An mahogany upright Yamaha piano spent its first 29 years occupying a corner of my parents' Texas living room. They bought that piano for me when I was seven years old. The purchase went against every recommendation they were getting: “Don't invest in something that expensive unless you know she's going to stick with it.” They knew I would “stick” with it. It never even occurred to me to ask to stop.
I grew to love that piano. We met in the dark hours of the morning, or sometimes late at night when I couldn't sleep. It knew my every mood by the way I played: sometimes frustrated, sad, ebullient.
The journey begins
I started studying piano in second grade and then made my way through John Thompson's Modern Course for the Piano—The Third Grade Book. My best friend Shari studied from the same book, using her mother's old childhood copy.
We spent many nights sitting together on the piano bench, looking through Thompson’s book. At her house, we played on her mother's piano, her mom often standing behind us as we played. Sometimes we tried new pieces, plunking notes here and there. Eventually, we moved out of the way so Shari's mom could play it through for us.
One of my favorites from that book was a round called “Dona Nobis Pacem” (Grant Unto Us Peace). Its beautiful, lilting melody almost sounded like church bells. At the top of the page were a few lyrics, demonstrating how the round could be sung. Once I learned it well, I tried to sing while I played.
By senior year of high school I was taking three hours of piano lessons a week and practicing four to five hours a day. My day started at 5:30 in the morning with an hour and a half of practice before school. Sometimes, in those early hours, I would close my eyes and half sleep while playing. My hands moved automatically while my eyes were shut, indulging in those extra few moments of slumber.
After school, I had to finish practicing piano before starting my homework. Another two to two and a half hours, this practice session was a welcome break from school, and I often didn't even notice the clock. In those 11 years of intense study, I placed in about 50 different competitions and performed publicly about 10 times a year.
Finding a place
Soon came college at the University of Pennsylvania, full of angst and excitement that left little room for piano. The four-hour practice sessions stopped; I no longer had my piano or a neat, tidy high-school schedule.
For those first few months, I missed the daily routine of piano practice. Music was stability, calm; it was my source of comfort. I thought I liked the chaos and freedom to do things whenever the mood struck, but as the months progressed, I slowly realized what was missing and what I needed. My grades suffered. On a campus with 20,000 other students, I was lonely, yearning for some sense of family and structure. But I also missed my music.
I was determined to find a piano I could regularly use. I heard there were practice rooms in the music building, so one night, after dinner, I packed up my piano books and headed all the way across campus down Locust Walk. When I arrived, it was dark with the exception of one solitary yellow, fluorescent light in the entry. This side of campus was empty.
A few practice rooms were kept open for students, but I heard no music. I sat in the tiny classroom, just big enough to fit an upright piano and perhaps two students. The instrument was old and worn; some of the keys did not play. I cycled through my most recent pieces and felt a little bit of that old familiar emotion. But the ominous creaks and groans of the old building, the tainted lighting, and the echoes of my own movements were terrifying. I packed up quickly and almost ran back to my dorm.
Months turned into years of no practice. Coming home for the holidays, I observed my piano, walked past, and rarely opened it. I played occasionally, but fast and furious, during quick moments coming in or on my way out of the house.
In the years following college, my job, travel, and new responsibilities took over. After pursuing music so seriously, I couldn't find a way to dial it back and contain it as a casual hobby. Hearing myself play after years of no practice was jarring, disappointing. So I avoided it. Just walking by the piano in my parents' home brought on a kind of pain and yearning.
For many years, I resisted moving the piano to my own home, preferring to leave it in its established position as a testament to that time of life. But eventually, my parents persuaded me and shipped it to California.
In the nine years the piano has been with me, it has never been tuned. There it sits -- my old friend, the upright Yamaha -- in the playroom corner. It often remains closed, with a red velvet cloth protecting its beautiful keys. It beckons me sometimes, as I pass, and occasionally I sit on my old bench, lift the cover, touch the keys, and play a few bars.
I used to question the point of it all, all those hours spent sitting on that wooden bench. But as I grow older and begin to release all those expectations, I think one can learn for the sake of learning, with no end objective. Those keys, the piano, the music, remain deep within me. My fingers may have lost much of their talent, but my piano studies continue to define me.
I recently took my four-year-old son, Zidaan, to the symphony in San Francisco. The piano solo brought back that familiar longing. Zidaan, too, was riveted. Unable to sit still while we waited for the performance to begin, once the conductor raised his baton, Zidaan quickly scrambled onto my lap. His small hands grabbed my face to turn it toward the stage. “Look, Mama!” he whispered. Then, one hand still on one side of my face, he pressed my cheek into his and there we remained, cheek to cheek, eyes and ears engrossed, until the performance was over.
Both of my children have an innate love for classical music. I haven't started them on piano and I’m not sure I will, because I know I cannot do it casually. The commitment is daunting.
My eight-year-old daughter is learning to sing rounds in her voice lessons, and her teacher sent me her first recording. Sitting in bed, I clicked open the recording on my computer and heard my daughter's sweet voice, “Do... na, no... bis, paaaa... cem...” It was the same piece I had once played over and over, at the same age as she is now.
When I heard her voice, my mind immediately went back to that piano at my best friend's house. We giggled together as her mom teased, “One day you'll hear your own little girl play this, and you'll think of us now.”