My piano tuner is well over eighty years old. Each time I call him, I fear I’ll learn that he has died. So far he is still with us, though at each visit a little more white-haired and frailer than before. I worry that he will hurt himself when he lies under the instrument or takes out the keyboard, but he seems to know what he’s doing. He told me at my last tuning that fewer and fewer people have pianos in their homes, and that fewer children than ever learn to play. The instrument, he says, is going the way of the parlor organ.

I don’t think the piano will suffer quite the same fate. Great numbers of parents still routinely subject their children to lessons for at least a few years, where they learn classics like “The Happy Farmer” and “Greensleeves.” You can picture them in your mind’s eye: boys with scuffed shoes and dirty fingernails, dragging themselves to the piano teacher’s house when what they really want to do is play basketball; or earnest little girls with glittery painted nails, eager to please the teacher by playing well. It makes a person wonder: What exactly is so beneficial about studying the piano?

For many people it’s just another activity, equivalent to gymnastics or soccer or art lessons—good enrichment, something to keep the kids occupied after school. For others, though, it’s a path to distinction, a way to be excellent and different. The competitions and recitals that accompany lessons offer an alternative, non-academic mode of achievement for the determined and disciplined child. There are rewards to be had here, which include approval from adults and perhaps a bit of jealousy from peers, which never hurts.

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