what happens when you aren’t a piano prodigy

You have to understand, my dad is a brilliant pianist. He could always play, from the time he was a little kid. For no reason that anyone could explain or understand, he could sit down and make music. He never learned to read music, but if he heard something, he could play it right back, so when he finally took lessons from a local teacher, he fooled her for months. “Can you just play it for me so I can hear how it should sound?” he’d ask when she gave him a new assignment. She’d play the piece through, and he’d instantly memorize it. Later, he’d pretend to be studying the notes on the page. She was furious when she discovered his trick, or so the story goes.

When he grew up, my dad bought a grand piano and then was too poor to fix his car for a whole winter. My parents were barely in their twenties, proud of their tiny square house, running their own tiny business out of the basement, and there was this sleek, giant Yamaha grand filling the whole living room. Almost a decade before I was born, that piano was my dad’s baby.

When I was a baby, he sat me on his lap while he played, my hands on his hands.

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(I don’t have a photo of that, but here I am as a baby, with my hair looking much like a wig, playing)

And of course, when I was old enough, he taught me some pieces, and eventually signed me up for lessons. He still couldn’t read music very well, but he wanted me to learn, so I was sent to a piano school that specialized in early classical training. The word “pedagogy” floated around in the halls.

I don’t know where my ferocious competitiveness came from. It’s been there for as long as I can remember, an engine too big for my body, eternally revving. It wasn’t enough to just play—I wanted to be the best.

I dreaded the finger exercises. I was bored by the endless arpeggios. The flick of the thumb under the third finger going up the scale—the movement had to be perfectly smooth, subtle, the arrangement of the hand needed to stay even. I wanted to play Rachmaninoff, with the crashing depths of the low register. Lush, chocolate-y Brahms. I wanted to play cascading Debussy, with the blur of rich sound, and Chopin, of course, with the delicate right hand trilling up at the very top while the left hand ran darkly around the bass. I wanted pounding drama and thunder and thrill. I wanted to close out the annual recital with a show-stopper. I was jealous of the kid who got to do it, while I was still playing in the middle of the pack. I was also terrified of performing.

 

I would dread performing three months, four months in advance. What if I messed up? What if I messed up and stopped? What if I messed up and stopped and then burst into tears? What if I messed up and stopped and then farted and barfed at the same time and, crying, ran offstage, never be seen in public again?

Even though it made me sick with fear, I performed in performance class. I performed at home, when my parents had friends over. I performed when my parents started hosting musical gatherings. I performed in competitions and at the recitals that were our identical reward for doing well, great, or fantastically. (I performed with my head held high in the middle of the program at the intermediate “great” level recitals, silently seething at the thought of the six-year-olds who had passed me, waving their Liszt.)

My dad was so proud of me. He liked to brag that I could play runs more expertly than him, since I knew the proper fingering. He sat in on my lessons when he had time. After every recital, he explained to me why I had played amazingly well, even when it was obvious that I hadn’t.

“You’re musical, that’s the thing,” he told me. “They can teach these kids to play like machines, but you can’t make someone musical.”

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(Dad with Eden)

That part came from him, it was implied. But the technique was great, too. The technique meant I might go even farther.

My dad had never pursued his music professionally. He was too busy trying to make enough money for our family to be OK, and also enough money for us to be able to take classical lessons. He was always running the same little company from the basement, and sometimes he worked all night long. He couldn’t fail, he explained with a touch of gritty pride, because no one would hire him on account of him not having gone to college and not having worked for anyone but himself in so many years. Mom reminded us how lucky we were. She had wanted to dance, as a girl, but her family couldn’t afford something as frivolous as a ballet class.

I believed that I was lucky. But luck wasn’t good enough. I had to make something of it. When Dad took me to Carnegie Hall to see one of his favorite pianists perform, I went up to the edge of the stage at intermission and touched it. “Someday,” I whispered with trembling solemnity, “I will walk across you.”

“By the time I’m sixteen,” I added, so that my poised, listening destiny could not claim misunderstanding later on, when I was, say, twenty-three and ancient.

