have foot pedals, you might have better luck finding and purchasing portable 88-keys keyboards through online means. The foldable ones can unfold into baby grand proportions, if you'd like to feel the physicality of playing on one.

And finally, maybe you're right. Maybe you'll never be good as concert pianist, but if you get started, you'll definitely be better than you are right now. But either way, if you don't try, you won't know.
posted by cendawanita at 4:42 AM on July 21 [1 favorite]


The idea the people are poor because they're lazy and deserve it is bullshit. Luck plays a tremendous part in where you start and end in life. That story is propagated by people who were lucky but are trying to convince themselves that they're exceptional (not just lucky) and also that they're good people even though they don't do anything to help others.

My advice is sort of "suck it up and stop whining" but not quite. It can be summarized as, accept the situation and let it go. Accept that it was the way it was and that it is the way it is and let go of wishful thinking.

Acceptance doesn't mean you have to like it or that you can't do anything about it. Acceptance means that right now, it's like this. Acceptance means not wishing it were different but just seeing things as they are or were, and then, if you want the future to be different you can take steps in whatever direction you'd like.

Letting go is about all the regret and sadness and general ennui you're carrying. Those are you looking at the past/present and wishing things were different. It's the wishing that causes the unhappiness. It's not that you can't want things to be different, it's that you accept how they are and if want something to change you make it change it. But you leave out the part where you sit around thinking "I wish my parents had been better" or "I wish I had more money". That's perfectly natural and everyone does it and it's the source of most of our unhappiness.

It's really hard to put it into words but most human suffering is self-inflicted. Yes, there's deprivation and hardship, but we pile suffering on top of that with our what-if stories and wishful thinking. But again, it's not that you can't change things, it's that wishful thinking is helpful if that's all you do. If you want it to be different then take steps to make it different. Which is really hard to do, and harder to do over time, but the wishful thinking just makes us miserable.

I feel like I've totally botched this. I hope there's something useful and if you want to learn more then all of that is me paraphrasing buddhist teaching. I don't recommend any religion but I think buddhism provides a great bunch of life-tips that can help you let go of your suffering and move in a healthier mental direction.

I wish you the best.
posted by Awfki at 4:44 AM on July 21 [3 favorites]


Response by poster: To clarify about the piano teacher I met: I never asked for free lessons, she offered herself after I mentioned that I always wanted to learn. However, last minute just before we were about to meet, she texted me via mobile that she "normally charged students $XX per hour because she graduated from X conservatory but she will give me a big discount and charge me $XX per hour instead". There was no way I could afford the huge fee she was asking so I canceled the lesson immediately, castigating myself for being naive, stupid and trusting. For actually thinking that there are actually nice, kind and helpful people out there who will do something for nothing.
posted by whitelotus at 5:10 AM on July 21


Yeah, I think a $100 keyboard + YouTube tutorials might be a good way to get your feet wet. With both this and the harp interest you had a few years ago, it seems like you want to jump into things at a high level right away.

It may not be perfect, or replicate what you think other people had when they were children, but it's absolutely a real way to start practicing (and making music, if that's your goal).
posted by sagc at 5:15 AM on July 21 [2 favorites]


There’s a thing that happens when you are abused as a child with deprivation and told your wishes are too expensive where you internalize the deprivation and deprive yourself as an adult. We don’t know your financial situation, and obviously if you would be literally hungry or homeless if you purchased piano lessons, then you have to go without for a little longer. But make no mistake: You *need* the piano lessons and you (eventually) need the piano, in much the same way you need love and caring, a basic human need. If there is anyway to give yourself at least the lessons, you should do that, even if it’s expensive and requires some sacrifice. Your parents should have sacrificed to do this for you — if the creditors came angrily calling anyway, at least they could have added your lessons to the growing bills. You deserved that then, and you deserve it now. If you can’t afford a piano or keyboard to go with the lessons now, ask your piano teacher if there’s a place you could pay a bit of rent for use of a piano. But make this expensive investment in yourself if there’s any way to swing it. You deserve and need it, you really do.
posted by shadygrove at 5:18 AM on July 21 [10 favorites]


I know nothing about your situation or your location. So this may be completely off the mark and please ignore in that case. I can't speak to the part about overcoming neglect/childhood trauma. But the way you speak about your frustrated musical ambitions sounds very all or nothing. You did not get to learn young. Now as adult, where you have somewhat more control, you're keen to learn at a very advanced level with very expensive tools. And it seems these ambitions continue to collide with economic challenges that can't be overcome short-term. In the meantime, you're not getting to play music at all, never mind playing at an advanced level. If that is the case and perhaps examine why that is the case.

So to put this in perspective - my parents had working class backgrounds. I grew up lower middleclass. My mother got to learn to play piano as a child, my aunt wanted to learn to play the piano as well. But she was told she had to learn the violin because who needs two piano players in the family...

My mother became quite good as far as I can tell but it was never more than a hobby. In the meantime, life happened and my aunt had children of her own. Her son wanted to learn to play the piano and was able to do so. My aunt had picked up some things from my mother and she also paid attention to her son's lessons and taught herself to play. When my aunt retired, she indulged that interest a lot more. She acquired an electric keyboards/organ because they can be more forgiving for the more amateur players. So she got an 88 key one and got herself lessons to learn the features of her organ and how to use them to support her playing. Has that allowed her to become a very good player? No. But she plays regularly regardless of how proficient she is because it gives her joy. She'd have loved to learn as a child but as an adult, she found ways to enjoy playing regardless.

She married my uncle in middle age (2nd marriage for both) and he is a very good amateur golfer. He'd have liked to play professionally but his family could not afford to support him in that and so he learned a trade instead but never stopped playing. When they married, rather than allow resentment to build up about the time commitment golf was for him, she learned to play herself. She never got very good at it but it is primarily a social sport. Countless people pick it up purely on those grounds, not because they expect to ever play to a low handicap. And she still plays, and still plays badly. But it gives her a regular outdoor activity, regular moderate exercise and social connections. She enjoys it on those grounds.

What I am trying to say is - if there is an element of all or nothing in your struggles with these frustrated passions or ambitions perhaps examine that. At this point, you may never play well enough to be a pianist but you can absolutely find ways to enjoy playing music. I am now in early middle age. There are plenty of things I plan to try before I die in the full expectation that I will do them badly. And that's fine. There is joy and power in allowing yourself to try and learn and joy in the learning.
posted by koahiatamadl at 6:02 AM on July 21 [16 favorites]


Hi whitelotus! Other people are giving good, specific suggestions but I want to say that from where I sit, there is so much you are doing right here. You desire beauty and making art and a supportive enough environment to allow that to happen. You've been in a really traumatic environment but you have always envisioned a path out.

I think you should keep writing about this. Writing is making art too, and it's probably the least expensive art form and you're already doing it well. (Apologies, it always sounds a bit condescending when people say "you're a good writer;" it's a very easy thing to say, but you actually are. Reading your post and followups I feel like I've read a pretty good novel.)
posted by BibiRose at 6:05 AM on July 21 [12 favorites]


Whitelotus: I am saying this as gently as I can.

I am noticing that in the responses you are giving, to me and to others, it looks like you are trying hard to think of reasons why the suggestions people are making wouldn't work. It is unfortunate that that teacher you spoke with misled you about the costs of lessons - but that's just one person. If you've asked more than one person, fair enough, but I'm a bit skeptical that everyone would be just like that one person.

I also am a bit skeptical that everyone in your culture "has children for utilitarian reasons". I grant that the way different cultures relate to families can vary, but I strongly suspect that even in a society where people largely have children as a social safety net, most families would still have children for the love of the children themselves. Perhaps hearing this story will help prove my point there - one of the reasons my parents had me when they did was because my father was at risk of being drafted into the army during the Vietnam War. Now, that's a pretty utilitarian reason - but my parents definitely still loved me. And I suspect that is true in other places.

