Piano Lessons, Life Lessons

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.”


Valerie Andrews
Valerie Andrews
VALERIE is the Chief Storyteller for Reinventing Home, an online magazine exploring how home shapes our culture, creativity, and character. Isabel Allende calls this publication Brain Pickings for the Home—a thinking person’s guide to the well-lived life. Our contributors explore home as a personal sanctuary and interactive hive, and how home contributes to our health, happiness, and productivity. Valerie calls her own features “a mindful approach to home with a Jungian twist” and considers everything from the secret lives of our possessions to how the dust underneath your bed is related to the creation of the cosmos. Reinventing Home is nonprofit journalism at its best—a virtual living room for an enlightened conversation about the way we feel about our nests and the bigger issues that are shaping home today, from technology to climate change. Read more at

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  1. Oh, Valerie, your words flow as music, transporting the reader on a journey into the sublime – into the place where music and life merge as one – into a place where thought, structure, and foundational technique transform into trust, grace and ease – into a place where melodies sings from the depths of our soul, reminding us the magic is real – into a place where conscious learning transforms into expanded perceptions of expressions that emerge from within as if from nowhere – Yes, I know these places of which you speak, for I have traveled this sacred journey as well. Thank you for your beautiful sharing 🙏

  2. Hello Valerie, as I receive the Best of Bizcatalyst360 every week I skim through the headings of the articles until one hits me, I look at the author and then open the article. Yours struck me and I thank you because at 71, I just began to take piano lessons. Reason being, I write lyrics and have recently won recognition for that genera. But I wanted to learn the piano and guitar to add the music to the lyrics. You have inspired me to pursue learning the piano, although I cannot read music, my ear does through listening. I hope some day to play without stopping and going back to repeat the keys again and again. Beautiful article, thank you.