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A fugue state

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APRIL 07, 2022

The first thing to out me as a pianist is my posture. 

It’s an obtrusive and abiding relic, more obvious than my pinkies jutting out like a scorpion’s tail. I sit up stupidly straight, and well-meaning strangers are keen to point it out. I pretend to care about lung strength or muscle capacity, and the conversation coasts under a minute. But the kudos, blank as they are blithe, balloon my ego. I’ll sit up a little straighter and think about how they thought about me until I pack up to leave, shoulders back and hips aligned.

Posture feels like my first lesson from the piano bench, a prelude to scales and sight reading. I was a restless kindergartener, and my teacher — a young German woman whose blonde hair is now streaked with gray — said that if I didn’t sit up straight, I would turn into Quasimodo. It was a toothless joke that scared me out of slouching, and now my spine sits like a taut string of beads.

It’s like a badge of honor, or maybe of habit. It’s a souvenir of my old self when I poured hours into my practice, chiseling at passages like the sheet music was marble. My approach to writing is similarly obsessive and fatalistic, but I have more luck with the ivories than my MacBook. I’m quick to swoon over Debussy and his velveteen minor seconds, but my thoughts feel at once vaporous and suspended in amber, impossible to capture or extract.

College has estranged me from the piano, which I didn’t expect but probably should have. It’s a violently unportable instrument, and I took the privacy of my living room for granted. I grew up with the piano, its influence on my life swelling too big to measure with rhythm and meter.

My friends and family watched me graduate from a plucky, plastic Casio to an upright, stately Yamaha. I discovered over spring break that it needed to be tuned, and the realization struck me like the tiny hammers hitting their strings — a muffled yet bruising reminder that my life has also modulated.

It’s a frustrating act of reduction to articulate my relationship with piano in statistics — the number of years I’ve played or hours I spent practicing each day, the prizes I’ve won or pieces I’ve botched. It seems impossible to distill 15 years into a witty sound bite, and I feel out of practice.

But like every kid who grew up studying classical music, I have a disarmingly specialized bank of knowledge, fluency in a unique and precious language. I don’t speak it often. I know what I know, but when months pass and I haven’t played, my ego worries that I’ll become the Mechanicals in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Instead of Quasimodo, I’m inching toward Nick Bottom, rattling to Titania about his “reasonable good ear in music.”

I’m reckoning with the fact that I spent my childhood in a pressure cooker of piano instruction and that I will probably never be as nimble or thundering as I was when I was younger. I was never under the impression I would become a concert pianist, but the sudden absence of playing has left a lingering stupor. 

I wade through this fog at blistering lento, currently making my way through Natalie Hodges’ “Uncommon Measure.” In the memoir, she explores her evolving connection to music and the pedagogical relationship between music and time. The violinist aspired to be a professional soloist, but when she realized the dream would not pan out, Hodges admits that she “felt haunted by a monumental sense of failure, of aborted struggle and lost time.”

Her image of being “haunted” sits in my chest with leadlike heaviness. I’m not sure how to relate to the piano when I’m not submerged in it. I love music too much to give it up entirely, and in the rare instances when I do sit at the bench, I’m slower to sight read, sweeping rhapsodies that were once familiar now take flight a little closer to the ground.

I don’t have the heart to frame my story with piano as a eulogy or to exercise the specter of my old playing. I’m embodying a new relationship to music, embracing the ambiguous coda and indulging in rubato.

Maya Thompson is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].

APRIL 07, 2022