And it's very sad that your parents were so cruel to you. But I'm trying to remind you that just like not everyone is like that one piano teacher, not everyone is like your parents. You don't sound like you're like your parents. You sound like you're a much better and kinder person.

So - this is a chance for you to try to "be your own parent" in a way. Think of the things that little girl who was you once upon a time wanted - and find a way to give them to her by giving them to yourself. You are not your parents, and you can be a much better parent to yourself now than they were.

I also had piano lessons when I was a child; and my parents moved heaven and earth to find a way to get them for me. They kept talking to teachers until they found one who would work for us. The first several teachers they talked to didn't work - but they didn't stop until they found someone who would. That's what they wanted to do for me. And that is what I am hoping you can do for yourself - because that is what you deserved when you were a child, and it is ABSOLUTELY something you deserve now.

I am convinced you can find it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:20 AM on July 21 [11 favorites]


Are there Christian churches where you live? A lot of them have pianos. A lot of them have pianos that go unused 22 hours a day, or several days a week. A lot of them will 100% allow you to come in and practice on their piano at random times of day as long as you aren't disturbing services. This is, in fact, how basically all organ players have to practice -- find a friendly church and borrow their organ during non-busy hours.

It's also possible you could trade volunteer labor (stuffing envelopes or something) for access to their piano.

"Even if I somehow got my hands on the money and started right now, I would never be as good as someone who started young. Physically, it isn't optimal to start as an adult and adults do not have hours a day to practice as children do."

So? Lots of people who started young aren't any good. (I started at 6, I suck, I can stumble through Fur Elise but not, like, competently.) Children generally do not have "hours a day" to practice, unless their parents are abusive stage parents. Piano teachers for children recommend they practice around 20-30 minutes a day. I dated a concert pianist who was playing international concerts while still in high school -- one of the very, VERY few people who actually was an extremely talented classical pianist -- and if he practiced more than 3-4 hours a day, carpal tunnel shut his shit down. (Also, he crapped out of music by 25 because it was so soul-sucking and joyless. Now he's a very happy corporate lawyer.)

Chances are, even if you had started as a child, had tons of resources, and been naturally talented, you could not have become a concert pianist. Probably, like most of us (I became a good classical bassist after crapping out at piano), you would have developed a love of making music for its own sake, even when it's not perfect, even though your ear is good enough that you can hear what "professsional" sounds like and you know you're not it and never will be. That's where 99.9% of people who study music voluntarily end up -- "I can hear what great sounds like, I'm not great, but I enjoy making music anyway." That's a win!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:34 AM on July 21 [16 favorites]


It's all really complicated, no? Here's what I see in your post.

1. You have a great love for music and a drive. That's amazing. Music is one of the most universal human arts and can be found all over, so it's awesome that it's what speaks to you.

2. I am classically trained in music, but developed arthritis in my teens. I also worked for one of the most well-known classical music training organizations in North America (in marketing.) Making it to an elite level of classical musicianship without getting the love of music knocked out of you or wrecking your body is a trick many people don't manage, you just don't hear their stories. I mention this because I think you've idealized something.

I think it's just fine that you've idealized that one path to music but I wanted to share with you that loving and creating music and being a trained-from-childhood classical musician are two really different things. It's fine to want both! But they are separate.

I think your focus on perfection in accessing only specific, elite-level training is actually not about music. It's about your trauma. (I also was abused by the person that paid for my lessons, and yes, the two facts were directly linked.) That's black-and-white thinking. And that's okay! Our desires come from all kinds of places in our soul. But I think you might be happier if you think about what is possible for you (so much) vs. what happened in the past. That's super hard. But you can do it.

3. I am not in your culture. But in my culture, musicians are kind of their own community and they love to help each other out. One place you can find classically trained musicians, access to instruments, and people willing to share is often churches. When I was competing in organ competitions I had churches open their doors to me on more than one occasion, just to try out or practice on their organs. I feel sure there is a similar community there. I am guessing it may not be the piano community.

But maybe see if talking about your love of music leads you somewhere, and let yourself be led.

4. If after all that, music only looks to you like middle class classical music training...that's your jerkbrain. Your jerkbrain wants you to stay in the zone the jerkbrain learned as a child - the feral outsider. So maybe talk to that brain a bit and say "look, jerkbrain. I get it, this symbolizes EVERYTHING we went through at a deep, deep, archetypal level. But I'm going to go make some music today anyway, I'm going to sing, drum, and hang out with the guitar player down the street while he shows me a couple of things."
posted by warriorqueen at 6:36 AM on July 21 [12 favorites]


I think your real question
“ How do I deal with the grief and how do I move on in life? ”
is something that therapy can help with.

WarriorQueen has some great advice that I think will be very helpful.
Read their response again and take good notes.

While you cannot change your past or your trauma, you can find ways to be kind to yourself today and tomorrow.
posted by calgirl at 6:46 AM on July 21 [2 favorites]


I think this may be one of those things that fall into "men are sold items, women are sold a lifestyle." Your description of how you see yourself playing piano seems really aspirational (and that's a good thing!). At the same time, it seems like you want to have a skill level where you can play pieces that you really enjoy listening to, and that is somewhat unrealistic for any beginning player.

If you want to find free or affordable lessons, you have to come to terms with the fact that you will be playing very boring elementary pieces for quite a long time. What we see in movies, where a character just sits at a piano and casually plays a sonata, is something that most of the time comes from years of not just training but also sacrifice of other opportunities. For the vast majority of people in the world, devoting that much time to one thing, no matter what stage of life, is just truly unattainable or uncomfortable.

There are parts of life that we can't change. What family we are born into, and the baggage that come with that is one of those things. It can be really difficult to become ok with the idea that you might never have what some people in the world do. That's something that I (and many others here who also grew up in impoverished and abusive families) have really struggled with. You probably will not be able to become a professional level pianist, but that doesn't mean you are any less of a person.

That said if this is truly what your heart wants beyond all else and you are ok with being a beginner at piano for years, making sacrifice after sacrifice for this dream, and having points where you feel like you aren't making progress for months at a time, there are ways to do this.

-You could barter with people for use of their piano or keyboard, for example, offering to make dinner once a week for them for a couple weekly hours of uninterrupted practice time.
-You could make a large effort to get an administrative or cleaning job in a music school that would allow you to use practice rooms during your off time.
-You could start with a toy piano to get a sense of the basics.
-You could apprentice a piano tuner.
posted by donut_princess at 6:54 AM on July 21 [2 favorites]


I also want to add -- I was lucky enough to go to a public school district that took a lot of pride in its music program, and almost all students participated, about 50% of students all the way through high school. Almost all my friends were musicians, most of them reasonably competent from 10 years of high-quality free lessons. Some of them truly talented.

You don't have a real piano. They're expensive. You can't even get a weighted keyboard -- okay! I started piano lessons at 6, and my family didn't own an actual piano until I was 14 or so. We had a shitty second-hand (probably fourth-hand) synthesizer with unweighted keys that was set up in a closet under my dad's work shirts on a improvised stand made of cinderblocks. THAT IS NOT UNCOMMON. One of the best "talented amateurs" that I know, who's much in demand for local theater productions and christmas carol concerts, practices on one of those shitty "roll up" keyboards that cost $40 on Amazon in the US. He played at his parents' church growing up, and when he went to college, he had no space for a "real" keyboard (let alone a piano), and the college only let music majors use their practice rooms.

