Music to my years

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A couple months ago, I was strolling along Sproul when I heard something. The distant sound seized me — Chopin’s “Fantaisie-Impromptu” brought me to a staggering halt. Like some magnetic flashback, all the recitals, sweaty palms and stage frights yank me down a rabbit hole.

Growing up in an adequately diverse region of San Jose, a good portion of my classmates did not speak the same mother tongues and their parents emigrated from vastly different countries. Where I’m from, it’s quite common for first-generation parents to pick out special skills, music or otherwise, for their children in the hopes of cultivating future virtuosos.

The internet is littered with proof: Articles citing the “best age for your child to learn piano,” the “advantages” of learning piano and even more claiming “instruments make your kids smarter.” It’s no wonder parents fervently push young children into music at alarming rates, with increasing pressure to excel and do so quickly. With parents concerned with their development more than their preferences, children’s objections to music lessons more or less fall on parents’ tone-deaf ears.

In my hometown, parents often measured children against each other based on Certificate of Merit achievements. Music students bent under the stress of music exams and it was not uncommon for piano players to become chronically anxious around public performances.

In my case, I was juxtaposed with violinists, flutists, dancers, painters and of course, other piano players. All of them embodied the fictitious prodigy figure, always practicing harder, winning competitions, becoming more skilled and impossible to catch up to. At times, it seemed to be a vicious rat race, and all for what?

Of course, I know now that my parents meant no harm. As self-made immigrants, they themselves were caught in the same rat race. Others’ successes were meant to be encouragement, proof that if other first-generation parents could raise a talent in a foreign country, then I, too, had a chance at success. I suppose they thought comparisons would spur me into action; instead, I grew discouraged.

For a long time I wasn’t fond of the piano. In fact, I harbored quite a bit of resentment for it, refusing practices and deviously rebelling against my poor mother by hiding my music notes and pretending they’d mysteriously disappeared. When she’d find them and glue me to the piano bench with some light threats, I’d scowl at the sheet music and crank out an unpleasantly sharp cluster of notes to spite her and the (literal) instrument of my imprisonment. Belligerent, I’d fight the piano with the gumption I should have channeled into practice.

My weary parents couldn’t possibly understand why a child who was given the privilege of learning music — something they never had — would resist it. As a result, I was convinced I disappointed everyone: my parents, my deceased piano-playing ancestors, the dozens of dead composers turning in their graves because I was butchering their lives’ work. The Liszt went on.

And so, to no one’s surprise, I quit. Like all the other kids who’d been mailed a shiny certificate in time for college applications and stopped altogether, I finished whatever level of Certificate of Merit was proof of my mediocre abilities and that was that.

For a while, I rejoiced — the piano was no longer a weight on my shoulders. But just a few months down the line, I felt starved. Listening to music was certainly not the same as creating it. Though I’d initially marvelled at my newfound free time, something began to gnaw at me each time I’d hear another pianist conjure moving concertos or nocturnes from their fingertips.

One day I sat down at the piano bench, trying to draw from my childhood repertoire. It was crushing, admitting to myself there wasn’t a single piece I could remember how to play in its entirety without mistakes, a deserved blow.

So recently, the piano and I have started anew. I’ll be the first to concede that I’m not by any means a prodigy; I’m exceedingly far from it. But I still reach for the piano, trying to salvage what I left behind.

At some point, everyone feels inadequate compared to others. There will always be someone who plays like Schubert, paints like Monet, dances like Baryshnikov. This doesn’t mean we should give up creating art and leave it to the professionals. When music is considered outside the context of competition, no longer a tool for measuring worth, its true form nourishes the soul.

These days, I play only for myself. When the walls in the piano room are softly aglow with the last few sunbeams of the afternoon, the piano and I sit together in a strange peace.

I breathe, raising my hands into position. My fingers land on the first chord, and I scatter myself somewhere among the 88 keys, across the notes on the marked-up pages, into the space between my body and the glossy mahogany wood. This is perhaps what was so attractive to me about music, what I ached for and what led me back — I loved picking it apart, putting it back together and simultaneously doing so with myself.

Alexandra Sasha Shahinfar writes the Thursday column on multiculturalism. Contact her at [email protected]