Thursday, April 8, 2010

Listening to the Music

I've had a love of music from an early age, constantly drumming my chubby fingers to the beat of my mom's favorite Chinese movie soundtracks. I begged for a piano to play, but my parents thought I was too young to be serious about my interest. They relented, however, when one day I carved out a five-year-old version of a keyboard onto the rented living room oak table with the tip of a mechanical pencil. Mission accomplished: the next day, my parents bought me a keyboard. My dad was still in school, and couldn't yet afford to buy a piano.

But I didn't care. Having a keyboard was definitely better than not having anything at all. For the next year, I plunked away at the plastic keys with such intensity and dedication that my parents decided to find me a piano teacher. After many years of piano lessons, I've had a wide variety of piano instructors. From an eight-bucks-an-hour student teacher to sixty-bucks-an-hour university professors, I have climbed up a steep ladder in my piano education, financially and figuratively. I have also gone from playing on a sixty-one note keyboard at home to nine-foot Steinway concert grand pianos onstage.

Through it all, I still remember my first music teacher. Her name was Shelley, and she had the most patience that I have ever encountered. She didn't seem to ever get annoyed that she always had to tell me to slow down or to keep a steady tempo and not rush through the pieces I was playing. I would even get impatient with myself for forgetting to keep my notes and rhythms even. Once, I asked her how she stayed so patient, but she just smiled and told me to "listen to the music." I was confused, but then she pointed out that "Row, Row, Row your Boat" was a gentle lullaby, not a Turkish march accelerating poco a poco.

Later, I learned that Shelley had a deaf daughter. The little girl couldn't hear a radio blasting full-blown into her ear, yet she would start waving her hands around and stomp her feet into the ground whenever Shelley or her students were playing the piano. This experience has taught me to not be afraid of being original or of walking to the beat of my own drum, even if it means taking risks to explore my parameters, musically or otherwise. Looking deeper into Shelley's original statement to "listen to the music," I found the answer to patience in the score. It involved the delicate weave of a musician's own feeling and interpretation into a composer's original intent. That is what gives a performance that sparkle of originality, substance and style, and makes for a genuine enjoyment of music.

I don't know what happened to Shelley or her daughter. I switched piano teachers when we moved to a different city and lost contact after moving out of state a few years after that. I don't know how old Shelley's daughter is now or whether she still has a love of music, but often when I play the piano, I can still see that little girl stomping the ground and waving her arms and fingers, reminding me to "listen to the music."

[Written: 10/6/05]

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