I know flautists who finished high school and took up pennywhistle -- they couldn't justify paying to rent a flute when they weren't playing in a school orchestra, but pennywhistles are CHEAP and kinda fun and around here you can often find an Irish music jam session that wants a pennywhistler. I know people who go to park drum circles with novelty souvenier bongos they found somewhere, because they like making music in a group. I know people who play on real instruments, but they're third-hand instruments that were in rough shape, that they learned to fix up via YouTube. I know people who play trumpet or piano for a local church even though they're not Christian, because they live in tiny spaces where they can't fit the instrument or are too loud, and playing weekly for services means they can use the space to practice.

Even musicians who had access to excellent, free childhood music education make do with what they have, whether that's a pennywhistle or a roll-up keyboard or a Bosendorfer concert grand. Get something -- anything! -- you can use, that fits your budget and your space, and start. If you want to become a musician, that's all there is to it, just grab something that more-or-less functions, and go. Otherwise, honor your grief about your childhood, but in an honest way, where you admit it's less about music-qua-music and more about lost opportunities and an abusive family.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:01 AM on July 21 [5 favorites]


"It's not likely they would allow an outsider in to play on a church asset."

Have you asked five or six of them? I honestly can't see why they wouldn't; it's super-common. It's a church, not a members-only club.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:36 AM on July 21 [2 favorites]


Best answer: Yes, that is your jerkbrain talking through you. I got flighty in this answer, sorry, but i hope it helps.

Your jerkbrain is a super smart part of your brain that learned from childhood how to survive. In your case as a child you had two rational possibilities before you.

One was that your parents, the people you were fully dependent on for physical and psychic survival, were incapable of doing that. The other was that they were capable but were choosing not to because something was fundamentally wrong, possibly you. (To be 100% clear, that is NOT TRUE, but as a child those are the possibilities.) They presented you with a black hole where care should be.

Your jerkbrain was marvellous and it found a way out. It kind of took this image -- the very one you came across recently, the gleaming piano, the beauty of music, the teacher, the percussive feeling of the keys, and the middle-class arrival to mastery of an elite skill -- and gave you HOPE. Hope, the thing that was left in Pandora's box.

Your child hope was "I will be happy one day. And I will know I am happy when I am a classically trained musician harp/piano."

And what's more, because you were shut out of so many things, you also believed that those with those things are in fact....happy because of them.

Let's honour that for a moment. You could have become abusive or a drug addict or any number of things but instead this passion was born in you.

The trouble is...what I think I see but I can be wrong...is that even if you were presented with a piano now, or at 12, or whatever...eventually you would have to face down this truth -- that you were neglected and abused, that there was no reason for that you could control, and that happiness is not about just filling that hole you had as a child.

The hole in your experience that your marvellous jerkbrain threw a classical music education up in front of in a beautiful house of mirrors is...that your parents were shit. I'm sorry.

The thing is, that reflection, yourself mastering and creating things...that is in fact you. But you don't need a piano or a harp to do it. People who aren't just trying to fill that hole behave more as Eyebrows outlined -- they get frustrated and sad and mad but then they move on, because they're not staring into a gaping, trauma-induced space. They are on level ground and if one road is blocked they go around it.

Because nothing will fill that hole. It's the reality of your childhood. You can get past it but you can't fill it, not exactly. You can make your life full of ground -- and you have been -- so that it has less prominence.

I honour and respect this part of your experience and you have expressed it so well in your post. You're saying "how do I get past this hole."

And I am going to tell you - it's about leaving the Piano As Solution behind. Because your jerkbrain has found the perfect "solution" for you to stay where you were in childhood, on the outside looking in. It's one that doesn't exist. It's still trying to keep those mirrors up. It's selected for you the two paths (harp and piano) that are hardest for you and it's shut down other ones. (The $40 keyboard, etc. etc.)

That doesn't mean you can't play piano or want to play it! But as you said, right now, you are feeling it because you saw that perfect little family vignette. It's okay to feel it. It's okay to go listen to Beethoven's 9th. Yes, it's cliché but it was written by an abused, deaf composer. It tells the story of his jerkbrain. It lets loose the voices of his soul, unbowed. You can do this. It's okay to feel the gap of your childhood, and get up and make music however you can anyway.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:57 AM on July 21 [22 favorites]


I realize that I answered your question about pianos but I didn't really answer the question you posted which was "How do I come to terms with childhood deprivation?"

It actually sounds like you're doing an ok job with this. You know that you won't be the piano player that someone else might be. You know you won't speak French like a fluent speaker. Knowing those things doesn't make your childhood deprivation any less painful, but it shows you have a growing sense of what is and isn't likely to be in reach.

It's ok to be mad and sad and feel pain about what happened to you as a child. Every child deserves love and opportunity. Those experiences are a part of you, but they aren't all of you. There isn't anything you did wrong as a child, you were just dealt a really unfortunate hand of cards. Yes, it put you on a not so great trajectory, but knowing this trajectory wasn't what you planned or wanted, the best thing you can do at this point is figure out how you can live your life in a way that makes you feel happy. That might mean learning piano, but considering how much it seems to retrigger you about all the things you didn't achieve, it may be more healthy for you to pursue something completely different that you have no preconceived notions about (growing a plant, running, collecting shiny rocks, drawing elaborate chalk hopscotches on local sidewalks, etc). There are so many ways to grow that won't carry all that hurt along with them.
posted by donut_princess at 8:27 AM on July 21 [1 favorite]


As others have said, you should separate the grief about your childhood from the desire to play an instrument or change your life now. Accept that you cannot change what happened before, and work on being kind and compassionate to yourself and nurturing yourself now the way you wish your parents had nurtured you as a child.

I was one of the kids you envied, and I can tell you that having a privileged childhood with piano lessons on a real piano from an early age doesn’t necessarily get you anywhere musically. I mean, I have a good ear and understanding of the keyboard but honestly I think what years of classical piano lessons really did was suck all the actual pleasure and agency out of music-making. It felt like a chore and did not bring me joy, and I quit as soon as my parents would let me.

It was only as an adult in my 30s that I became interested again in making music and that only became a joyful and accessible thing for me when I bought a cheap ukulele and learned to play it in a (free) community group. (I looked at your Ask history and in fact I already suggested this instrument to you before because of its cheap price and harp-like sound. I will still recommend it.) No expectations about how good I should be, no snobbery, just playing it for the joy of making music and singing along. This led me to picking up the piano and guitar again. Guess what? I’m not great at any of these, including the piano I spent so much time and money learning, despite having started it at age 5 and played into my teens. Just “pretty good,” and only after years and years of practice. I’m ok with that. I’m telling you this as a concrete example that even if you start as a kid and have every material advantage, it doesn’t mean you’ll end up being a concert pianist.

One thing I will tell you now, as an adult hobbyist musician with space in my home and disposable income, is that I would not want a piano. What a freaking headache. They are enormous and heavy, hard and expensive to move, easy to damage, they go out of tune and have to be tuned professionally at additional expense… ugh! It’s not worth it to me. Not to mention if I want to play in the middle of the night I wouldn’t be able to without disturbing people, whereas a digital keyboard has a volume control and headphones. I would 100% recommend getting a digital keyboard instead. Anything with full-sized keys and at least a few octaves should be fine for you to learn on for quite a while; I don’t think I ever ended up learning repertoire that took me up to the top or bottom notes of an 88-key piano.

It can be very cheap; even the sub-$30 children’s keyboards I see on Amazon right now will have a usable piano sound and you can make great music and have a lot of fun with them. You can save up and upgrade to something fancier and bigger with weighted keys later on if you want something that feels like a piano and you’re sure you even enjoy the instrument. I figure that even if your budget is tight, you can probably afford something in that price range without having to scrimp and save for too long? Nice equipment is fun to play with, sure, but the good news about piano is that a cheap digital keyboard is maybe the best kind of cheap instrument. It won’t have issues with going out of tune like cheap string instruments and the feel of the keys will be just fine for learning on (I play a synth now with non-weighted keys!)

