March 22, 2018

NOSTALGIA WEEK | Salvaging My Musical Safety Blanket

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One of my lovely friends—I don’t know what I would do without him—recently introduced me to “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano,” a piece from Sampha’s debut album Process. The song’s title quite literally captures the essence of it, in which the British songwriter repeatedly croons, “No one knows me like the piano in my mother’s home.”

Like Sampha (“And you drop-topped the sky, oh you arrived when I was three years old”) and countless others, I began playing the piano at an early age—seven, to be exact. Even now, I can still see myself seated in front of the golden piano in the basement of my apartment, the keys neatly spread out in front of me, my fingers stumbling through each step of the C Major scale as my teacher’s hands hover above mine, the disparities in size and skill both apparent.

By first grade, I had found a new teacher who would place a white eraser on the back of each hand as I struggled to read through a single line. With time and practice, my indifference began to shift into a tentative love. And it was only as I shed tears on a lobby sofa in fifth grade that I realized I had fallen for the piano’s captivating charms. I began to devour each piece with increasing ambition, savoring all parts of my musical experience, including inevitably falling short of my grand expectations. I eventually ended up auditioning at the Manhattan School of Music, surrounded by wine-colored curtains, a sinewy grand piano, and a row of expectant faces. I don’t even remember my repertoire that day, but I can readily recall my tangible nervousness, and feeling as if my heart would spill out of my body if I remained on that tiny stage any longer.

The four years I spent in the pre-college program at MSM drastically transformed my view of music, of the piano, of performance. MSM was where I grew my fascination with studying classical music, an art that is simultaneously concrete and abstract, easy and complex, dense and light. MSM was also where I learned that, like an ever-expanding box, the pursuit of music is an unending challenge, a perpetual search for a balance between protecting the composer’s music and indulging in mine.

I’ve never—not even as a passing thought—considered myself a musician; I’ve simply managed to sashay my way into spaces filled with them. My playing was (and still is) characterized by vertical stops, unsolicited rubatos, and contrived dynamics, but I did my best to keep piano in my life, while juggling other more “attractive”—according to conventional wisdom regarding college admissions—academic and extracurricular activities. Unlike now, as I feel myself steadily losing touch with the music I used to love.

Last month, while on a 3 a.m. rush of impulsive decision-making, I purchased a ukulele that had been fermenting in my Amazon cart. It may have been one of the best decisions I have made since coming to Cornell. Playing my uke has brought me consistent waves of calm in the midst of all the chaos, mostly self-inflicted, that populates my days here in snowy Ithaca. Despite the fact that I cannot sustain a consistent strumming pattern, know exactly five chords, and have a crackly voice, I love playing the ukulele. Through it, I have rediscovered how much music means to me, and how much I have missed it. Sitting in front of a piano for the first time since I graduated MSM last May, with no one to impress, I let the instrument surprise, move, and comfort me. I think I am finally beginning to learn how to play: for myself. I guess no one does know me like the piano.