The Piano

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There I sat on the piano bench, leather sticky where shorts ended and legs began, and all I could think was, “No, please don’t make me learn that.” The piece was Burgmüller’s Ballade, the time somewhere around my twelfth birthday. The song was beautiful, showcased as my teacher’s cupped palms and nimble fingers flew across the keys. Unfortunately, I hated it. My shoulders slumped in boredom, eyes glazing over as my mind wandered to other important 12-year-old matters, such as finally beating that boy in tennis, or composing classic fart jokes with which to regale my best friends. However, because I was young and daunted by my teacher, learning Ballade became my focus for the next two months.

The song had two parts with which to torture me. The first is fast-paced and technical. It recalls images of racing feet and swarming ants and angry, driving rain. The second would blend flawlessly in the party scene of the Nutcracker, with the quick swish of lacy dresses dancing across the floor of a vast, opulent ballroom. Unsurprisingly, sixth-grade me had a little trouble relating. When I sat listening to my teacher play a song that I would grow to despise, my reluctance to play it had nothing to do with laziness, and everything to do with the fact that I had never experienced the quick chaos or sophisticated pomp described in the song. So when I thought, “that’s not it”, my “it” had to have some emotional connection that I could comprehend. Yet I was searching for something I couldn’t yet describe. All I knew was that the piece didn’t seem “me” enough, and I didn’t want to play it.

I’ve had a little more luck finding “it” in recent years. My teacher played me the Venetian Gondola Song — dynamic and raw, and all I could do was sit back and lose myself in the music. I still don’t know why it’s become one of my favorites, but I think I’m getting closer to the answer. Emotion is a complex, fluid thing. The favorite songs of 6-year-old me, masterpieces such as Old McDonald and On Top of Old Smoky, have lost connection with my identity today. I no longer look for sweet simplicity when I seek out my pieces, although it’s nice to have uncomplicated pleasures once in awhile. I look to taste the timeless joy of a piece of the Nutcracker, or the energy of the Entertainer, or the serenity of Skater’s Waltz. When I perform, I see a little bit of myself reflected back at me, the snapshot of a feeling I had or a person I met or some experience that shaped who I am. So I still hate to play Ballade, because I never found that connection.

However, when contrasting tastes and styles come together to make one, glorious whole — that is when magic happens. I experienced this firsthand not too long ago. As part of a school exchange trip, I ended up at Otake High School in Hiroshima, Japan, sitting at a piano in a choir room. We were simply touring classes when we came upon a group singing a beautiful but unintelligible Japanese piece. We sat to listen, and when I got my chance to play I started Pachelbel’s Canon, only to be joined by one boy on ukulele and another on guitar to create a rousing interpretation of an otherwise classic composition. To me, our creation seemed to be in celebration of something — perhaps that we had nonverbally traversed the language barrier, perhaps that we had successfully taught the Japanese students to beatbox fifteen minutes earlier. The world may never know. However, I do know that it was a good thing I came into the room with a different type of music than the other musicians. When they were singing in a foreign language, I had to read sheet music to follow along. When I played a classic piano song, they recognized it and arranged an accompaniment accordingly. We learned to appreciate each other, and share our cultures — and perhaps that’s why music is such a worldwide phenomenon. It reaches people from all different backgrounds and personalities, and yet stays true to its core of voicing emotion that speech cannot truly encompass. I know that I will minor in some kind of music. Because no matter what I do, no matter where I am, I’ll be able to communicate in a way that is truly global.

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