Re: the church, if you want to go that route (which seems promising too!) I would just try contacting a few and let them know exactly what you’re looking for. Give them a call or email rather than showing up because you might need to talk to the right person there to give you permission, not some random worker who thinks you’re loitering on their property.

Good luck <3 Let yourself grieve what you weren’t able to have, and once you’re ready to, let yourself follow the ways forward that others have suggested here.
posted by music for skeletons at 8:32 AM on July 21 [2 favorites]


Might it be possible to rent a piano, or do a rent to own option?
posted by cartoonella at 9:04 AM on July 21


It doesn't help your childhood self, but I thought it might make you happy to know that at least some children in an impoverished, lower-class background were able to make some music.
posted by aniola at 9:17 AM on July 21


The only likely option is buying someone's old keyboard off the local craigslist if I could save up enough money one day.

Hi, I started learning key on a crappy keybed over age 40. That was almost five years ago and I still love it! I am good enough to improvise and have fun by myself, and even keep up with some (much more accomplished) friends for jam sessions. Will I ever be great? NO! Can I enjoy this for a long time, as long as I don't strain my hands too much? YES!

I totally get the "wishing I started younger, wish I had more oportunities as a kid" angle, but I am here to tell you that you can absolutely still learn and enjoy music on the keys, if now ownership of an acoustic piano.

If you have a PC, you may also enjoy playing with the free softare LilyPond: you can continue to learn theory and composition, and have sheet music ready to practice whenever you get ahold of keys. Also in that vein, a MIDI controller may be a good buy, but that's a bit beyond the scope of the question.
posted by SaltySalticid at 9:37 AM on July 21


One thing that I’m finding interesting about how this post is going, is that people have given you a lot of different answers and advice - both about how to cope with the emotional pain related to not being able to play (seeing the boy at the mall and how it haunted / may still haunt you), and with the practical difficulties you’re facing with actually learning how to play piano.

And what I’m noticing is, the answers you’re responding to and engaging with are all practical ones. And that’s fantastic! Because that means that at least on some level, you’re already ready to start thinking about this as a how-problem you can solve and not a why-problem that’s much harder to get past.

I think it’s easier to say no to these ideas right now because you’ve tried some of them and money is a very real concern. But I also think saying no here is a way of holding some control. Which could be a symptom of still not feeling deep down like you deserve this reward. If the next person who responds here offered you a magic solution (Hey, whitelotus, check your mailbox, I’m sending you a free piano and someone to give you lessons) what would you say? And would it be how you didn’t have the time, or the space, or your landlord’s permission, or worried about strings attached?

The only one who can solve the how-problem is you. There are a lot of good suggestions here, and some of them will require you to leave your comfort zone. When you’re ready to make that leap, and I hope you will be, I think you’ll find a way that will work for you. It may be something completely different, that one of these suggestions suddenly makes you come up with on your own. But just recognizing that it’s possible - you just have to figure out how - is already a huge step forward.
posted by Mchelly at 9:44 AM on July 21 [4 favorites]


Response by poster: If the next person who responds here offered you a magic solution (Hey, whitelotus, check your mailbox, I’m sending you a free piano and someone to give you lessons) what would you say? And would it be how you didn’t have the time, or the space, or your landlord’s permission, or worried about strings attached?

That would be interesting. I think I would have to be cautious because I have already been burnt before by the piano teacher who offered me "free" lessons. If I had actually turned up, she might have demanded that I pay her over a hundred bucks that I can't spare for the lesson.
posted by whitelotus at 9:51 AM on July 21


Luck had me born into a poor family (five kids when you can barely afford one — way to go Mom and Dad!) We weren’t as poor as what luck dropped you into, but poor enough that a stream of childhood opportunities passed me by for lack of money.

One thing I have consistently found when I go back to reclaim those opportunities is that they’re never as earth shattering as expected. They only looked that way because they were out of reach.

Even if I somehow got my hands on the money and started right now, I would never be as good as someone who started young

That’s just not true. Depending on your native talent it might not be possible to catch up with people who have studied every day for their whole lives, but that is a tiny minority. People stop practicing and you could easily catch up with them. Even better, their skills atrophy and it will not take long to surpass most of them. The same is true of most things people learn in childhood — use it or lose it, and most people lose it.

And give a real thought to that. How important were the skills they learned when most people completely abandon them?

In any case I would like to double down on the electronic keyboard suggestion. I had a very cheap one, complete with foot pedals, that I practiced on for a while and the skill transferred perfectly onto a real piano. Between reading and YouTube you can practice and learn a huge amount — enough that if you ever find a teacher you won’t be wasting your time playing "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." You’d have to unlearn some bad habits, but that is nothing compared to the cost of years of lessons teaching you things you can pick up on your own.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:51 AM on July 21 [1 favorite]


When the woman offered "free" lessons, perhaps you were delighted not only due to money, but also because it came closest to recreating a childhood piano-learning experience from a loving parent. She appeared to be selflessly offering to help you purely out of caring about you, without expecting anything in return. Like a parent would do. It was not a transaction, but a loving gift to you.

When she retracted her offer, it may have stung because it felt like this parent-like love was snatched away and turned into a transaction.

Does that sound possible? If so, all these practical ideas about trading cooking/cleaning for lessons are not going to scratch that itch.
posted by cheesecake at 10:01 AM on July 21 [18 favorites]


The title you chose for your question is "How do I come to terms with childhood deprivation?"

And the answer to that is "therapy". If your knee was twisted out of shape I would suggest physical therapy, but as you know your life is twisted out of shape so that means psychological therapy.

In fact I urge you to prioritize it. Mourning for lost opportunities is a symptom and you need to get at the root cause. Spending the money to heal yourself will pay off far more in the long run.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:05 AM on July 21 [7 favorites]


You have come smack up to The world is profoundly unfair, I have been cheated though no fault of my own. This isn't right.
It's all true and I'm sorry this unfairness affects you. As I believe you understand, chin up, buck up, work harder isn't going to fix it and your best option is to make the best of it. You almost certainly experience PTSD from your circumstances, and are intelligent enough to see it. Please be kind to yourself and to others. Compassion and understanding of others helps us learn how to be kind to ourselves.

You are not too old to learn to play, especially because you are highly motivated and persistent. A MeFite I know is learning piano in their late 40s. This is true of piano and other instruments. Get an electronic keyboard. I wish I could ship you the old Yamaha I have. Look for a decent quality used keyboard; learn as much as you can. Keep an eye on whatever resources exist, maybe you can get a used guitar, clarinet, accordion, etc. I have musician friends and they often play several instruments. Your ability to read music will be a big help.

I tried to write something about starting from where you are, but I'm American and I recognize the disparity and unfairness. I wish you the best.
posted by theora55 at 10:16 AM on July 21 [1 favorite]


Since my last answer, comments continue to come in which I've been following on my Recent Activity. I have to agree with Mchelly, Tell Me No Lies et al: you're not yet ready to actually explore fresh practical ideas. You're right in your choice of the Ask header title, you can tell that your hurdle right now is psychological. To which I'd like to apologize for being amongst those who focused on giving you practical suggestions with regards to getting a piano to play. You still need healing from the trauma of past experiences and you have past evidence to feel certain many of the recommendations just won't work practically.