I nodded at the stage, grimly determined; satisfied with our agreement. If you did something truly well at sixteen, you were incredible (and once you were incredible you could probably lie around eating mini Snickers and reading fantasy novels forever, if you wanted to). Inversely, I suspected with ominous anxiety, if you weren’t incredible by the time you were sixteen, you’d probably just end up a lawyer or a fast-food fryer or something.

A sixteen-year-old girl played Carnegie Hall when I was fourteen. I hated everything about her. By then it was clear that I wasn’t a prodigy. My technique was never going to be flawless. I was not enough of a machine. I couldn’t bring myself to practice more than three hours (four, tops) a day, and I wasn’t a stickler about the notation. I consistently fudged tricky rhythmic passages and slipped on long, surgical runs. And I was unpredictable. I still got too scared to count on my hands not to sweat and my fingers not to shake and my mind not to skid into sudden panic. But by the time I was sixteen, I was closing all of the recitals with show-stopping Rachmaninoff and Brahms and Chopin. So maybe there was still a chance? I could maybe go to college for piano performance.  I could maybe go from there…to what or where I didn’t know. Nothing incredible. Something respectable, at least.

I didn’t go to college for piano performance. I stopped playing piano in college.

I didn’t have time to pause and think about it, but if I had, I would’ve been startled to discover that I didn’t miss piano at all. I was too busy being stressed about my grades. I wanted to be a professor. I had to have a perfect GPA! I had to get into the best grad school!

Dad had an electric keyboard in the basement that he’d kept in his office for years for when inspiration struck. He gave it to me, for my tiny New York studio apartment, when I moved. It sat wedged at the foot of my bed, the pedal plugged in, waiting for my foot.

My first week in the city, I was overcome. I didn’t recognize my life. I didn’t know anything. I sat on my new little bed and looked out the window at the crack between buildings, where the sky leaked through, and I felt totally alone and mysterious and aching with the openness of the rest of my life. It was two in the morning. I sat down at the keyboard and switched it on and I wrote a song. I fit the words over the notes. It started “this big city, with its small sky. I’m still sitting here waiting to learn how to fly, to find out the secret.” My hands seemed to know what to do. They’d been playing for so many years.

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I exploded into song. I wrote songs about wishing I could really love my boyfriend and about the boy I wanted instead. Songs about feeling like I wasn’t ever good enough. Songs about the subway, of course, because you have to when you live here and write songs. Songs about getting my heart broken, naturally.

Maybe, I thought, I will be a singer-songwriter! I will be Jonatha Brooke! I will be Tori Amos, who even my classical teacher loved for her excellent technique (he was the one who introduced me to her, actually). I will play cascading rivers under dreamy, erudite lyrics. Splintering relationships will be my fuel and I will drink sadness for energy and play out my cracked, gloriously articulate heart all night.

“Singer-songwriter,” I put as my primary description of myself on the dating website I signed up for. It was aspirational. I had never played a gig.

“So, do you play a lot of gigs?” asked the nice guys who messaged me. “Where can I listen to your music?”

“Nope!” I wrote cheerfully back, defensive inside my head, “I’m just starting out!” Soon, my exclamation points implied. Very soon, you will be able to listen to me everywhere! When you turn on the radio in the car! You won’t be able to not listen to me!

An encouraging friend of mine who coordinates events asked me to perform at one of her music nights. I put together a set of six pieces—I even practiced what to say in between (mildly witty, personal, connective, I thought). I got really nervous.

I don’t want to revisit it, even now, but let’s just say that by the end of my set there were only four people in the room. One of them was my friend. One of them was a guy who later that evening suggested hopefully that I touch the front of his pants. One of them was swaying in an eyes-closed, wasted haze of cosmic pleasure. The last was a serious-looking girl with round eyes who studied me as I played, nodding respectfully along. I loved her forever.

That was the beginning and the end of my singer-songwriter career. I can’t say that I miss it.

