Technically, I’ve been playing the piano for eleven years. When I say, “Technically,” I mean that I haven’t really touched the keys for the past year since I don’t have any time anymore. Which is a shame. For someone at my skill level, I am nothing compared to some of the people I competed against. These were kids who pounded on the keys for two hours a day since they were four years old and their mothers forced them to sit on a piano bench. I didn’t begin until I was seven.
Three years is a lot of time, in any sport. Yes, I just called music a sport, because it is.
Tonight, I sat at my piano for the first time in three months, and I could feel my hands whither a little bit. I couldn’t play the oh-so-familiar notes as quick as I used to be. My wrists felt heavier and couldn’t move lithely and consistently over the keyboard anymore. My muscles were strained from the lack of practice.
I had almost forgot how much I enjoyed music. How much of a workout playing an instrument was. How good it felt to release all your mental stress and energy by just banging on notes that would, nevertheless, come out beautifully to any listener’s ears.
But I would always know they were imperfect. During practice, that was all that was really needed. I was the only one who needed to know it all: my issues, my happiness, my excitement. That was private, and that was the beauty of music.
Ever since I was little, I wanted to be able to sing. Not that I wanted to be a singer or a popstar, but all I wanted was to have a beautiful voice. So when I played a note on the piano, I could whimsically drift off into song. Or when I sat around a campfire with friends, I could take the lead and nail every note pitch perfect.
Well, we don’t always get our dreams.
I can’t sing. At all. As a matter of fact, I’m really bad at it, and that’s really sad for someone who wanted to be able to sing her whole life. Then again, I remember the oddest things from my childhood, one being the moment when I had asked my mother to put me in piano lessons. I was watching “Shrek,” and, at the end of the movie, Donkey sings into this mic while banging on a piano, rocking some shades. That was when I decided that I wanted to be a rock star, too.
However, I didn’t really know how to explain that to my mother. So she put me in basic piano lessons, and I was disappointed that I didn’t automatically play songs, like “I’m a Believer.” I was struggling with “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and “Ode to Joy.” I played songs like this for around three years on a cheap-ass keyboard because we couldn’t afford a piano.
I was never very serious about playing music. It was just always there for me. Even when I switched out my keyboard for an old upright, the piano was always there. I moved a lot – houses, piano teachers, and contests. The piano was always there, though, always travelling with me. I actually wonder why I didn’t get attached to it more.
The serious competitions didn’t come until around middle school, when I had switched to a permanent teacher who was likely not to get old and retire like the rest. She taught me well, and I obliged. I didn’t practice, because I liked playing, though. I used to practice, because I was rewarded. She gave me gold stars. I won awards. Sometimes, they gave me a dollar for winning first place. It was fun for a sixth grader. Plus, receptions usually have food, and I liked that a lot, too.
In that period of time, I was the well-rounded child, though. I never really went out a lot, unless it was to my many extracurricular activities. I was able to watch too much Disney Channel while maintaining straight A’s in advanced classes.
Then, high school came.
You see, if you read any of my other posts, you probably know that high school was not exactly my favorite time of my life. I was stressed, hormonal, annoying, depressed, bipolar, etc. The list goes on. It’s awkward looking back at that period of my life, but I have to, at least, acknowledge it happened or I’m not going to move on from that roller coaster of myself. I was a person who felt a lot, a little too much, if anything. It’s the reason why I write so much and, perhaps, write well.
I began shaving off my extracurricular activities when I entered high school. Swimming, gone. Tennis, gone. Chinese, gone. Things just kept being knocked off the list, progressively, until I got to piano, and I desperately wanted to quit.
My middle school piano teacher began to become useless; I was becoming a better piano player than her. So my parents switched me over to a Russian teacher, and, yes, it was as bad as it sounds. Not that I’m stereotypical. Russian pianists are talented, but they’re also incredibly strict. I had some fingering problems, so my teacher would scotch tape my fingers into curls for an hour, training them to perfection. That hurt a lot. If my finger felt tense and began to fight the tape, she would add more scotch tape. If I accidentally pressed C instead of C-sharp, I got a slap on the hand.
You could imagine why I wanted to quit. Yet, my parents saw an immense amount of improvement. I began winning competitions I couldn’t even dream of winning: local, state, national. I was invited to spend a summer in Germany to train with all these virtuosos and chamber orchestras. I was told to major in piano or music three years before I was even thinking about it.
And I turned my head away. Do I regret it? No. Like I said, there are kids out there who I compete against and they have so much more will than I do. Because of that motivation, the talent becomes a level-playing field and all that matters is how much you want to win.
I didn’t really want to win, anymore, though. It’s not that I hated the piano, but I was becoming bored. Sometimes, I practiced for three hours straight until I felt my fingers collapse on the keys as they could not physically move anymore. I got pissed whenever I screwed up one note, and I would restart the whole song.
The thing was, however, that no matter how many times I practiced the song perfectly, the odds were still high that I would mess up a little in my auditions. And I did. I’m very good at mentally psyching myself out, which really brought me down in the long run.
When I graduated high school, I quit piano lessons to focus on college. After a couple months of school, I became bogged down and stressed. I walked to one of the piano rooms at the music school and began playing again, realizing how tired I was. Yet, I didn’t realize that I had playing for an hour and a half until I was finished.
The piano was always there for me. Despite that I kept telling myself that I hated this piano, I didn’t quit. I would have said that it was because my parents told me not to, but there’s something else. I may have hated the perfection part and the fact that I would automatically lose a competition if I missed one note in a five-minute song. Even though I didn’t have the technical strength of my competitors (since I lacked in number of years of experience), I somehow pulled through on one strength: depth.
I would pour all of my crap feelings into these songs. It’s strange how good it feels to physically feel all your emotions and to be able to control them, at the same time. After reflecting on this, I didn’t realize how private I felt this activity to be. Nobody really knew I played the piano, and the ones who did know didn’t think I was very good. I had never really played for any of my friends or teachers. And when I did, I felt a little embarrassed. Why? I have no idea, because the songs weren’t originals of mine. I played the ol’ Beethoven and Bach shenanigans. But for some reason, it felt very private.
I tell people I’m not musical. I’m not sure why, because after writing this post, it’s obvious that I am. Yet, it feels as if this piano is my hidden secret. It’s private. When I see a piano, I’m not that kid who automatically runs to it and shows off to an audience. It’s not that I’m shy or have stage fright, because I’ve played in recitals. I just don’t.
So people are surprised when they see me roll trills easily and sight-read songs that they would consider to be difficult only because they’ve never played the piano before. A few months ago, I volunteered at a rehabilitation center. We were taken on a group tour of the grounds, and when we entered this chapel, one of the older ladies asked if any of us could play an instrument. I awkwardly raised my hand and she led me to the piano at the front of the chapel. I sat down and played a few bars of Fur Elise, a song that I had memorized when I was nine years old. When I finished, however, she was crying, fawning over how beautiful it sounded and how good I was.
This was a song I had mastered in elementary school. One that I hadn’t even touched in almost eight years. I hadn’t even touched a piano for two months at that time. But, looking at this woman’s face made me feel…strange. She was so happy that it’s incredibly difficult for me to describe to you the look on her face. Maybe, appreciative? Like she hadn’t heard anyone play on that piano in a very long time.
But maybe that’s why we perform. Maybe all my issues, all my denials are worth it. I had let out my “secret” that day and, in return, I received a gift that I could never be able to repay.