Therapy however might not be something you can also afford? But if you could at least go for a free or community counsellor, I'd reckon one of the immediate things you can work on is the matter of idealization with the life of a pianist. I'm not sure how far along you are on this, but would knowing more stories of those who did get such a childhood and found it hard and in the end never reaching the fantasy pinnacle, as some of the commenters have done, help?
posted by cendawanita at 10:46 AM on July 21


Best answer: I think there are two issues may be going on here and causing you grief. One is grief for your aspirations, that you aren't part of the elite and you didn't get the grounding to move into the elite, and the other grief is that you had parents who were abusive, that you were deprived of basic necessity and were not protected from trauma. I am guessing that the two bleeding into each other is impeding your emotional healing.

There is a huge gap between having a life where when you are five, you are feeding yourself because your parents are out working, while angry men pound on the door and terrify you, and growing up in a family that has a piano, with parents who are focused on giving you the structure to practice and become impressive at the skill. The first situation you describe is deprivation, but the second situation is privilege. There's a middle ground where your parents are understanding and affectionate and are home every day for at least a couple of hours where they interact with you if you need it and you don't have to worry about what you are going to eat and it never occurs to you that strangers could or would attack your home but your parents can't afford a piano and they don't have time for or value the arts.

The vast majority of people do not get to study music seriously. In my country (Canada) serious music lessons are pretty much limited to an aspirational class that needs to have it on their university applications to get into one of the higher income career niches, like med school; whether or not they get into med school they pretty much all drop music once it has served its purpose as a gatekeeper. There is significant truth to the joke that every med school class could form a symphony orchestra. Parents choose which instrument their child is going to study according to what instruments the competition are studying. If everyone seems to be studying violin they may opt for bassoon so that if their child turns out to be mediocre after twelve years of lessons they at least will not sound bad compared to all the other bassoon players. All this and only 7% of them will get into med school. For 93% of them they were aiming too high and although they say things about studying music having been good for them, the way the turn their backs on music afterward indicates that they mainly regard it as a failed investment.

Of course some people who study music do parley it into a career in music. But here again it is worth nothing I have encountered any number of people who studied music from an early age, including professional performers and teacher who, if they talk about their practice schedule as children, talk about abuse from their parents and teachers - one who was grabbed by the hood and dragged off the music bench half throttled for not getting a passage right after hundreds of tries, and other children crying that they didn't want to practice being terrified into silent compliance by the fury of an adult determined that they WILL practice. Music lessons definitely do not equate with non abusive parents.

I think that your feelings of loss about the music lessons might have something to do with the fact that these kids you see are cute, have their lives ahead of them and appear to be starting on a path in life where they will be performers - they look like they ware the centre of attention, admired for their accomplishment and their verve, their art and their status and their fame. It's easy to picture doting family sacrificing for them to follow their dream and at first small audiences delighted by how adorable they are, eventually becoming large audiences and thunderous acclaim.

I am guessing that piano lessons is a symbol of something to you - if your parents had REALLY loved you they would have got you music lessons, so perhaps it is a symbol of parental love. If you had lessons you should have gained an accomplishment that people would admire, so it music perhaps symbolizes higher social standing and visibility. I think music represents a gentle life with music and cultured thoughts, art and leisure, not twelve hours work shifts at subsistence wages and lonely kids eating canned sausages in an empty house. It's a symbol for things that can no longer happen because it's too late for the parental love and too late for becoming high status that way and too late for a life where you take three months off work so you can tour China performing concertos.

The sad thing is that it was too late before your mother ever said she would get a piano and then didn't. If she had managed to obtain a piano it would have been in poor condition. She would have had to find the money for consistent music lessons and music. You would have had to practice, something that few children consistently if they get to structure their own time. Failing that your parents would have had to provide that structure and impose it, denying you play time and time for finding yourself. You would have actually had to have had people around you who would appreciate your playing let alone the many hours of practice when you would have sounded bad. You would have had to make the social connections so that you get invited to perform recitals. And finally you would have actually had to have the potential to be good, something you still don't know if you have. There are a lot of people who study violin intensively for five years before concluding they will never be any good at it, that the instrument is just not one that suits them.

Looking at piano lessons as if they had been possible then blurs the margins of the real traumas with an escape fantasy. It's really hard to come to terms with trauma when you have learned to console yourself with things that were realistic to a child, but which rely on magical thinking. Some children stuck in bad home lives get into a fantasy 'you're not my really mother, someday my real mother is going to come and rescue me' and that later blocks them from looking at their own mother realistically. It blocks them from seeing the traits they have in common with their mother, the behaviour they have learned and should maybe unlearn, and understanding how and why their mother failed them. She's just written off. And while getting distance from the pain using a fantasy that way can be an invaluable coping tool initially, after awhile it becomes a barrier.

Trauma is complex. It's so complex that we tend to look for simple solutions and simple explanations. "My parents were abusive" and "My parents denied me music lessons" are both facts that wounded you deeply. Looking deeper at the trauma can sound like a denial of it. Examining how and why your parents were abusive and how much of that was beyond their control can sound like a denial of the damage that it did to you, or an attempt to excuse them for it. At the same time examining those nuances are helpful for getting over your trauma and coming to terms with the raw deal that life stuck you with. Examining these things is not an attempt to exculpate your parents. The piece of the puzzle that has you trapped in the pain of the past may even be that the abuse was wider than you yet have accepted.

There may be a part of you that still thinks that you would have been able to get out of the trauma situation by being a good little girl(boy). If we had a piano, that narrative goes, I would have practiced so much and so well, I would now be a well paid and famous concert pianist. And this of course puts WAY to much of the effort and blame on your child self. It focuses on things that would not have worked to make your life better. It is really unlikely that you could have gotten to the life you long for, even if some neighbour back then had given you a piano and your parents, seeing your diligent practice had taken on extra work to get you a few lessons and the music books you would have needed. Clinging to that dream gets in the way of realistic ambitions and goals that you can achieve and which could bring you happiness. But that dream is where you have placed your hopes for so many years. That dream symbolizes everything you want.

I'd suggest you back up and not look for a piano, or a path to success and accomplishment but look for what will make you feel loved instead. Perhaps you can only give up hurting for the fantasy of upper middle class musical accomplishment when the pain hole of being a neglected child is filled. Starting with figuring out how to feel loved and nurtured and safe, through your own efforts, is the way to fill the void from your childhood. It's not a matter of finding a teacher who will teach you for free, or other people to rescue you and replace your parents, but figuring out how to be a good parent to your own suffering internal child self. It's a matter of getting really good at looking after your needs now. It's accepting that in most ways you are helpless, and looking for the ways which you can have control and protect and nurture yourself.
posted by Jane the Brown at 11:09 AM on July 21 [18 favorites]


I learned the recorder (quite seriously, all y'all can quit snickering, plzkthx) as a kid, and got to a fairly respectable level of proficiency before my hands quit working right. In my 40s, after physical therapy, I tried to pick it back up, only to find that the mental connection between notes-on-a-page and recorder fingerings had been completely severed. I haven't tried again. This to reiterate that "childhood music lessons" is not at all the same as "proficient adult player," much less "virtuoso."

That said, I'm going to take a slight swerve here. Are there community or church choirs where you are? You already have the music-reading and theory skills to be in a choir; the rest is figuring out your range (which would happen during an audition), learning technique (which can absolutely happen in choir rehearsals; it doesn't take solo lessons), and the usual practice work (sing along with YouTube! sing in the shower!). Obviously COVID has thrown a wrench in these, but COVID really truly won't be the threat forever that it is now. Consider replacing the instrument you intend to learn with the glorious instrument that is your very own human body?

I suggest this partly for practical reasons, the lack of necessity of solo lessons and the chance to get started pretty quickly -- but mostly because yes, the human body is an absolutely amazing musical instrument, when it gets appropriate care. I think learning singers' self-care techniques would be helpful and soothing to you, and a good choir will be a kind, supportive social environment, which would also be good for you. (N.b. not all choirs are good -- if you discover backbiting or oneupspersonship, drop out and find another choir.) It's also way less pressure than solo musical performance -- you have a whole section backing you up, so hey, your breath control's not perfect? you can sneak a breath mid-phrase, miss a few notes, and it's fine.

