My Old Friend

I got to play on a Steinway concert grand piano today on the stage in the auditorium of the music center where I work. Aside from my beloved coworkers and the task of helping underserved communities access music education, playing this piano is the main perk of my one day a week working in the office there.

When I was proofreading and copy editing and creating written content for work, piano was the primary method of expression. Writing and music have been the twin stars — sometimes dueling — of my firmament since I was a child, when writing helped me make sense of my world and music express the ineffable parts of life. But there have always been questions; what good did it do me to study piano all those years? Thousands of dollars in private lessons and an entire two-plus years of college courses worth of investment for what? I can make money in words, however soul-sucking the work, but is piano just my entertainment?

These days, something has shifted, the balance of purpose inverted; piano is work, and writing moved into the method of expression.

Since I began teaching group classes, my relationship to piano has changed. Improved. As a private teacher, the instructional repertoire was largely the same student to student, and capped out at an elementary level. In private teaching, I didn’t play much myself, and with a full-or-part-time job and kids to raise, I didn’t play for my own improvement. Occasionally, I would play old pieces I had learned, the same Rachmaninoff or Gershwin or Beethoven I played in college. Comfort food, but repetitive.

Teaching adult piano classes forces me to do a lot of sight reading, to consider the theory of the chord progressions and their inversions, and demonstrate technique-building skills daily on the piano for my students. I play far more often than I ever did before, even though I play far less often than I would like to, because I still share a small space with my husband who still works from home, and our devoted dog still howls along whenever I play. Work and meetings are hard to accomplish in such cacophony.

I was surprised today at how it felt to play this magnificent instrument. Now reattuned to the action of my childhood piano, the rapid response and bright timbre, the sticky D below middle C, I had forgotten what a glossy, warm, intact WOW instrument could sound like. And suddenly, my hands had the ability to create more than just a few lines of memorized jury pieces. I played for the full period of my break, so moved I can feel it still in my hands and chest.

I chose not to major in piano in college when I realized how much performing was required. The thought had not crossed my mind in high school, when I envisioned myself spending hours in a lonely practice room perfecting playing all the scales at the level required for admission to Juilliard (144=MM). Performing never crossed my mind. After playing for a few juries, where the entire piano faculty assembles on the Big Stage and listens to you fumble through whatever piece they choose of your prepared repertoire, and far too many recital accompaniments, I decided performing was just not in my future. I hated it. My hands would shake so badly I could hardly control them, and everything I knew about the music — any music! — flew out of my head.

Completely by chance, I’m now playing in front of dozens of people every week. In our Zoom classes, we go through the book, cover the lesson of a given section, and I demonstrate how each piece is played. Most of the time, I’m sight-reading, which also used to set me into a panic, but now seems completely mundane. I see now that it’s about the music, not about me, and preparing the music for the students to hear is what’s important. Helping them hear and see and feel what the music is saying is important. And I can bring that forward because of the time I spent locked in a lonely practice room perfecting my Juilliard-ready scales.

Great-grandmother Tilly, who worked as a school teacher until she died young.

That old saw “Those who can, DO, and those who can’t, TEACH” runs through my head. I come from a very long line of women who were teachers, and I don’t believe that everyone who has a given skill also has the ability to teach that skill. Creative thinking, the ability to communicate ideas from multiple perspectives, and listening are crucial to good teaching. I saw that in my mother, and I’ve seen it in every teacher who ever led me to love and revere and pursue a subject.

I am starting to see that maybe, idespite my lack of formal pedagogy training, and completely by dint of being in the right place at the right time, I have tumbled into the reason for my lifelong love affair with the piano. It’s not simply so I can sit on stage and perform, although I think I’m closer to being able to do that now than I ever have been, and that’s saying something. The moment when I see a student love and understand playing gives me the most profound joy I have experienced outside my children and husband.

That moment is my reason.

This juxtaposition feels like dynamic harmony, everything in its place. I know this will change, because life is change, but feeling pieces dance into place like this is rare and beautiful. Writing is no longer in the drudgery category, and is thus freed for creative purpose; music has resumed its necessary routine maintenance, and is now freed from my introversion to touch other people’s hearts not through the magic of my performance but through the connection of teaching.

I see now. And it’s marvelous.

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