RECOVERING PIANIST FACES DEMONS FROM PAST
In many respects, my life is quite different from the way I might have imagined it, say, twenty years ago. Although I always vacillated back and forth between music and writing, by the time I graduated from high school, I had serious aspirations to become a concert pianist. All throughout junior high and high school, I woke up at 4:30 in the morning to practice the piano for several hours before I had to go to school. Sometimes, I practiced over the noon hour. And then after school, I practiced yet another two-three hours. On weekends and during the summers, I frequently practiced up to eight hours a day. By the time I graduated from high school, I’d been accepted as a piano performance major into the Peabody Conservatory of Music, and Indiana University — both top-ranked music schools in the nation. I ended up attending Indiana University, where I went on to receive a B.M. in piano performance, as well as an M.M. in musicology, and most (but not quite) of a Ph.D. in musicology, before “defecting” from the music school and joining the M.F.A. program in creative writing. Sometimes I wonder if things would have been different . . . better, or worse . . . or if I would still be a pianist today . . . if my parents had let me attend Peabody in Baltimore.
When I dropped out of my Ph.D. program in order to become a writer, a lot of people, including my parents, thought that I’d completely flaked out. In fact, for a number of years, my parents just kept telling everyone in my hometown that I was working on my Ph.D. in musicology because they were apparently embarrassed to let anyone know that I’d up and decided to become a writer instead. It was, without question, however, the best decision I’d ever made. It was the first time in my life where I’d made a decision that was entirely my own, and entirely for me, and in flagrant disregard of everyone telling me to do otherwise.
I’d gone through most of graduate school in musicology in default mode . . . I was okay at it, I enjoyed the writing, I had a couple of papers accepted at conferences which always seemed entirely bizarre to me because I always wrote them all when I was stoned out of my gourd . . . but mostly I was doing it because I didn’t think that I was good enough to pursue graduate work in piano performance, and I didn’t know what else to do. I had a teaching assistantship in music theory, and people seemed to expect it of me, so I dutifully plodded through one master’s degree, and almost the entirety of a doctorate, simply because I was convinced I was too much of a loser to be able to do anything else.
In retrospect, I think that I probably could have pursued graduate work in piano performance had I really wanted to, but I lacked the necessary confidence. When I came to music school I was a big fish in a small pond transferred to larger waters, and I’d also accumulated over 60 hours of transfer credits toward my undergraduate degree, so that during my first year in music school I was an eighteen-year-old coming in as a junior. I understood that out-of-state tuition was expensive . . . as a transfer student I wasn’t eligible for the music scholarships, and I was eliminated from being eligible for academic scholarships because my father refused to fill out the FAFSA as he felt the information it requested wasn’t anybody’s business. As a result, I was under a lot of pressure to finish my undergraduate degree in a timely manner, and I was frequently reminded of how much it was all costing my parents.
What I really needed, though, as a musician, was time. Time to adjust. Time to mature. Time to learn. Time to rebuild confidence in a highly impersonal, highly competitive setting. I spent much of my undergraduate career horribly stressed out and semi-paralyzed with a debilitating combination of depression and fear of failure. The failure rolled around soon enough during the spring of my senior year, when I didn’t pass my senior recital hearing and had to postpone my senior recital until the summer. My recital program was very difficult, and I knew I wasn’t ready . . . I didn’t feel ready . . . but it never occurred to me to to simply ask for more time. I was supposed to graduate that spring. It would be a failure if I didn’t.
Having to retake my senior recital hearing was a more tangible failure, however. I was completely devastated, broken-hearted, humiliated. It was horrifying. It seems like such a small thing now, in retrospect, but I was raised in a way that didn’t allow any room for anything less than absolute success. I remember being maybe 6 or 7 years old, and taking Red Cross swimming lessons over the summer. I hated swimming. My parents had always been so freakishly overprotective that the whole thing seemed scary and counterintuitive, and I can’t even begin to emphasize enough how much I hated it. I was sure I would drown, having had it drilled into my head that that’s what happened to people who immersed themselves in bodies of water that went over their heads . . . they drowned. I opted out of the more scarier tasks of the Minnows class — the instructor had, after all, kindly given us a choice, and mine seemed only prudent — but this also meant that at the end of the class, I didn’t earn a Minnows patch. I remember being hugely relieved . . . I was done with swimming lessons! Hanging up my swimsuit downstairs after we came back from the last day of swim class, though, I remember my mother coming downstairs and standing by me at the clothesline. “You make me so embarrass of you!” I remember her hissing at me. “Your father so embarrass of you! You just let self flunk and be quitter like that? Go right ahead.”
Somehow, I found myself pleading for another chance to take the Minnows class — promising that I’d come through for my parents this time. I was still utterly convinced that I was going to drown. But at 6 or 7, I apparently feared my parents’ rejection of me more than I feared certain death by drowning. Somehow, I found myself stuck with taking every single goddamn Red Cross class after Minnows, and then swimming competitively for seven more years after that. And I still hated swimming.
Somehow, I found the wherewithal to retake my senior recital hearing the summer after I was supposed to graduate, and this time I passed. I played a good recital, too. But still, the damage was already done. I was much too shaken up, and too worn down from stress and panic, too worried about memory slips, too overcome with performance anxiety, for it to feel like anything other than a huge relief to quietly ease into the relative sanctuary of graduate work in first music theory and then musicology. Nonetheless, I felt guilty — like I’d been marked for all time as a failure and a quitter.
My parents never came to any of my university piano recitals, or any of my graduations. It was always too expensive, and/or they were too busy. My mother said they were holding out for me to receive my Ph.D., and that the other ones “didn’t count.” The strange thing, however, is that she wanted pictures to comemorate the graduations that she didn’t come to because they “didn’t count.” Since I didn’t bother going to any of my graduate-degree graduations, this posed a bit of a problem. My mother therefore decided to rectify this omission by making me pose for fake Master’s degree pictures when I came home to visit shortly after receiving my M.M. in musicology. There are some very strange “graduation” pictures in existence at my parents’ house in which I am wearing my father’s University of Wyoming regalia over my pajamas, with an enormous and obviously fake corsage pinned to my front, with bed head and a decidedly snarky expression on my face.
It should be noted that there are several instances of classically-trained pianists having fraught relationships with the keyboard and defecting to poetry. Poet Diane Wakoski, for example, wrote about her decision to give up the piano, and how she never played again. I remember reading her as a teenager, and thinking How could she have just given it up like that?, never thinking that years later, it might be me.
Strangely enough, the stories (or the novel) that I’ve been writing this last year, are all stories about pianists, musicians, and music. At one point, I realized, though, that I was holding myself at a bit of a safe/ironic distance from some of the characters . . . that I was holding myself from a safe distance from the music, and holding myself from a safe distance from my own past. I realized that in order to write these stories to the best of my abilities, I was going to have to dig a little bit deeper, and work through some of my own demons. That I was going to have to open myself up again to music in ways that have been sometimes painful, but ultimately, surprisingly cathartic.
For the first time, my writer self is coming face to face with my former pianist self, and it feels as things are strangely coming around full circle.
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