I've been singing in choirs since middle school, and I hope to get back to it once it's safe. For me, it's just the right kind of challenging without being overwhelming, and I love thinking my way into why a composer wrote a piece the way they did.
posted by humbug at 12:54 PM on July 21 [2 favorites]


I'm so sorry for all you've been through. You're not silly or whiny and you've survived such a tough time that probably most of us in this thread (myself included) are flinging out advice from positions of such relative privilege, that it seems trite to you and possibly misses the mark completely. Still, you've asked us, so I'll give it a go :)

In the vignette that's causing you so much pain, you acknowledge yourself that -

The little boy was slow and appeared uninterested

So what you saw, and have described to us, was not a child loving learning the piano, and feeling happy and enriched by it. It was something else, which you've kind of moulded and hammered into a different shape to fit the emotional hole you're feeling. But as others have said, that vignette is a red herring really, it's the wider pain you talk about that's the big deal.

I can only agree with others that you should prioritise finding support for your childhood trauma if you possibly can. And secondarily buy a cheap plastic keyboard if at all possible, and start following some YouTube tutorials. Does the latter sound kind of dull and not what you're after?

Your post reminds me a little of a guy I once knew who seemed to struggle a lot emotionally and physically with his weight and fitness. He'd started getting a little more physically active (walking, jogging, cycling) and posted a lot about it online, though would fluctuate in his actual levels of activity.

One day, after he'd fallen off the exercise wagon, he trailed a big announcement to his facebook friends that he'd be making soon. Then he proclaimed one day: "I have decided. I will do it. The decision is made. I will become AN IRONMAN". God love him, this guy who at the time was struggling to run 5K, had decided the answer to his current struggle was to loudly proclaim that he was going to swim 2.4 miles, then cycle 112 miles, then run a marathon, all on the same day. It was like the proclamation was the deed, and I can imagine he must have felt tremendous relief and elation saying it (No judgement - I can imagine because I've probably done similar things, albeit in less public fashion. I just sign up for things beyond my ability and flail quietly in obscurity).

It was so far from what he was able to do at the time, and what he really needed if he wanted to get fit again, was to quietly jog a 5K, and then maybe get a couple of friends to join him training for a 10K, and then maybe try a half marathon, and if he was still going in a few years' time, consider a marathon. And so on. But he didn't really want that, he wanted the relief and elation of telling people, and himself, that he would BECOME AN IRONMAN and then all his pain at feeling unfit and an unathletic would go away. He never did become an Ironman (at least not so far!) But I sympathise with him and am grateful to him because that post taught me stuff about myself and about life and aspiration.

Sometimes when we're floundering in the depths of the valley of despair, we get comfort from trying to lasso the top of the mountain and imagining that if we can just hook it, we'll be hoisted instantly out of the morass. We can't even contemplate the long, slow, muddy, trudgy path that would definitely get us out because we are so desperate to be out now. So we keep swinging the lasso impossibly at the top, even though it's not the real solution.

The reality unfortunately is that the way out of the valley is via a lot of small, sometimes tedious steps.

It's so easy to think that if only you could become a professional concert pianist now everything would be all right, and your pain would go away instantly, and if you can't do that, nothing else will do. But if you do want to learn the piano, the slow trudge out is playing clunky tunes on a plastic keyboard for a while and then stopping, seeing how the view has changed, and working out what the next step might be*. If that doesn't sound tempting, then piano playing is not the answer to your pain, however much it feels like it. And really, the path out of the valley isn't picking at a plastic keyboard, it's working - probably equally slowly and painstakingly - on your trauma.

I wish you peace and a lot of mediocre but quietly enjoyable piano-playing.

* Just to add - I do feel like you know this and are already good at it - you did all those theory classes, for example - amazing!
posted by penguin pie at 2:37 PM on July 21 [6 favorites]


Even if I somehow got my hands on the money and started right now, I would never be as good as someone who started young. Physically, it isn't optimal to start as an adult and adults do not have hours a day to practice as children do. There aren't many ensemble opportunities, music camps, competitions or professional opportunities as there are for those who started young.

This is not really true unless you are maybe over 75.

It takes about 10 years on average for a child to get to ABRSM grade 8 level on the piano (according to the ABRSM). That is a level at which you can tackle the majority of classical piano repertoire you could want to play. It's also a very typical level for a good non-pro adult who began learning as a child.

Adults progress much faster than children because they are usually more committed, practice more, are more skilled at the general process of learning, and have greater physical dexterity.

There aren't as many ensemble opportunities and so on for adults as there are for children. But those that are available for adults are equally as accessible to someone who started as an adult, or as a child and gave up for many year (probably the largest group), or as a child who played continuously.

I know many people who took up musical instruments as adults and who are accomplished players, including a few who make a professional living from playing and teaching.

If you get your hands on the money and started right now, in 5 years you would be an excellent player. In 10 years you could be at a level where you could play professionally as an accompanist (for which there is always demand albeit not necessarily at fulltime amounts). All based on 'hobby' levels of practice 1-2 hours a day.
posted by plonkee at 4:06 PM on July 21 [3 favorites]


Response by poster: Jane the Brown: I listen to people complaining about how their piano lessons were boring and how their parents wouldn't let them quit until they passed Grade 8 and I think about how ungrateful and lucky they are. I would honestly rather have the stage parents beating me for not practicing 8 hours a day rather than getting my parents who beat me anyway for no good reason, other than they were stressed about having no money, housing issues and being unhappy about their lives and needed someone small and helpless to take it out on. With the former, there was a chance I might actually have succeeded, the latter was just...pointless.

I know exactly why my parents were messed up and abusive. Their own parents (my grandparents) were terrible people and they never had the chance to go to school themselves. My grandma was a gambling addict who would gamble away all the grocery money that her husband(usually out of the country for work) sent her. She would leave my mother to bottle-feed my aunt who was only a baby (my mother was only a couple of years older) while she was out gambling all night. That is only the tip of the iceberg.

I think music represents a gentle life with music and cultured thoughts, art and leisure, not twelve hours work shifts at subsistence wages and lonely kids eating canned sausages in an empty house. It's a symbol for things that can no longer happen because it's too late for the parental love and too late for becoming high status that way and too late for a life where you take three months off work so you can tour China performing concertos.

You are not wrong.

humbug: I actually grew up singing in choirs because I could not afford an instrument! But I had such a terrible time with my last one that I swore off choir-singing for life. People were nasty and competitive, there was a lot of drama over who got the solo roles, everyone was way too obsessed about winning the national youth choir competition to the extent that rehearsals were interfering with my studies.
posted by whitelotus at 7:46 PM on July 21 [1 favorite]


Your question is "how do I come to terms with childhood deprivation".

The answer is: you learn to appreciate what you have. You do the best you can with the resources that are available to you today, in this moment. I was going to write a lot more but I think a lot of the answers in this previous question of yours can be applied here as well.

"Be careful of the rent you are giving this story in your head."
posted by aniola at 12:43 AM on July 22 [2 favorites]


So... a theme is emerging from your responses -

- You had one bad experience with a cheap/free piano teacher and you've sworn off trying to ever find another cheap/free piano teacher.

- You had one bad experience with a choir and you've sworn off ever singing with another choir.

You're shooting yourself in the foot here.

It's an understandable response in that you're trying to keep yourself safe from hurt should history repeat itself. But it's actively harming you now, because you're closing yourself off from trying other things that could help. So it would serve you well to try and dismantle that.

