My Daughter’s Piano Recital and the Little, Lovely Life Lesson It Taught Me

One father learns you don't always have to say the words "I love you" to get the point across.

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Keith Negley for Reader’s Digest

When I was growing up, we were not an “I love you” family. We certainly found such affection lovely. We just didn’t do it. I think saying “I love you” was viewed as overkill, not unlike saying “Don’t forget to breathe at school today.” Or maybe it was a stubborn refusal to be obvious. Love was to be seen in every hard-earned compliment, in every fair punishment, in every one of those thousand movies my mother took me to see, in the very act of my father getting up before dawn to go to the factory, and in every game of catch he found the energy to play in the afternoon.

I was thinking about all of this on Saturday at my daughters’ piano recital. I have never insisted they do anything with their free time except learn how to play the piano. I carried this from childhood. We didn’t have much back then on my dad’s salary, and we just couldn’t afford lessons.

My daughters have mostly accepted this demand with good humor. This has meant, through the years, that our house has been filled with a few muffled complaints mixed in with slightly off-key versions of songs with names like “Up the Stairs with a Cat” and “The Mountain Bird.” This recital season, Elizabeth was playing “The Purple People Eater,” and Katie was playing “The Entertainer.” As the event got closer, they were playing their songs better and better.

The day of the recital, I was listening to Katie practice “The Entertainer,” and I noticed something. Right at the end of the song, there’s a series of notes that leads into the finish, and something sounded just a little bit off. It seemed like Katie wasn’t quite holding a note long enough. I don’t tell my kids how to play the piano, since I do not know how, but I did say, “Hey, Katie, you might want to hold that one note just a teeny bit longer.”

“Which note?” she asked.

“Well, play it again,” I said, and she played it, and I tried to pinpoint the note for her. This took longer than you might expect. She tried to hold this note, then another note, then a different note. She started to get determined about it, and I realized that I had done something unintended—I was making her think too much just a few hours before her recital.

So I told her not to worry about it, but it was too late—she’s our persistent daughter. There’s a great experiment I heard about where they promise kids a piece of candy anytime they want but tell them that if they can hold off for 15 minutes, they can have two pieces of candy. Most kids can’t make it the 15 minutes. Katie would be able to wait five days.

She kept at it for a little while longer, until finally I said that she’d played it perfectly, and she could go to the pool. I don’t think we ever isolated that one note; I felt pretty bad for even bringing it up. Then it was time for the recital. Katie was the first one up. She was dressed well, and she was her usual determined self. As I watched her play “The Entertainer,” all I could think was how grown-up she had become, how deeply I already missed the four- and five- and six-year-old versions of her, but also how fantastic the nine-year-old version was.

She got to the end of the song, and she reached the note we had talked about. And she held it. I mean she held it. She held it long enough that for an instant it broke her timing on the rest of the song. But, oh, she held that note, the one we had talked about, and then she finished the song, and she looked right at me.

And, of course, before the day was out, I told her I loved her two or three or five times. I told Elizabeth that too. I hope to tell them that 100,000 more times in their lives. But my parents were right too. You don’t have to say the words I love you. Sometimes one note will do.

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