Instead of playing hopscotch or handball, my adolescent days were spent postured on a creaky piano bench, profusely scanning Clementi sonatinas and Chopin waltzes. I stood mesmerized by how the most delicate strings and wooden hammers could produce such a beautiful collection of sounds. And when all these sonically pleasing notes are strung together, a story is told.
I grew up with music. In a way, this one thing I couldn’t see or touch was the comforting best friend I relied on through awkward preteen phases I couldn’t grow out of and embarrassing moments I wished I could forget. And when the dust settled, I looked forward to gliding my fingers on the keyboard I eventually learned to call home.
Without looking back, I followed music. The high school I attended was arts-based, where sports were replaced with conservatories and pep rallies with showcases. I was surrounded by fellow students who, too, loved music and the arts as much as I did. Scratches of violins being tuned and bellows of orchestra rehearsals bounced through bare hallways and practice rooms. For the first time, I believed I could make music for the rest of my life. I wanted it to be true.
The guiding hands I held during this transitional time were those of my conservatory professors. They were the most dedicated musicians I will ever meet. They loved music more than I ever thought possible. I, a wide-eyed teenager with fantastical aspirations, had the world left to learn.
Junior year of high school, I was assigned to Mr. S., the professor who would spearhead all the work behind my solo pieces, vocal collaborations, audition preparations and all the rest. Until sunset, I would drill over technique and reimagine interpretations to his liking. The metronome became my timetable and the closed piano lid signaled the end of a long day.
As I worked alongside Mr. S., I soon recognized his insatiable ambition. Any progress made was overshadowed by minor shortfalls. Any success was short-lived and immediately followed by the next expectation. Any cry for help was thrown under the table. This unutterable combination of pressure, stress and merciless demands robbed me of my sanity.
I don’t know the exact moment I fell out of love with playing music. Somewhere amid angry spit and demoralizing comments, I grew to fear the piano. I was tormented by the singular thought of an after-school rehearsal. The criticism I was bound to receive was crippling and heartbreaking. I would slump on the bench, cold, vulnerable and paralyzed. Inevitably, pent-up anxiety brewed within and surmounted the space in my heart that I had always reserved for music.
My once-passionate spirit blackened. The refusal to practice was coupled with my impartiality toward improvement. The ignorance I displayed in master classes was retorted with harsh discipline and humiliation. I ignored the weight accumulating on my shoulders because I just didn’t care anymore. After 14 years of serenading these black and white notes, I met my threshold and convinced myself that Mr. S. was to blame for it all.
That spring, my principal piece was Beethoven Sonata No. 31 — a charming composition, but I couldn’t conjure up any part of my being to honor it sincerely. Mr. S. continued to throw more empty words at me, but my flagrant attitude inflamed every time. I spiraled further into a rebellious, unfiltered demeanor.
I’ll never hear that piece the same way again.
Mr. S. died in a plane crash when I was still under his direction, two years ago from yesterday. I couldn’t tell you how I felt that day, and I still don’t really know how I feel. It’s an inescapable mixture of guilt and sorrow I can’t seem to be liberated from. Guilt for not appreciating him when he was still here. Sorrow for how tragically he passed, a musical genius I could never live up to.
I revisit wrinkled music books to trace Mr. S.’s cluttered annotations that frame my page’s margins. The accidentals he circled over and over again and the dynamics he highlighted are distinctly him. In the most fitting way, his infectious love for music, for teaching comes alive in his documented advice, scribbled in these shuffled sheets of mine. I reposition my curved, rusty fingers at the beginning chord of that Beethoven Sonata we spent hours feuding over, thinking of him, the gravity of the music and my old friend, the piano.
I don’t play like I used to anymore. But still, I periodically graze those forbidden keys where my tears once dropped and my mind hopelessly crumbled. And in these moments, I replay my Beethoven Sonata. The gratitude I never showed Mr. S. carries in this piece, and I hope somehow, somewhere in the clouds of musical heaven and glory, he hears me and knows.