Play it proud: A personal essay

Play it proud: A personal essay

piano_carragh-mcerlean_file-copy

Carragh Mcerlean/File

At the end of last semester, an upright piano appeared on Sproul Plaza. It was colorful and boldly painted, and whenever I walked by, there would be someone sitting on its bench, drawing beautiful melodies from its keys. Sometimes, when no one was there, I’d find myself stopping right next to the piano, wondering whether or not I should sit down and play something as well — but I never did.

“All Asians play piano.” It’s a pretty common phrase now, and it rings true for so many — including me. I don’t know exactly why or how our parents magically came up with the same idea at the same time to have their kids take music lessons, and specifically piano lessons, from an early age. (This was before the groupthink of mass parent group chats on WeChat, after all.) Nor do I comprehend why or how they decided that pursuing an instrument would be some key to our success. Perhaps it was because they thought it would make us seem more “well-rounded” for college admissions, because they heard of the now-debunked “Mozart effect” and believed it would make us smarter, or because they simply never had the opportunity to play piano when they were kids and regretted it. Perhaps it was a combination of the above.

Either way, the piano had played a larger part in my life than almost anything else. I started playing at the tender age of 4 and participated in music competitions and festivals until I officially quit in the sophomore year of high school. I attended lessons for 11 years, longer than I’ve continued with any other extracurricular activity. And the years I spent on the piano bench, drilling piece after piece, helped shape me into the person I am now, both the good and the bad.

The piano taught me punishment. I remember the anxiety I used to get right before heading to my weekly piano lesson — it scared me like almost nothing else. During the one-hour sessions, my piano teacher would be able to tell how much or how little I practiced that week — the parts I didn’t practice hard enough, the dynamics I forgot to play, the tempo I couldn’t reach. She’d make me play the piece over and over again, and when my fingers stumbled or forgot a dynamic, she’d sharply and mercilessly strike at them with her pencil; I’d fumble from the pain, only to receive another stinging hit until I got past the passage correctly. By the time I finally finished the piece to her standards, I’d be a crying, snotty mess, my fingers throbbing and angry red.

Nor do I comprehend why or how they decided that pursuing an instrument would be some key to our success

The piano taught me reward. Despite how harsh I thought my piano teacher was, I quickly grew to realize how fond she was of me. She kept a freezer full of small, single-serving ice cream containers, the ones that come with spoons attached under the lids, for her students, and after lessons, she’d let me pick one of them to eat. According to my teacher, only the “good kids” got to eat from the freezer, and while I had managed to earn my spot on this list, my brother hadn’t; my mom afterward told me how nice my teacher was to me, how she used a far larger pencil on my brother, and how he wasn’t allowed to eat her ice cream. I felt a little luckier after that.

The piano taught me stage fright. I hated performing. Every season, my teacher would enter me in recitals and competitions and concerts, and as I grew older, rather than becoming more confident, I only grew more and more nervous before getting onstage. Performing badly, both inside and outside of class, came with painful consequences, and I feared messing up so badly that I’d inevitably panic, and my fingers would fumble.

The piano taught me hard work. I learned that the best way to avoid mistakes was excessive practice — once my fingers had played the piece the way I wanted a thousand times, it was muscle memory.

I felt a little luckier after that.

The piano taught me discipline. When I was young, I was expected to practice an hour a day during the school year and an hour and a half a day during the summer and breaks. As I grew older, these expectations grew as well, climbing to two hours a day during the school year and three hours a day during the summer and breaks. I hated practicing. I hated piano.

The piano taught me procrastination. When I was 9, my parents switched jobs and were no longer able to watch over my piano practice, and being the unappreciative child I was, I completely slacked off. The amount I practiced dwindled until on most days, I didn’t even touch the piano and casually lied to my parents that I had practiced, when in reality, I had spent those hours on YouTube. Then, the day before my lessons, afraid of punishment, I’d furiously try to cram weeks’ worth of practice into a few hours. Of course, it wouldn’t really work out. While my parents were thankfully unaware of the scam I was pulling, my teacher inevitably noticed, and while she wouldn’t say anything particularly incriminating in front of my mom and dad, I could see the disappointment growing in her. I felt bad, but at the same time, I didn’t. I never understood why I was forced to do things I clearly didn’t enjoy.

The piano taught me family. By the time I entered middle school, I was close with my piano teacher. My parents had stopped attending my lessons, so the hour I used to spend tense and quiet I now spent chatting with her about almost everything. I hung out at her house before lessons, playing her Xbox 360 and raiding her fridge. After lessons, she’d sometimes drive me out to Chipotle or Whole Foods to get dinner, and we’d eat the takeout while watching anime. I was closer with her than I was with my mom.

…the day before my lessons, afraid of punishment, I’d furiously try to cram weeks’ worth of practice into a few hours

The piano taught me separation. My refusal to practice piano of course drove a wedge between me and my teacher. The piano teacher who once thanked my mom for bringing me to her, who once saw me as a real talent, refused to teach me anymore when I was a high school freshman, admitting she felt like a failure when she saw me and my “wasted potential.” Even though I persuaded her to teach me longer and actually began practicing again, not wanting to lose someone I value so greatly, I eventually quit a few months afterward. Piano felt like a farce I couldn’t put up with — I couldn’t fake a passion I never had.

I’m older now. I genuinely appreciate piano for what it’s taught me, and I both regret and value my laziness as a kid. We’re expected to put in all of these hours, win all these awards, develop a passion for it, yet when it comes to deciding what to do for the rest of our lives, music is almost never an option — it’s not a stable career, it’s not prestigious, it’s not feasible. Many of my peers were incredible musicians — we had all-state concertmasters, a ton of competition and festival winners, and award-winning orchestras and bands. They played on equal footing with almost every professional musician I’ve heard. They loved and perfected and honed their craft throughout the years.

They all went on to college to major in something entirely different, never considering music as a career. There was something we all knew growing up, maybe from the implications of what our parents said, maybe from their expectations: Music was a stepping stone for something greater, and while it might’ve been something we loved, it was something we were expected to give up to achieve “true success.” And from my point of view, what’s the point of working your life for something you know you probably won’t be able to do as an adult?

…it was something we were expected to give up to achieve “true success.”

Music is truly something meaningful to me, but at the same time, I wonder why Asian parents force us to play music without a clear long-term vision. I wonder about its strange place in the current world, where children excel at it but never touch it professionally. And I think the saddest part about it all is that my piano teacher realizes it, too — she once candidly confessed to me that she didn’t think music is important anymore. She lamented that she wished she could help her students more by teaching STEM, which I currently major in, or just “something useful.”
The Sproul piano had an inscription in black, chubby letters right under its keys: “Everything I learned, I learned at the piano.” About two weeks ago, likely sometime during Thanksgiving break, the piano was destroyed, the keys smashed in beyond repair, and I thought it might symbolize the future of professional piano playing. And maybe that’s why we choose not to continue — at its keys, we’ve learned so much, and yet not enough to keep playing.  

Contact Candace Chiang at cchiang@dailycal.org and follow her on Twitter at @candace_chiang.

The Daily Californian

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