I’m a little sorry, towards my dad, for not ending up a professional pianist in one form or another. He would’ve bragged happily until the end of time.

But life is funny and clever about these things.

My younger brothers, who started playing music years after me, who crept through a side door into the classical world, were both prodigies. They are both ferociously focused, captivating musicians now, winning competitions and flying around the world to perform and study in places so enormously beautiful that all music seems like an offering to the gods of the land and sky. They are deeply musical. They are technical machines. My mom gets to post triumphantly on Facebook about the latest concerto and my dad gets to go and sit and listen, a little smile fighting to take over the rest of his face, his head bobbing in rhythm, his feet tapping along.

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Meanwhile, I can hardly remember what it felt like to care so much about piano. I can’t remember specifically why I did. I am vaguely relieved, reminding myself that I once wished so hard for piano-ing fame and success that I could hate a girl I’d never met, for having stronger finger-control and a much more dedicated practice regimen. How lame. What a weird thing to want, in retrospect.

My dad chose to run a little company in the basement instead of pursuing his music professionally, but it’s never stopped him from playing. He loves that Yamaha grand and he can sit down on its soft black leather bench and play for hours, his fingers always landing on precisely the right keys. Sometimes he leans back and closes his eyes. He hums along. He has never seemed unhappy to me, for his choices. Actually, it seems to have worked out better this way. His company, after decades, eventually grew big enough to move out of the house. He was a success in business in a way he claims never, ever to have expected, although my mom whispers about his relentless drive and we’ve all seen the way he gets down on the floor to pry up the mildewed layers of a problem until he can solve the whole thing.

And piano—piano will always be there, a light in the open dim of the evening ocean; a first, constant love.

I’m a little like that, too. I play now, when I have time, because I have this unbreakable connection with the instrument. Because I love the rumble and storm of the lower register. Because of the way it translates sadness into beauty without diluting either, allowing me to hear that they are sometimes the same thing.

I’m left with none of the nervousness and all of the sweet satisfaction.

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Which makes me think that you never really know what you’ll end up getting out of something.

It’s a good lesson. I want to remember that much. To play and to love to play, but to be careful not to let the playing fall into that pitch-black hole of desperate competitiveness, the need to prove myself shuddering against the gaping fear that I will be nothing otherwise. That is another thing entirely. It’s not piano. It’s not writing. It’s just a revving engine that got stuck in my head somehow, which I have to keep working to dislodge before it overheats and really hurts me.

The day after that tragic gig, I flew to Salt Lake City with Bear, for our epic fourth date involving a fast-food pastrami burger and happiness as huge as the mountains.

“So, does this mean we’re in a relationship?” he asked, blushing and not quite meeting my eye, holding up his burger to take a first bite.

“Nope,” I said with sudden certainty. “I’m going to be the one to ask you.”

When we got back to New York, I wrote him a song. That’s how I asked him out.

“Yes,” he said, the moment I stopped playing. And then he literally swept me off my feet.

It’s good, to be able to play the piano.

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(Dad playing, me singing, Eden chilling)

*   *   *

Is there something you worked really hard at and then gave up? How do you feel about it now?

Unroast: Today I love the way I look reflected blurrily in the window, typing on my laptop, like I could be writing anything, and it could be amazing.

I think I forgot to share this piece before– it’s over at Daily Life and it’s the story of how we chose Eden’s name (a bigger version of that story is in my little ebook, on this blog’s sidebar, if you haven’t read it yet)

 

 

 

22 Responses to “what happens when you aren’t a piano prodigy”

  1. sadie responded on 19 Feb 2014 at 11:20 am #

    This is a beautiful piece. That picture of you singing while your dad plays and Eden chills is lovely, and makes me wish my family made music together. It seems to me that families that can be earnest and vulnerable together in that way are incredibly close.

    There is something I worked very hard at and gave up. It still stings too much to write about, even though it was the right decision.

    You know Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “One Art”? To me it captures that particular sort of loss that you bring upon yourself in having to make choices about what to devote yourself to – careers, people, places and everything else. But inherent in that experience is the reward of what you choose to gain.

