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17 | she/her | Pianist | Violinist | Artist | Nature Lover | Cat Fanatic | Bookworm

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I'd really appreciate any reviews for this! Does it make any sense to someone who doesn't know much about classical music?

The Stressful Life of a Pianist

October 22, 2019


 Disclaimer: This story about me is somewhat dramatized to suit the taste of my English teacher, but most of it is very true. I know it's not too great, so any feedback is welcome!

  Winter was coming to an end, and the few lingering patches of snow were beginning to melt. Spring would be arriving soon, and with it came the promise of a piano recital, only a few months away. I needed to pick a piece to play for the recital so I would have enough time to practice it. My mom handed me a stack of music books to look through, each one packed with pages and pages of music waiting to be brought to life. 
    I picked up the first book of music with its new orange cover and paged through the pieces it contained. My heart beat faster as I glanced over the music and heard the notes in my head. I could hear each phrase with perfect clarity by looking at the notes on the staff, and reading through the pieces was like reading a book of stories, each with their own mood and theme. The music filled my mind as I imagined what it would be like to play each piece. My fingers could almost feel the rhythmic fluidity that would come with practice. 
    At last I opened my computer and searched for the titles and composers of every piece in the stack of books, listening to recordings of them one by one. I carefully went through each piece in the books a few times, but each time I kept coming back to one of them: Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum by Claude Debussy. It's complicated Latin name almost scared me away, but once I heard it, I knew that I had to play it. I wanted to start practicing it right away, but realized that I had already spent hours listening to pieces. I put the book away until tomorrow.
    The next day, I sat down at the piano and started practicing scales, chords, sight reading, improvisation, and filling out my endless book of mind bending music theory. At last I finished and started learning my new piece. I started with the complicated right hand part, which was a steady stream of seemingly random sixteenth notes; however, as I gradually was able to play it faster, the melody began to appear magically out of the jumble of black dots on the page.
I practiced the piece every day, knowing that I would have to perform it from memory in only a few months. The very thought of the recital made my stomach twist slightly, and I practiced harder each day. 
    Of course, Debussy’s Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum wasn’t the only piece I was practicing. I usually play several pieces at a time, and it is a challenge to make time to practice them all. Sometimes I ran out of time before I could practice everything, usually because I had to surrender the piano to my brother who needed to practice, too. 
    Finally, after hours of work, I was able to play the whole piece with both hands together. Now I had to add dynamics, articulation, and speed. Speed was the hardest of the three, because my fingers often stumbled over the keys and ended up in a tangled mess. I took out the metronome and set it to a low tempo at first, played through every section one by one, then set the metronome one notch faster and played the piece again. I worked my way up through the metronome settings over several days until I could finally play the entire piece at the right speed.
    The happiness I felt when I finally reached the right metronome marking was soon replaced with discouragement when I realized that I had lost my dynamics and articulation in the process of speeding it up. Frustration welled up inside me as I listened to the notes my fingers played. Each one sounded the same as the one before, and the music had no purpose. I had trained my fingers to play the notes accurately and quickly, but it sounded like a machine was playing the piece, not me. I had worked so hard to learn the music, but now I found that the sound I was making was as boring and unemotional as the black ink on the pages of my sheet music. 
    I took a deep breath and stood up from the piano bench. I knew that practicing was no use when I felt so annoyed and irritated with my piece. Trying to make it better when I felt this way would only make it worse. So, I went to my computer again and listened to recordings of Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum. I paid close attention to how other musicians had interpreted the notes and decided to play them, storing each detail in my mind for later. At last I took a break from piano for the day, but even after I stopped thinking about the piece, I could still hear the notes echoing in my mind. 
    Over the next week, I worked through the piece again and again, figuring out how to play with emotion while playing fast at the same time. I abandoned the metronome and used rubato again, letting the tempo move fluidly with the shape of each phrase. I found each dynamic marking and translated all the French instructions that Debussy put in the music. After I had incorporated every detail, the music could let me release all of my emotions into the keys.
    About two months had gone by since I started learning the piece, and I was finally able to play it well. I switched from the Baldwin upright practice piano to the Sauter grand piano with its impeccable glossy paint. The grand piano’s keys were stiffer with a better touch, but it was harder to play quickly because the keys were harder to push down. I practiced the piece again and again, strengthening my fingers so they could easily overcome the resistance of the keys. 
