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.
(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.”
(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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
(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)
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