  2. Kate responded on 19 Feb 2014 at 11:23 am #

    @sadie
    I’m glad that my family is musical– it’s always seemed so normal to me, but now, looking at it from a little bit of distance, I appreciate it.

    Maybe one day you can tell me what your given up thing was. I’d love to hear about it.

    I just looked up the poem, and I thought I’d share it here, in case anyone else is curious:

    The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
    so many things seem filled with the intent
    to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

    Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
    of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
    The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

    Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
    places, and names, and where it was you meant
    to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

    I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
    next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
    The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

    I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
    some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
    I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

    —Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
    I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
    the art of losing’s not too hard to master
    though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

  3. Traci responded on 19 Feb 2014 at 12:51 pm #

    I really enjoyed reading this essay. I can relate to a lot of it, and I found it interesting seeing your perspective on the parts I don’t relate to. I was a kid enamored with music, but I never stopped. I went to college and graduate school for music performance, and I currently make my living by playing an instrument, but also, largely, by teaching dozens of kids the joys of being a musician. And that’s why I enjoyed this essay so much–the way you were driven by competitiveness and bored by the drills is what I see in many of my students. But it definitely doesn’t mean that you weren’t connecting to the music, sort of the opposite actually. I try to get my students to hold onto that connection and love for the end result while letting go of the need to be the best. It’s amazing how learning how to play an instrument during childhood can bring out some of the best qualities during that time AND later on. You wrote well about it. Thanks for sharing. :]

  4. olivia responded on 19 Feb 2014 at 1:06 pm #

    this concept is so important, its better to do things because we enjoy them, for the sake of it, rather than to ‘be the best. I’m not completely discounting drive, but success for success’ sake is empty unless you love what you do, and would do it without money or fame.

  5. San D responded on 19 Feb 2014 at 1:41 pm #

    There is something to be said about doing something because you love to do it, and not because you are driven to succeed. “They” have done studies on gifted children and have found out two important things. 1. Gifted kids are less likely to take a risk. Being told they are gifted in one area, makes them less comfortable to try another area that in which they might fail. 2. Gifted students eventually grow out of the pigeon hole they find themselves in, and will, and this is later on in life, after languishing in a job that is wrapped around their giftedness, turn to something totally different and surprising: the physicist who decides to start a dairy farm to make yogurt.

  6. Joy responded on 19 Feb 2014 at 2:42 pm #

    This is so awesome! I think people naturally have a calling and no matter what, they will always be re-directed towards it.

    I too, have played piano since I was 6 and have had love/hate relationships with it. I love music and consider it as a primary language, but at the same time have never been encouraged to pursue it as a career.

    I studied Economics at Berkeley and quit my first accounting job to move to LA and work in the music industry. I played out a few times last year and it was quite nerve wrecking to do something as an adult when you know you don’t have to do it just because your parents made you. I’ll still always play music, but I don’t think it’s my calling. But it is my primary form of inspiration and expression.

    Thanks for sharing your story! And I hope you keep playing and writing songs :)

  7. Kelli responded on 19 Feb 2014 at 4:10 pm #

    Kate,
    First, the photos of your dad holding Eden while playing are all so beautiful! She looks so happy & relaxed as does he. I know she will treasure those photos her whole life. Second, wow, Eden really resembles that baby photo of you other than the texture of your hair.
    I was a young girl determined to make a career in piano as well. I always loved music so much, & I worked very hard for years (although 3-4 hours practicing each day was my definition of that). But although I have some talent it wasn’t enough. I always knew it but it was hard to truly come to terms with that fact. I started college as a music major. And realized halfway through my sophmore year that playing the piano had become an albatross & I hadn’t enjoyed it in ages. So I changed majors, & have never gone back to playing. I keep thinking eventually I will refind my love for it, but I think it was a painful enough experience that I’ve not quite made it there, 15 years later. Someday…..
    I still love music & singing & have a lot of knowledge thanks to those years. No regrets, but I just always feel bad for the tender earnestness of that younger me.
    I’m glad you still play & sing!