I once had a terrible time trying to volunteer at a hospital radio station. I was made to feel super-unwelcome. So I went to the hospital radio in the next town and it was unbelievably welcoming. Chalk and cheese. I had a lovely time. If I'd 'sworn off hospital radio for life' or even 'sworn off volunteering for life', I'd have missed out on some great things.

In CBT, this is called 'black and white thinking' or maybe 'fortune teller error' (the latter because you're trying to predict the future and making some wild, unreliable assumptions about what will happen if you eg. go and join another choir). So you could maybe look into CBT approaches to softening these harmful thought patterns. There are lots of CBT resources free online, so it needn't cost anything to start working on this.

If, as soon as something goes wrong in your quest to become a musician, you permanently close off that avenue in future, you're basically demanding that the only way you will ever pursue a musical life, is if everything goes right, every time. Life being what it is, that's probably not going to happen. But it doesn't mean you'll never be a musician, it just means that when one thing goes wrong, you have to try again with something similar, until it goes right.
posted by penguin pie at 3:38 AM on July 22 [8 favorites]


I noticed something I recognize but don't have a solution to; still, I think if it rings true for you it might be helpful to sit with and notice as well. That is:

Sometimes, when faced with a Big Bad like inequality or poverty or childhood trauma, the big dreams (time travel, immediate free access to everything you could want, ...) may be inarguably out of reach, but all the practical, feasible half-measures and achievable steps just bring forth a sense of rage and pointlessness because that won't fix it!!!

And sometimes nothing can fix it. And that's ok to grieve over, and have compassion with yourself being sad about. Someone should have taken care of you as a kid. And they didn't, and no one else is likely to step into that role now that you're an adult. There are some great visualization exercises out there, giving your inner child love and compassion. But it's also a grief process.
posted by Lady Li at 3:44 AM on July 22 [6 favorites]


I almost hate to suggest this, since you seem so set on playing the piano specifically, but could playing another instrument satisfy your desire for learning to play music? I know there's no other instrument that's really comparable to the piano, but there's a whole world of brass, stringed, woodwind, and percussion instruments out there that can make beautiful music too, and they are all less expensive than a piano. Perhaps if you took up the violin or the shamisen or the dulcimer or the flute or the saxophone or the clarinet, it might satisfy that urge to learn an instrument and to have music in your life, especially when there's always the possibility that in a few years down the road, you might be able to get a piano or a keyboard and learn that too -- and then you'll have learned to play two instruments that you love.

If you've got your heart set on playing the piano, it might seem like a poor second to play anything else, but I'd suggest trying to open yourself up to the idea of an alternative/additional instrument, and perhaps going on YouTube and listening to various instrumental recordings until you find one that speaks to you and makes you crave it the way you crave a piano.
posted by orange swan at 4:51 AM on July 22


I've been thinking about how to reply to your Ask for a couple of days, as someone with significant CPTSD myself. I think at the end of the day, what narrative do you want your life to be? Is it yours, or is it the narrative formed from trying to cope with the trauma, and the logical and emotional fallacies that we have learned from trying to rationalize and reason with it so that we don't end up killing ourselves because of the pain? Because the hurt is real, but what we do with ourselves and our healing process after is up to us.

There is no perfect condition for something to happen. There are better conditions, and you are comparing yourself to them, but at the end of day, no one can actually make you the pianist you want to be unless it is yourself. I'm sympathetic -- I grew up upper middle class, and any real desire I had to do piano was stomped out by a mom who was really militant about the right way to do piano and that I had to take lessons and she actively scorned me whenever I tried to practice. She later was more apathetic as an adult, and told me to pay for my own lessons and find a free piano, so whatever. I'm sure you read this and have a knee jerk reaction that I probably just didn't try hard enough and squandered my privileged opportunities, etc etc. That's all fine and good, but ultimately that's my trauma and my journey and my so called wasted opportunities to deal with, not yours.

At the end of the day, what you think about my life doesn't matter, because I am the one who has to live it and make decisions. For me, I have no real stake in your progress or desire to become a pianist, so you are free from any obligation to try to prove to me, or versions of me, of who you are or what you are. What I do find solidarity with though, is someone who has been dealing with significant childhood emotional neglect, and had to twist themselves into pretzels to survive because they didn't get what they needed.

At the end of the day, you say you need certain things, but what it really is that these are the conditions you have created for yourself that you need. Which is totally fine, but they are conditions and that means that there are limitations if you go down that route. Which brings me to my point -- What thoughts of yours are facts and what are just feelings? Dialectical Behavior Therapy helps me with that.

For the record, I've been reluctant to learn piano on my own. I also don't want to settle for a shitty keyboard, but I don't have the money for a $500 starter. I have no interest in putting myself out there to borrow the many public pianos in my town. I am just too embarassed and too traumatized for it. But I am working on other, lower-hanging fruit that is easier and helps me process and work on my trauma, and helps me build a sense of love and self-esteem and past my internal voices.

So unfortunately, the real answer is, there is no choice but to keep at it, regardless of the circumstances, and to process and give yourself the love and caretaking that you desperately need, and in meantime, learn to receive genuine help and love from others that are there. And also, get professional help. I wish I had a magic balm for you -- but I really don't, and we just have to grit this out.
posted by yueliang at 2:37 PM on July 22 [1 favorite]


Additionally -- if you grew up in a hypercompetitive Asian country, which I glean from the subtext, the attitude towards music is treating it like a commodity for social capital, rather than for any real enjoyment in itself. It's only if you are good, that you're lauded, and etc. I think it's okay and worthwhile to unpack your feelings of self-worth away from toxic values that are proposed by others. At the end of the day, where is your joy, if you didn't have to follow a single stupid rule that society has imposed or created barriers for you for? If you could go completely off the grid, what would you really prefer?

I have nothing but sympathy and empathy, and I'm well aware that my class positionality might mean my advice will do nothing for you. But I am witnessing, and I think you have everything you need inside of you to do exactly what you want. And there are people who will want to give it, but maybe in different settings that are more communal and supportive, but you have to keep an eye out for them, and not shut down.
posted by yueliang at 2:46 PM on July 22 [2 favorites]


Tara Brach - Awakening from Trance of Unworthiness

This link, which I got from an AskMeFi answer, was the major help for me to help cope with a lot of the same problems you are feeling. This may or may not help, but it did for me, so I'm sharing. I feel this so strongly, it lives permanently in my MeFi profile. I still am learning to name that I live with a huge amount of shame from my CPTSD, that gives me false ideas about myself and what I can do, and it is okay, and I can work on it.
posted by yueliang at 2:57 PM on July 22 [5 favorites]


Another thing -- something that troubles me when I read your ask is, where are your friends? Where is your community and support network? Do they know about this? If my friend was feeling so low and negative, I would work really hard to help support their dreams and make it come true. You really aren't meant to do this work alone. You are clearly intelligent, resourceful, and deeply reflective -- but I'm concerned about how much reframing you will need to do to realize that your dreams are not that far away, and who is around you to help support you away from extremely self defeating thoughts.
posted by yueliang at 6:14 PM on July 22 [1 favorite]


And additionally -- I think it's also okay to think -- what would be restful for you? Instead of striving for whatever this is, what would actually be comfortable and restful inside you and your inner child? This question is the core of my own thesis work and research because I have to really address it to figure out what I need, so I offer that question to you as well. This is really hard and I also really just want to affirm and celebrate that you have accomplished a lot, even if it feels like you have accomplished nothing at all.
posted by yueliang at 6:19 PM on July 22 [1 favorite]


Response by poster: yueliang: I only have one friend and I don't have a support network. Over the years, my college friends quietly drifted away as they got married, settled down in their careers, bought homes and had children. I am single, have no children or property and literally have nothing in common with them anymore. Their energies are focused on their own families. I wish I have a family of my own but that has not been possible.

