Lesson Three: Let Go of the Past
Each lesson feels more like a psychoanalytic hour as I contemplate my bad habits, and my wish to “make things happen” at the keyboard. It’s not about imposing our own personal drama on the music, Christyna says. It’s about stepping back and listening to the story that is already there unfold.
Yet sometimes playing brings up painful stories of my own. The shame of not having enough money for piano lessons when I was growing up. My fury at having to give up the Sohmer concert grand when we moved to a cramped apartment. My father abandoning his operettas. My aunt, with her silenced music and her broken heart. These waves of grief are startling, and sometimes bring my practice to a halt. I do not discuss these things during my lessons—but my teacher knows that I am struggling and that the only cure is time.
“Don’t worry,” Christyna says. “Everyone finds this hard at first. Why? Because you have to give up everything you think you know.” I would add to that: everything I haven’t had the time to feel. These lessons have become a kind of purging—a way of coming to terms with all the difficult memories that stand between me and the music. When I despair, I cling to my teacher’s words: “Yes, you are losing a lot. But eventually, the music will come back and your playing will be better.”
Lesson Four: Learn How to Disappear
In his short story, “The Singers,” Ivan Turgenev describes a singing contest in a tavern. A local tradesman–a stocky fellow with a hearty voice—titillates the audience with his “throat play” and inventive flourishes. Then we hear from the reluctant Yashka, a gaunt factory worker whose manner is shy and reticent. He begins with a reedy voice then suddenly, a note “comes out of nowhere.” As he sings, he loses any awareness of himself or of his audience. And he wins the contest, not because his rendition is more forceful or dramatic, but because he knows how to disappear.
I am reading the Russian masters to prepare for a writing seminar I’m about to give. As I marvel at this tale, I realize this is what Christyna has been trying to tell me. “When you approach the piano, don’t try so hard!” It’s not about muscling through a piece, or putting in more hours at the keyboard. Nor is it about a big show of emotion. The task is to stand back and get out of the way.
Lesson Five: We Are Always Coming Home
When we discuss music theory, I go to my textbooks for a refresher. The first (and last) note of a scale is called the tonic. The fifth note is called the dominant. The fourth note is called the subdominant. This is the basis for modern harmony.
Simple right? But now Christyna stuns me: Whether you’re rendering a Chopin etude, singing opera, or playing the blues, these notes all have a psychological function.
The tonic translates “I am home.”
The subdominant means “I am going on a quest.”
The dominant denotes conflict or tension, “I want to go home now!”
Then we come back to the tonic, or the resolution. “I am here.”
The scale is the oldest story ever told—it predates the Iliad and the Odyssey, and summarizes everything we know about the hero’s journey.
“When you play a scale,” Christyna says, “all the notes aren’t equal. The first, fourth, and fifth notes are more important because they reveal the underlying structure of the story. In music, you are always setting out on a journey, then trying to find your way back home.”
And so there it is—after a full year of study, the theme that ties it all together. The sense that music can be trusted because it always brings us back to where we started. Like Ariadne’s thread, it lead us through the labyrinth of grief and sorrow, through our fears of inadequacy, through our wish to dominate and make things happen, then returns us to a childlike state of grace. To a moment of openness and innocence.
It’s like that moment at the end of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, we come back to the initial theme–only now it sounds completely different. Why? Because we have been on a journey. One that has left us irrevocably changed.
In this Great Time of Undoing—while I was concentrating on the basics like posture, fingering and time signatures, and building up my stamina at the keyboard–I lost my ability to improvise. I could no longer play with rhythm or make up melodies. All the magic disappeared and I felt I’d as though I’d lost a portion of my soul.
Then, one day, I sat down to play a tango and it all came back, just as Christyna promised. My tone was rounder, the riffs like silver bells, and my fingers flew over the keys with ease. Then suddenly I started changing the whole direction of the piece, making it my own. Variations sprouted from the original melody, like leaves from a vine, and I was once again in the Garden of Delights.
Why do we need music? Because it allows us to transcend despair and doubt. “Without music,” Nietzsche said, “life would be a mistake.”