  8. Sarah S responded on 19 Feb 2014 at 11:57 pm #

    Good post, Kate! I often wonder if I’d still be passionate about music if I hadn’t made a career of it (for me, for every transcendent moment as a professional there are at least a hundred banal ones)…

  9. Becca responded on 20 Feb 2014 at 12:45 am #

    I love this. I was in a preprpfessional ballet company as a pre teen and teen and gave up dancing in college. I was not a prodigy but I probably could have been a successful ballet teacher if that is what I had wanted. I remember so clearly thinking that life was just disappointing if you didn’t end up famous for SOMETHING. I’m glad I have learned how joyful it is.

  10. Amy responded on 20 Feb 2014 at 12:22 pm #

    I started gymnastics when I was four. For fun. I think. I never had that drive to be really competitive. Adults always asked me if I wanted to be an Olympian and I always said, “No.” Gymnastics at that level is terrifying. I remember moving up a level and my balance beam routine being just crazy. Wait, so you want me to hurl myself backwards and upside down and you think I’m going to magically land safely on this four inch wide, rock hard beam four feet in the air? Yikes. Certain girls were treated certain ways. The ones with the drive were allowed to do cooler things and have extra 1:1 time, go to different events from the rest of us. Even though I was just as good as them I wasn’t asked to go. Because I answered wrong when I said I don’t want to go to the Olympics. I ended up getting injured and quitting. I can’t say that I missed it. It was fun while it lasted and that’s the thing. I did it for fun. It stopped being fun so I stopped doing it. I’ve done the same thing with other activities or endeavors. I may have been one of the best at them but what’s the point when it’s not fun anymore?

  11. em responded on 20 Feb 2014 at 2:35 pm #

    It was piano that I gave up too, at age 26. One day I sat down to play, as usual, the 5+ hours of the day I passed that way, and simply felt nothing inside me to come out anymore. I tried again the next day, and again a week later, a month later, and there was just nothing. It felt simply as if that part of my life was finished. No emotions positive or negative with it, but a little bewildered confusion. Other hobbies and passions and activities filled in the space very well, and some days (now, 12 years later) I could feel almost like someone who never even played piano – except for how all my stories or thoughts from childhood, teen, university years are filled with it, and for how intimately and deeply I experience it whenever I hear piano music, as if it is still the true language of being.

    P.S. I love seeing babies whose hair looks like wigs. And Eden looks so beautifully thoughtful.

  12. Jade responded on 20 Feb 2014 at 4:38 pm #

    I don’t know what happens to me when I read your blog, but I’m left with tears almost every time. Everything you write just touches a nerve in me and opens up memories and feelings. You have a genuine gift and I look forward to your next piece each time I finish one. X

  13. Scott Donald responded on 20 Feb 2014 at 4:44 pm #

    Dear Kate,
    What a joy it was to teach you and have you grow up in front of my eyes. I still remember that amazing performance of the Samuel Barber Ballade that you had in those dreaded recitals. I am so proud of the woman that you have become. You are one of those students that I am thankful to have had in my life.

  14. Kate responded on 20 Feb 2014 at 6:14 pm #

    @Scott
    I am so touched that you read this, first of all! And now I’m so sorry that I didn’t give you more of a mention in it! I am so lucky to have had you as a teacher– your love of the instrument was incredibly meaningful to me, and I appreciated your kindness towards my undisciplined technique :-) You’re a great instructor.

  15. Kate responded on 20 Feb 2014 at 6:15 pm #

    @Jade
    Thank you for telling me! You’re making me want to only write about things that feel meaningful. I am so touched by this!

  16. Kate responded on 20 Feb 2014 at 6:17 pm #

    @Becca
    I’m glad you learned this, too! There are certain fields, like ballet and piano, where there are really only a few people at the top, and it sometimes seems unclear how to channel your ambition if you’re obviously not going to be one of them. Do you still dance?

