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.