This past weekend, we had to each answer a questionnaire so that we could be introduced in more than just a “This is Elaine, everybody!” manner. One of the items in the questionnaire was “Tell us something completely random about you.” I just typed something in that so deeply embedded in me it’s like breathing, but apparently not a single person in the room knew it about me. They knew parts of it, but not all of it.
I took 13 years of classical piano lessons, and the last few years of high school, I truly believed that I was going to be a concert pianist.
I set off for school planning to double-major in piano performance and pre-med, and I was going to take the world by storm. All of my theatre, all of my art… Secondary, tertiary, to my intense love for playing the piano.
My childhood piano teacher, a wonderful tiny woman who I still meet for lunch periodically, would take me to HER piano teacher once or twice a year when my skill level was outgrowing my age. Her teacher emphasized to my parents the need to have me playing an instrument that was able to respond to what I was trying to get it to do — and the little upright piano we had wasn’t it. So after much begging/cajoling/bargaining, we had a fully-restored 1933 Weber 6’1″ mahogany grand piano that took up about half of our living room. I played that piano for many hours every. single. day. — sometimes up to 4 hours of practice, and I’m not exaggerating. It was never continuous — I’d sit down for an hour here, 90 minutes there, 20 minutes at another time… and just play. The Weber has a very fluid and romantic sound, which is perfect for my hand structure and the way I play, as well as the music that I loved the most as a teenager.
My senior year in high school, I selected Bach’s Italian Concerto, Movement I, and Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu as my competition pieces for the annual Keyboard Artists’ Competition at Madison Square Mall, a competition I had won every year since it started except for once — and that year one of the judges happened to be doing her doctoral thesis on one of the pieces I played… So no doubt my 14-year-old interpretation of something so complicated left a bit to be desired. At the time I was very upset (and even quit lessons for about 6 months), but now I can understand why I wouldn’t have won it.
So. I prepared for months for the competition my senior year, and got up on the stage, feeling very confident because I knew I was ready.
I think that my piano bench was set too far to the right, and I didn’t realize it until I had already started playing — too late to make any adjustments. As a result, my body had to twist to hit some of the left-hand notes in the Italian Concerto, and at one point, I felt something pop in my left elbow and my entire arm went hot. Then my pinkie and ring fingers went numb, and a throbbing ache started. I kept playing. I followed the Italian Concerto with the Fantaisie-Impromptu, relying entirely on muscle memory to get me through it, since my left hand wasn’t functioning properly. And I cried the entire time.
I stood up, and held my left arm with my right hand, bowed, and left the stage. I won the competition, probably because I poured my guts out all over the piano that day… Every ounce of stamina and will power I had in my body went into that performance.
That was early November. Even though my arm ached like I had been carrying too-heavy suitcases, I kept playing several hours a day. The piano calmed my teen angst, I think, and I had plenty of it that year. By December I was starting to lose my ability to grip — a pencil, my toothbrush, the hair dryer. And I kept playing. In January, when it was beyond an appropriate level of pain, and definitely more than just a muscle strain, we went to see a doctor who specialized in music performance-related injuries. I had tendonitis in my left elbow, and I was to STOP playing piano for 8 weeks.
Here, Elaine, why don’t you sit in the dark for two months. Don’t worry, it’ll be over soon.
I had cortizone shots and took 2400mg of ibuprofen every day during that time. My arm was in a sling. I took notes in AP Calculus using my right hand, and just didn’t really take notes in my other classes. I gazed longingly at the Weber in the living room. Sometimes I’d sit down and play with my right hand, but it just wasn’t the same. I missed it so, so much.
At the end of 2 months, I was allowed 5 minutes of practice a day. I’d plan all day which piece I was going to play during those five minutes. I’d play in my head, I’d visualize, I’d obsess. And then I’d play. For my high school graduation, I was up to playing about 15 minutes a day by then, so I played a piece that I knew very well and had played hundreds of times before. When I stood at the end, I remember making eye contact with a kid that had always been a complete ass to me in high school, and his mouth was just kind of hanging open. At the graduation party, he came up to me and said, “Your piano playing was really good.” The sincerity of that moment — because I knew that I wasn’t one of his favorite people — stuck with me.
I went off to college, and suffered through crappy pianos in the rehearsal rooms, and having to vulture for the good ones. I had two favorites, but neither of them was anything like my Weber. One was a Yamaha, and it made a bright, happy sound that was perfect for Mozart but overbearing for my greatest love, Chopin. The other was an old Steinway, that had phenomenal action for Bach. If you stayed in the rehearsal rooms for longer than an hour, people started glaring in the windows, wanting their turn. So I didn’t practice as much at Duke. Plus, I missed the sound of my home piano.
My professor was a great guy, and he understood that I wasn’t ONLY going to be taking piano — so he didn’t really pressure me. I spent the entire first semester working on probably the hardest piece I’ve ever played in my life,
Chopin’s Nocturne in G Major, Op. 37, No. 2. It’s a beautiful piece, complex in its simplicity, and requires a lot of dexterity in the right hand and not much in the left, which was perfect for my still-recovering elbow.
After a performance in the atrium of the Music Building, I found my professor and apologized profusely — I had skipped four pages of the piece. He looked at me a little funny: “No, Elaine, you didn’t. You played all of it.” “I skipped the middle! I played the beginning and the end but not the development.” I was so upset, and so sure of my mistake. “You played all eight pages, I promise.” Apparently, I had gone totally right-brained, and blacked out during my performance. If I had missed a note, I would have been completely disoriented and confused, because it would have brought me back to reality. But I left, and my hands just played. That realization was incredible for me.
Sophomore year, my classes were more demanding with labs and the like, and my social life was much busier. I found less and less time to practice. And the Yamaha piano had lost its tuning so it was painful for me to play it (I had perfect pitch at that time — jaw surgery eliminated that the following summer). So there was only one piano in the building I was willing to practice on, and everyone else wanted that piano, too. I went less and less. And I got a B in piano both semesters.
Having never been graded for piano until Duke, I must say that it was a rude awakening. I don’t like being graded for what I do. I do it because I love it, not because I require acceptance for it. I love to show, to perform, but I’m still going to do what I do even if I don’t get attention. Getting graded for piano sucked the joy right out of it for me. Plus, with a lingering ache in my elbow, I was terrified of reinjury. Playing for more than about 45 minutes made it hurt, and so I just played less and less.
The Weber is now in my living room. It’s a magnificent instrument, and it’s in a perfect space for its sound. There’s a wide open area above and behind it, where two flights of stairs open to the upper landing. I don’t play it very often for several reasons… First, Alice likes to “help” and she bangs on my hands until I stop. And I can’t play when the girls are asleep because it would wake them up. And because Tango has decided that a perfectly acceptable place to pee is right under the left end of the keyboard, and I cannot get him to stop despite my best efforts, so it’s nasty stinky. And because I’ve gotten out of the habit. The most I’ve played it in a long time was when Alice was in utero and I was on bedrest — I was allowed to sit up as long as I didn’t start having contractions, so I’d come upstairs and play almost every day. It was wonderful.
I miss it.