  17. ailyn responded on 21 Feb 2014 at 7:07 am #

    i think it is not only hardwork and talent that goes into music or anything in life really. I use the word fate, sometimes, no matter how hard we try, fate intervenes and hands you something else.
    And we look forward, when we look back, we wonder how come we did not make the decision to stay?
    Just a thought..

  18. Jen responded on 21 Feb 2014 at 10:48 am #

    Lovely post, Kate. Eden is so beautiful and the 3-generation photo is wonderful.

    I spent 12 years in biomed research, 5.5 years of which were Ph.D. studies. I left research completely about 15 months after defending my dissertation. I love science and have remained in the field peripherally (science publishing) but realized that I had neither the desire nor drive—or talent, if I’m being honest—to be one of the 5% (or less; probably less) who will achieve a long-term academic position, nor did I have the desire or drive to chase opportunities around the country or compete for a shrinking pool of research funding for the next decade.

    It surprises me how much I don’t miss being in the lab, even though I enjoyed the day-to-day bench work. I really, really don’t miss the competitive environment. I’ve only been out for a year; I have no idea if I will look back in 5 years and ask myself why I didn’t push harder and go a bit longer or whether I will wonder why I stuck it out for as long as I did (more likely the latter).

    Now that I’m out of research, I had the time to join a semi-pro choir and work with/learn from musicians with much higher skill levels than mine while performing amazing music. Since singing is nearly as essential and integral to me as breathing and I had all but given it up to pursue a research career, this is a very sweet reward.

  19. Snipe responded on 21 Feb 2014 at 9:39 pm #

    I studied and trained for several years to become an officer with the state highway patrol, only to encounter a hiring freeze coupled with extreme stress due to personal and academic pressures. It was devastating to let . I tried several other jobs that seemed cool, but ultimately weren’t that satisfying. Now, ten years later, I realized that I have never wanted to do anything else, and I applied when applications were open. I’ve been in serious training, but won’t be able to pass one of the testing phases this time around. It’s another setback, but I’m going to give it my best shot and catch it the next time around. That doesn’t make the disappointment any easier, though. If I pass the age requirement and it doesn’t happen, it was never meant to be.

  20. Snipe responded on 21 Feb 2014 at 9:39 pm #

    I mean, it was devastating to realize my dream wasn’t going to happen. Lovely typo.

  21. Leila responded on 23 Feb 2014 at 10:05 pm #

    Kate,

    So much of this I can relate to. As I’m sure Bear can tell you, I was always considered unusual because of my choice of instrument (harp). And I loved it, from the time I was 5.

    I, too, was musical, and as your dad said, it’s not something that can be taught. My teacher used to despair because he had students who worked so much harder than I ever did, and yet they could never achieve the natural musicality that I had. If I had wanted it more, he was certain I could’ve surpassed him in the industry. I often wondered if he would’ve felt differently if I had wanted it that badly, believing as he did.

    For me, that defining moment where I (for the most part) gave it up was the day he died, very unexpectedly. I realized that Michael had been such a huge part of me, and playing felt empty without him in my life. I started to pick it up again, and then the pregnancy from all that is evil came along. Since then, I’ve dabbled a little bit, but it still hurts to play, especially since I now have his harp (which belonged to his teacher). But I also know that he would never forgive me if I completely gave it up, and for that reason, I know I’ll find my way back to it, because I couldn’t bear to disappoint him like that. And, if for no other reason, I’d love to be able to teach Reis to play one day, since it’s such a special thing to know.

    Love the pictures of Eden with your dad, but especially the last one, with you all together.

  22. Jen responded on 25 Feb 2014 at 4:28 am #

    As usual, yyour post resonated with me. I can’t start a new skill / hobby without thinking that I need to be the best, that I have to get to a point that I can teach it… Until recently when I saw a quote about every expert once being a beginner. Instead of rushing to master something, I’m accepting and giving myself permission to just enjoy learning and doing. Btw, Eden looks just like you when you were a baby!