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Listening to my 11-year-old son practise diligently for his Christmas piano recital, I’ve been thinking about my own piano lessons when I was his age.
I caused my long-suffering teacher no end of frustration with my slapdash, last-minute practising, mediocre exam results and competitions riddled with fumbled notes and memory lapses – until one afternoon in Grade 8, when I arrived early for a lesson. While I waited for the student ahead of me to finish, I watched her fingers glide and float, drawing out radiant sounds from the piano.
I glanced at my teacher’s rapt face. It was as if light were rippling over her features. And I suddenly felt a longing to touch beauty that same way. The unity and connection between composer, score, instrument and musician allowed a timeless pathway to be travelled by all of us in the room. Music was a mirror, a channel, even a form of eternal life.
It was that childhood memory that led me to try resuming lessons as an adult several years ago. I’d find myself sitting at the keyboard, knowing how my fingers were supposed to move. But the descending notes of my scales would sound more like a 10-car pileup than a pearl necklace dropped into a porcelain cup.
It seemed impossible to forge new neural pathways and rejig the old ones in my fingers, arms and brain. Scientists talk about how plastic a child’s mind is, so the middle-aged brain is probably no better than fossilized play dough.
Five years ago, I played at my first recital in more than three decades. The young students sat in the pews in their Sunday best, watched by proud parents and solicitous teachers. They played jaunty ragtime or Broadway tunes between nervous glances at their parents. Quaking in my seat, I counted down the names to when I’d have to go up.
Then it was my turn. I walked to the front, bowed, adjusted the bench, sat down and set my frozen hands on the keys. After the first few notes, I knew the battered grand piano was going to be a challenge. Playing it was like steering a vehicle on a potholed road while swerving to avoid crashing into fences. Willing my trembling fingers to relax, I struggled to remember the melody over the audiences magnified coughs and rustles.
And then it happened, right at the torrid climax of a Brahms intermezzo. I lost my bass notes. Then the treble. I was stuck.
I went back a few bars and tried again. And again. Three times. Finally I stopped, unsure what to do next: Retrieve the music from the pews, hunt frantically for the right page and start where I’d left off? Or run down the aisle and out the church doors?
I made a split-second decision to start at the beginning of another section, focused on keeping the momentum and, with a leap, bridged the gap with just a few missteps on the way. Eventually I landed the final chord, grimaced and returned to my seat, heart hammering in my chest. It was over.
No matter how hard I tried to learn or relearn pieces, everything would fall apart when I played for a teacher or classmates, friends or family. Each failure set me back, leading me to abandon the piano for months – or years – at a time.
During those hiatuses, our piano became my nemesis, a behemoth in the living room. But I’d always be drawn to any piano I came across in my travels. If no one was around I’d tentatively tinkle a few notes. Before long I’d be caught up again in the desire to come as close as possible to the profound elegance and clarity that is music.
A neighbour told me he was making his sons learn piano because he’d never had the opportunity himself.
“Why don’t you take lessons?” I suggested. “Your passion for the piano could inspire them.”
He stared at me, aghast. “Me? I don’t have the time for that!”
“Ten minutes a day, and in a few months you’d have learned a piece,” I replied. “There are lots of lovely, easy songs for beginners.”
He changed the subject. I had to smile afterward. Physician, heal thyself.
My son has taken various piano lessons since he was in preschool. It took years to find a teacher and methodology that offered the right combination of fun and learning. At least he no longer lies under the piano, on strike, or shouts “I hate music!” while running from the room in tears.
One morning a few years ago he was practising Soaring, a Grade 1 piece by a contemporary composer. He made liberal use of the damper pedal to blend the resonating notes into a kind of acoustic watercolour tableau. I could hear what was taking off inside him – the potential to express a sense of exhilarating freedom. My son was learning to fly, if only for a minute.
I pondered the advice I’d given him many times: “Take it slow, one step at a time;” “You’ll look back and see how high you’ve reached,” “If you quit you’ll never get there.”
Finally, after a few months of squawking and squealing through Twinkle, Twinkle and Frère Jacques on the cello earlier this year, I have decided to take my own advice and go back to the piano.
Each day, I take one of those humbling, halting but necessary baby steps that I reminded my son about, preparing to commence that long, slow climb toward a flight of my own.
Fiona Tinwei Lam lives in Vancouver.