“Mom, look at her leg,” a child who sat in the front row remarked, followed by a short giggle and a loud hush. I just began my piece on the piano but my right leg started to shake uncontrollably. It took all my focus to keep my foot steady on the pedal. My fingers, automaton, managed the piece without me. Thankfully. Or not. Those hours of honing into the emotion of the piece were lost. When the recital ended, I couldn’t bear to get up and face the audience. I remember thinking they deserved better. The piano deserved better. The pretty pink dress my mom painstakingly chose for me deserved better. That was me at the first recital of the year – the weakest piano player among my elite peers.
Inadequate. I learned the full force of its meaning at the age of 10.
I wasn’t sure how I got into the composers group at the music school. Aside from composing one simple piece which wowed my piano teacher, I was desperately lacking. I couldn’t keep up despite much trying. We had weekly group practice where the teacher would play chords/arpeggios and we had to play them by ear. I would get most of them wrong…at every practice…to the collective sighs of the group.
It got worse when the teacher started pairing us up and making us compose short pieces. My partner, a girl whose name and face I can no longer recall, would ask me to leave her alone as she managed the assignments herself. I remember sitting behind her most of the time (so she didn’t have to see my face), looking at the bow on her head. She would wear a different one every time; each a different color and embellishment.
The teacher also started making me stay later than the others to help me. After a few attempts, her impatience grew to frustrations. Frustrations unabated turned to full blown anger. Harsh words were said, which I can no longer recall. The more she berated me, the worse I performed. I felt tears pooling in my eyes the first time she raised her voice but then I started noticing that her arm hairs would bristle every time she got agitated. I chose to focus on the dancing hairs, instead.
It happened that I wasn’t the only pariah and enemy of the group. There was another girl whom everyone loved to hate, albeit for a completely different reason. So quiet as to be mistaken for arrogance, she was the most talented and accomplished of us all. When she saw how I was treated by the ‘many-bow’ girl, she approached me and asked if she could partner with me.
Kindness and friendship. I also felt the full force of their importance at the age of 10.
It was the start of a long lasting friendship between the strongest and the weakest. The five years between us made her more like an older sister. Though her talent didn’t rub off on me, she was a patient mentor and the kindest friend. She was always honest with me about what I needed to work on. She would also involve me when composing her pieces. She would ask for my opinions like they mattered. Me, the one who could barely play anything properly!
Through her, I also had a first hand look at what passion and dedication meant. She would practice like her life depended on it. She practiced till her fingers bled. Even that didn’t stop her. She would put on band aids and continue. She was constantly listening to different pianists and getting ideas for improvements. She never tired. She never gave up. She taught without telling. She did it by being herself. She might have been blessed with an undeniable talent but her work ethic and the sacrifices she made were all her doing.
We had a big year-end recital every year when we’d get to perform our original pieces with students from other countries. Being at the bottom made me feel fearful and extremely insecure. I would compare my skills to the others and fretted about my shortcomings. How she hated hearing my pity talks. She told me to stop worrying about the others. All that mattered was for me to compose a piece for the recital. But, that proved to be the hardest to do. The music I used to hear in my head had become elusive. It was slowly abandoning me. I couldn’t compose another piece without it sounding like everything I had heard. The concert drew closer and I was at a loss. Somehow, between her and my teacher nudging me along, I managed to piece together something musical. Sort of.
The students from other countries arrived a few days before the recital to rehearse together. Their teachers listened to my composition and deemed it below standard. They started adding ‘spices’ to elevate the underwhelming piece. Even then, it was still sub par. Sensing my desperation, my friend agreed to accompany me on the second piano and added her own concoctions. That helped to convince them to let me perform. I was grateful but felt a lot worse. It was now a more difficult piece that required skills that I did not have. Also, it was no longer my piece. Everyone was simply trying to help but the pressure was suffocating. Debilitating.
The night before the recital, alone in the practice room, I wanted to bawl my heart out. My friend walked in and saw my face. She sat next to me and started making small talks. She asked me what I thought of the two teachers from other countries. I told her that they were quite humorous compared to our teacher. But, one of them stank with a hole on his sock and another made funny gestures every time he spoke. We both started laughing hysterically. We went to grab a quick dinner at a newly opened KFC. She bought one chicken leg for me and one for herself. She didn’t come from a well-off family, so I was especially grateful for the treat. We joked and laughed. Practice was manageable again that night. The year-end recital went reasonably well without obvious hiccups.
After two years, I withdrew from the group although my friend stayed on. I realized three things. One was that I was in group where hard work alone was no longer sufficient. Forget about thriving. I was barely surviving every week. Two, I realized that I loved music but not enough to dedicate my life to it. I was different from my friend and the other kids in the group. And it was okay to be different and to want different things. Lastly, I realized that even if I left the group, I would always have the one thing that had mattered most to me – my friend. I had a feeling that our friendship would last beyond composing music. She has remained my oldest and dearest friend to date.
I remember sitting at the piano at home a few weeks after I withdrew. I was playing Moon River when it returned to me. Yes, I could hear music again in my mind. I composed a new piece that day and it was all mine.