As for the only friend I have left, she doesn't understand why music is important unlike say, lack of healthcare because it is non-essential. She has suffered a pay-cut due to Covid, has an elderly mother in frail health and her whole family just came down with Covid recently so she has her hands full. I have no one to talk to and no one there for me. Family is obviously out (my relatives are grasping and toxic as well).
posted by whitelotus at 7:17 PM on July 22


Response by poster: I may as well mention that many of my peers had the secure, comfortable middle-class childhoods (complete with nice doily-covered pianos in the living room!) that I craved and upon graduation had help from family when it came to careers, buying their first homes etc. I didn't get any of that of course.
posted by whitelotus at 7:59 PM on July 22


Thank you for answering honestly and sharing. I think for me, it's really difficult to be able to say exactly how to help and support you, other than the suggestion of making new friends and finding new people to be with who are not so traditional, because that was the advice given to me when my entire life fell apart and I had to move on. You obviously don't fit in the traditional middle class cisheteronormative norm, so are there other places you can go and be in community with and make new friends who are more like you in that way? An artist commune? The weird people in town who do cool things? Artist events? It's painful to always feel like a misfit, and unfortunately normative society has a horrible way of making us feel like losers all the time, but there also are people who are just like you as well, so feeling less alone is really important for validating your emotional and mental health. I couldn't even really start healing my inner child until I really learned how to make real friends that were there for me and shared my values and interests. It is incredibly lonely and painful otherwise.

To be clear, you've done an enormous amount of work -- but I think learning how to build relationships and move on from your past and not trying to do it all on your own is going to push you in new directions and possibilities that you can't even fully imagine. It's not fair to you to have to do it all on your own, even if that was the messaging you received, but it doesn't have to continue being that way. I had to teach myself how to make friends when I was trying to figure out how to move on, and it was honestly a difficult, painful, confusing, but worthwhile experience that eventually gets so much easier, but I really had no other choice because I already tried for so hard to do it all on my own, but really couldn't get anywhere, so I had to go in that direction.
posted by yueliang at 8:30 PM on July 22 [2 favorites]


Response by poster: yueliang: Meeting new people is impossible for me. I do not have any money to go out. My shoes have soles that are falling off and have been re-glued. I live in the middle of dreary nowhere because housing here is cheap, own no car and commuting downtown means spending money I can't spare on public transport. I can't afford to eat out, buy a coffee or spend money on any social or recreational activities.

I do have internet access so I have been self-teaching myself French just to keep myself amused.
posted by whitelotus at 9:09 PM on July 22


Okay, very fair, apologies that I missed the last part of your Ask that talked about your financial situation. I wonder, has there been online communities that you have found supportive or interesting for your interests in piano? A part of me also wonders if maybe you could even make an explicit ask on Metafilter here, and see who would be interested and responsive? Lots of really generous people on here. I also can't remember if Metafilter has a groups option, or an interests option, but I wonder if there are others in a similar boat as you, but just haven't talked about it due to access issues.

To be clear, everything that you have said is completely valid and worthy of concern -- classical music, especially piano, is one of the highest barriers to contend with, especially with arts education. The obsession with teaching youth is due to a combination of a necessity for an income stream + arts administration funding. I also have looked through your previous asks and know that you've made an effort to try other artforms -- it's really okay to feel frustrated. I just wonder if maybe if there is nothing out there for you, maybe it would be worth starting something around something that particularly suits a need and opens up a space for that, even if it's just finding 1-2 other people to talk to who share the same interest and passion and concerns. Maybe from there, it opens up to finding kind piano teachers who would be willing to work with you, like rather than a financial trade, maybe there is a skill trade? Maybe even approaching existing arts nonprofits and being like, "hey, there is nothing for people like me to learn piano, what does it take to start a program or a space for people like me? Can I get support?" If they say no, that's impossible, just ignore them and go onto the next person. I do come from a grassroots organizing background though, so take this with a grain of salt.

I know that can be exhausting and maybe not even at all what you are interested in, but I can see how much pain you have from seeing that the avaliable options are not there for you, but I think giving up would probably hurt even more for you.
posted by yueliang at 9:18 PM on July 22 [1 favorite]


Response by poster: There are plenty of online music communities with helpful advice but no one can solve my fundamental problem: the lack of money for a proper instrument and lack of money for a proper teacher. I really cannot do anything with music right now so I've been taking a break since I passed my exam and have been studying French instead. I was just triggered by seeing the little boy having his music lesson recently and all the old emotions welled up. I should just forget about all this and concentrate on studying French which is more accessible to the totally broke.

To put things into perspective, there aren't any free music programs for underprivileged children here to learn violin or piano etc., let alone adults. Basically, if you have no money, you go without. Most schools don't even have orchestras, only the elite ones with students whose parents can pay for private lessons.
posted by whitelotus at 9:26 PM on July 22


So I think your response re-affirms my support for the other answers to say that getting professional help is really, really important, because it is so full of grief that really needs to be processed with appropriate support. When I talk about these details of my past with my therapist, it helps me parse out where exactly I am experiencing, and I am working towards understanding where exactly I am going with this.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is a potentially good modality to explore, and there are workbooks if you were interested in going the self-taught route first and trying it out, especially because I know finding a therapist is also difficult and not easy either. It's clear that you have a lot of very painful grief to handle and to deal with, and I'm just really sorry that you're dealing with so much suffering in it, because life has been unfair to you, absolutely, but you will be able to find your own way back out.
posted by yueliang at 9:52 PM on July 22 [2 favorites]


Response by poster: I can't afford a therapist either? Not even sliding scale, everything has to go to food and bills. Leaving the house=commuting bills.
posted by whitelotus at 9:55 PM on July 22


You may have missed the part of my answer where I said "self-taught" -- Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (along with Dialectical Behavioral Therapy) and other modalities have workbooks and free online handouts that you can explore. There are also other Asks that ask about that for free resources, and you could probably make a seperate ask regarding how to access free and no-cost resources if wanted. Example here
posted by yueliang at 9:58 PM on July 22 [2 favorites]


There is also a CPTSD Foundation group that apparently has an online scholarship for those who can't afford the monthly book club fee, but provides a lot of resources to help with reparenting your inner child. https://cptsdfoundation.org/2020/07/27/reparenting-to-heal-the-wounded-inner-child/
posted by yueliang at 10:13 PM on July 22


Mod note: OP, you've had many comments here removed. Please limit your replies only to important clarifications, and please do not make posts with the intention of having a discussion. Ask Metafilter is not for general conversation about a topic or feeling, but a venue where people can offer concrete solutions or ideas regarding the poster's specific problem. Not every answer will solve the problem. That's fine. Pick and choose whatever is helpful, and ignore what you cannot use. Thanks.
posted by taz (staff) at 3:05 AM on July 23 [1 favorite]


This internet stranger acknowledges that your parents treated you horribly and your post history shows you've done so much under truly challenging circumstances.

A badly rephrased saying that might be relevant to your situation is the following: "There are things out there that are better than [x], but comparable... no." There is no magic wand that can grant piano lessons to your childhood self and all the meaning such lessons would have provided.

But your dreams/ goals/ desires for (doing) [y] as an adult will be better. As an adult you have at least some agency to accomplish your dreams. Yes, there is a "reality constraint curve" whether it's time, money, or access (etc.). Piano lessons on a concert piano never be feasible. But there are absolutely other ways to be a musician. And what you do accomplish will seem sweeter because you did without the assistance of people who should have helped you. (And remember, as the saying goes, the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, but the second best time is now).
posted by oceano at 1:13 PM on July 23 [2 favorites]


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