Playing Through the Tempest
I sit down at my new-to-me piano and plant a kiss on her battered music rack. I used a digital piano for the last fourteen years, and it served me well, but it’s like a robot compared to a human being--an acoustic piano has a spirit. She has some scrapes and dings, but her sound is full and sonorous, and it feels so good to sit in my dining room and play when I have a spare minute.
I open my tattered music binder, filled with hole-punched copies of my sheet music. Corrections and reminders cover the page--a circled fingering, an underlined dynamic. Most of this music was memorized when I was a teenager, but now it’s all muscle memory, and if I’m interrupted, I can’t find where I am again. Which is a problem, because I’m interrupted almost immediately. I flip to the third movement of Beethoven’s “Tempest” Sonata and hear a crash.
I stop playing and see my daughter standing next to the cabinet with cereal boxes spilling around her. She grins at me, holding a fistful of Grape Nuts, and I decide it’s not an emergency--I keep playing. A minute later I hear shrieks from my boys. I can’t tell if they are rough-housing or fighting, and I decide to pretend I can’t hear them. However, the thunderous steps downstairs and the crying mean I have to stop a moment later, just as I reach a note on the lower left side of the score in my piano teacher’s handwriting saying, “More insistent!”
I used to wonder how I would play the piano when I had kids. I practiced for two to four hours most days, sometimes even skipping school when I had a competition coming up. I fantasized about soundproof rooms that I could play in while my kids slept, or an electric piano with headphones (did try that one for a while). During my first pregnancy, I played and sang as my belly hit the edge of the keyboard. As a new mother, I strapped my son into the Baby Bjorn and played as he made little coos that I pretended were singing. But as he grew, he wanted to press the keys and escape the baby carrier, and as our family grew it became almost impossible to sit down and play. The final nail in the coffin was our digital keyboard’s sticking keys--so many of the keys stopped working that I stopped playing.
The piano had faded in importance in my life, anyway--I’d tried out for BYU’s School of Music as a senior in high school, my dad driving me through the snowy roads of southern Idaho and northern Utah for my audition. I’d prepared the “Tempest” sonata as part of my set, focusing especially hard on the difficult and showy third movement. I’d known when I walked into the recital hall that I wouldn’t be playing my entire set, but I was shocked when the adjudicator’s asked for the slow second movement instead. I completely flubbed it and walked out near tears. I’m still not sure if it was stage fright, shock at their choice of the second movement, or simple lack of preparation, but I was not accepted into the program.
I probably shouldn’t have been surprised when I received my rejection letter, but I was devastated. I sat on the front porch for a long time, silently crying and refusing to talk to anybody. After that, the piano felt tainted--every time I played, I was reminded of my failure. Sure, I loved music, but I wasn’t good enough. I made a half-hearted attempt to prepare for audition again as a freshman at BYU, but my heart wasn’t in it, and I called it off. I then broke my wrist the weekend before the audition, as if to eternally seal the deal that I would not be studying piano.
In high school, I hated being interrupted while I practiced. Sometimes my mom would call for me to set the table or answer a question or come to dinner, and I refused to acknowledge her until I’d finished the piece. (I was a delight, as most teenagers are). I picture my adolescent self, bombarded with fighting boys and flinging cereal and sticky fingers playing a noisy bass accompaniment. She would have imploded. I’m not exactly a relaxed person (I know you’re all snickering right now), but I have the beginnings of flexibility, thanks to motherhood.
The “Tempest” sonata is nicknamed after Shakespeare’s The Tempest, not an actual storm, but I can’t help but relate to the tempest of life swirling around me as I play. The notes don’t live in my brain like they did fifteen years ago. My tempo is slower, and my right hand fifth finger is weak and slips off the keys.
I’m not where I thought I’d be when I was seventeen years old, at the piano for hours each day and dreaming of entrance into the School of Music. I’m lucky if I have fifteen interrupted minutes to play. But that girl still lives inside of me, and she wanted to be sure she still played the piano when she had little ones. It’s not a soundproofed room with a Steinway baby grand, and I’m not note perfect. But that love of music is still there, under the layers of changes and life, and I’ll keep playing through the tempest.
This post was written as part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to read the next post in this series "Remember This."