“It’s not an old-fashioned if you leave out the bitters.”
I took my first piano lesson when I was six. For the next thirteen years, I pounded away at the keyboard with a blend of buoyant enthusiasm and “do I have to?” drudgery. By the time I left home for college, I’d mastered a pretty decent repertoire. Mozart and Debussy were putty in my hands. Joplin and Porter fell neatly beneath my fingers. I even stored a few pop hits up my sleeve to impress my schoolmates. The street cred that came with being able to bust out the theme from The Lion King was worth the weekly slog to my piano teacher’s house.
I played more than just for others, though. I played for myself. I played for the escape, for the power of a swelling crescendo to drown out the chaotic din of adolescent angst. I played for the emotional expression, for the wordless transmission of grief, rage, or joy through the notes of the scale. And I played for the sheer physical satisfaction. The sense of elated flow that arises when a piece pours effortlessly from within was not unlike the runner’s highs I experienced in later years; and the buildup and subsequent release that came with successfully navigating the intricacies of a Baroque harmony is a sensation I’ve since identified as orgasmic.
Reaching that state, however, required me regularly to do something I didn’t enjoy one bit: practice. Endless chords and arpeggios to hone my technique? No thank you. Repeat a tricky passage ad infinitum until I had it down pat? Most definitely not! Playing the piano was fun—not to mention a gimme for the adulation of my parents and peers—whereas practicing the piano was not. Somehow I missed the memo that the latter held the key to the former.
Not surprisingly, my musicianship stopped far short of its potential. I chose only composers whose work came easily to me and avoided those that challenged me. (Sorry, Chopin.) What’s more, I relied solely on my ear and barely learned to sight read, meaning I couldn’t play a song unless I heard my teacher perform it first. I arrived at my college dorm with my trusty showstoppers fastened securely beneath my belt, but not with the knowledge and the habits to acquire new ones. And in spite of the shiny Yamaha grand stationed in the freshman lounge, I soon stopped playing altogether.
Ten years passed before I again found myself seated at a piano. A pleasingly scuffed upright had called my name from Craigslist, and I’d answered it—prompted in part by my rising stress levels and also by my mother’s reminders that music had always been “such a release” for me. Movers had hauled the old girl into my second floor walkup. My mom had unearthed my songbooks from their box in her basement and mailed them to me. I had everything I needed to pick up exactly where I’d left off a decade earlier. Which was exactly what I planned to do.
Predictably, my first session and those that followed looked and sounded nothing like I’d imagined. My fingers tripped, tangled, and fell over each other. They moved thickly and unevenly as if through mud. Even the simplest of my favorite pieces confounded me. The sensation was akin to flooring the gas pedal of a car and watching the speedometer stall at 40mph. For although my muscle memory had fled completely, my mental memories of acing my go-to songs remained vivid enough to frustrate the hell out of me. “I used to be so good!” I’d exclaim as I pushed away from the keyboard in a huff. The thought of having to practice simply to reach my previous level of ability felt daunting, even insulting. I played that piano no more than a handful of times before leaving it behind when I moved from the apartment. Five years passed.
Then last summer my grandmother had stroke. The outlook terminal, my entire family rushed to her bedside to comfort her—and each other—in her final days. For a week we kicked aimlessly about the house where I’d spent the summer vacations of my youth. Waiting. Wandering. Wondering how long she’d be with us, and how we would possibly survive when she was gone. For my part, I read to her, talked to her, shuttled back and forth from the kitchen where we’d gather to the room where she slept. With each trip, I passed the old piano that had weathered my childhood renditions of “The Happy Farmer” and “Für Elise”.
At first I ignored the instrument. There were meals to prep and relatives to wrangle. Then, as the week progressed, I began to eye it warily. My mother’s voice echoed, “Such a release.” Still, though, my previous frustrations loomed large. I looked but didn’t touch—until five days in, when my grandmother’s death was imminent. The grief that filled the house, both actual and anticipated, was palpable. Drained by exhaustion, I riffled through the piano bench for something to ease the tension. I pulled out a tattered Kuhlau Sonatina. I settled in. And I…practiced.
The piece was one I’d played countless times before. The tune was still familiar to me, but the mechanism for performing it was not. I worked in fits and starts through the first few bars before returning to start and pushing forward again. I practiced deliberately, with no care to how I sounded or even a desire to finish the entire song. I practiced simply for the sound of the notes and the feel of my fingers on the keys. With each sequence I strung together over the next hour, the tension fell from my body and the ache softened in my heart. The sharp pain of the past week dulled into the background as I shifted my attention to the chords on the page before me. When I finally stopped, I’d progressed no farther than when I began, but I knew deeply the meditative value of practice. That afternoon my grandmother died.
I’ve thought back often to that day as an embodied experience of the “beginner’s mind”, an attitude of openness and curiosity that some consider essential for meditation. My expectations eroded by raw emotion, I stepped into the vivid reality of the present as unique in time. I will never again practice Kulhau as my grandmother lies in the next room, just as I will never again moon over Satie to distract myself from high school drama. Moreover, without judgement of how the song should have sounded or how my fingers should have played it, I was free simply to plumb the well of everything the moment had to offer: the cool of the ivory, the pressure of the keys, the melody that reached my ears—and, I like to think, my grandmother’s ears too. For although the song rang out slowly, it also sang sweetly, with all the love in my heart.