    The beautiful piano’s strings poured the rapid notes out into the room in a shimmering cascade of sound. The music formed a river that flowed from the piano, and each note was like a drop of clear water that sparkles for a moment in the sunlight before falling back to the river. My fingers now knew their parts so well that I barely had to pay attention to them, and I let them fly while I listened to the exhilarating rush of music. The piano was my friend, singing out the emotions of the piece, and all the frustration that I had felt while I was learning it melted away with the last triumphant chords. The music was now a part of me, and I could use it to tell my story. 
    Even though I now felt confident about the piece, I couldn’t forget that I would have to perform it from memory in front of a roomful of people in only a few weeks. The thought of the recital always came with a vague feeling of panic, and my fingers would become cold and stiff. This only made me more nervous, because I would never be able to play well if my fingers were too cold to move quickly. I wondered what people would think of me if I made a big mistake or forgot the notes halfway through. Memories of all the memory slips and mistakes of past performances came rushing back, and I remembered the humiliation and shame I always felt when I didn’t play well in front of others.
    I was determined not to mess up this time, so I threw myself into my practice every day. I played through the music slowly and carefully so I wouldn’t lose the accuracy of the notes to careless speed. I ran through all the memory tricks I could think of to make sure I wouldn’t forget the notes and fingerings during the recital. I played the whole piece with my eyes closed until I could do it perfectly, played each hand separately without the music, and played each phrase one by one, starting at the end of the piece and working towards the beginning. I had been using these tricks successfully for many years to help me memorize pieces, but I was still nervous. 
    The morning of the recital came at last. It was a beautiful, clear morning, and the sky was a brilliant blue. The leaves were just starting to come out, and birds sang peacefully, but I was anything but peaceful. My hands persisted in being cold and stiff no matter what I did to try to warm them up, and my stomach was a tight knot of dread. I carefully played my piece once with the music, then left the piano and tried not to think about it, but that was practically impossible. 
    The morning wore away with agonizing sluggishness, but finally early afternoon arrived. All of the kids and parents from my mom’s piano studio arrived at our house, and the beaming parents sat in rows in front of the piano while their kids went to the adjacent room, scanning the program nervously to make sure they weren’t assigned to play first. No one likes to play first because it tends to make your mistakes even more conspicuous. I was near the end of the program, but thankfully my mom hadn’t put me last. 
    I settled down in a corner and waited while the other kids played their pieces. It was uncomfortably cramped in the small room, and the air seemed to crackle with tension as the many nervous kids waited for their turn to play. The little kids played their simple songs with intense concentration and broke into big smiles when they finished. The middle and high schoolers played with varying success, and some grimaced as they returned to the room. Since they all had their lessons with my mom in the evenings at our house, I had heard each piece many times. Some of them played beautifully, and others had played better at their lessons. 
    At last, my turn came, and I went out in front of the parents and announced my piece. I glanced over the many smiling faces and reminded myself that my audience wasn’t going to judge me if I messed up. They just wanted me to have fun and do my best. I sat down, adjusted the bench, took a deep breath, and began to play. 
    Instantly, my worries left me. Everything that I had spent so much time on during my practice came back to me, and I was confident about every detail. I let the music flow from the strings of the piano, and the notes were like golden autumn leaves sailing on a breath of wind. The emotions that had been building up before the recital dropped from my fingers and into the keys, and I could hear a hint of my personality in the sound of the piano. Debussy had written the piece over a hundred years ago, but now I brought it alive again and made it my own. The flow of each phrase showed my emotions and ideas to my audience, and in return, I could feel their appreciation for my music. Finally, I built up to the climax of the piece at the very end with enthusiastic drama and cascaded down to the final crashing chords. The last octave C’s in the bass rang in the air for a moment, then the room was filled with applause and I jumped up and bowed, smiling happily. 
    Everyone was smiling, and I saw one woman wiping a tear from her eye. When I returned to my place in the corner, I felt full of satisfaction and happiness. My performance had made others happy, and that was perhaps the most important thing of all. The hard work of several months had more than paid off. I had expressed my emotions, thoughts, and ideas fully, and I had been connected to other people through music. 
    Every piece of music I play has helped me to grow through music. The consistent practice that is required for learning music has taught me how to manage my time wisely, and I wouldn’t be nearly as successful in other areas of my life if I didn’t have the experience of the hard work it takes to play a musical instrument. Music has been a part of my life ever since I can remember, and I can’t imagine what it would be like to live without it. I need it as a way to release and express myself as I truly am. It has shaped my identity and I would not be the same without it.
If you're curious, you can hear Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum if you look it up on YouTube. :)


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  • October 22, 2019 - 5:10pm (Now Viewing)

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1 Comment
  • loquacious_lil

    Ahhh! This brings back so many memories of my classical piano-playing days (although to be honest, I kind of miss it now). Great job on the piece!

    almost 2 years ago