Classical piano performance is bizarre. I was immersed in it as a kid, and got into a love-hate relationship with it.
If my biased read was accurate, my teachers thought I was talented, but disrespectful. I sometimes overheard them chatting with my mom, thinking I was out of hearing range, about how irritating I had been in the most recent lesson. It always upset me.
I never intended to be disrespectful. I just struggled to communicate effectively with adults. They always seemed to be misreading, oversimplifying, or writing off what I was trying to say before giving it a chance.
Communicating with most adults when you’re a kid is hard. They underestimate your capacity for profound experiences, and expect you to explain what you’re thinking in a way that makes sense in their terms. This is why, now, as an adult, I’m very careful not to be condescending to kids. Because I remember exactly how it felt, and how it affected my life.
The communication barrier between me as a kid and all the adults in my life meant that none of them knew about the most important things about me. Including my gender. But that’s a different story.
This one’s about music.
More specifically: I had the most profound artistic breakthrough of my life at age 12, and nobody ever knew about it.
As it goes with most of the articles on this site, this is the first time this story’s ever been told.
I started off with strong opinions
From the time five-year-old me started plunking around on an upright piano, my favorite music was all about the expression of a certain kind of passion.
But being a kid, my understanding of how passion could be expressed in classical music was not very developed. My tastes were very specific.
I loved pieces with a brooding undertone that—in some cases—would become so powerful that it would erupt into violence. I found my favorites in the works of Brahms, Beethoven, Chopin, Scarlatti, Rachmaninov, Bartok. Beethoven, most of all. (He might still be my favorite.)
My mom and piano teacher had a term they used to describe what I liked: “poundy music.” (They didn’t get it—but I didn’t exactly know how to explain myself very well, either, so I can’t blame them.)
Every year for twelve years, I memorized 10–25 classical pieces to perform for an adjudicator. Typically adjudicators were music professors at various universities located in Washington state. Once a year, I’d meet that year’s adjudicator for the first time at a table at the base of an empty performance hall or large church sanctuary, right in front of the first row of seats. I’d walk in alone, hand them my music, step on stage in front of the grand piano, announce myself as though to a crowd, and begin.
The adjudicator would follow along with my carefully organized sheet music in complete silence, assessing my memorized interpretations of every phrase and expression mark, and finally would interact and explore the music with me a little after I’d played everything. A week later, I’d get a report card.
It wasn’t just intimidating—it was grueling. My final year, when I was a senior in high school, I’d played for almost three hours.
The selection of pieces had to span different time periods and styles. And as I became more advanced, they had to meet certain levels of difficulty. My piano teacher was well-versed in these requirements, and every year, she’d help me choose my repertoire. Once that happened, I wouldn’t just learn the music. I’d develop a relationship with it.
That time Bach pissed me off
The first time I remember that happening was at age 12. Up until then, the music had been straightforward enough that I could just learn the pieces and spit them out on demand, impersonally. Like I was a music vending machine. But things were getting more emotionally complex between me and music.
That year I was working on my first Bach invention. Inventions are similar to fugues and typically easier to play: both are constructed entirely of interweaving melodies and countermelodies. Fugues will have anywhere from three to six “voices”—melody lines that reference each other and are woven together, moving from hand to hand, shifting in dynamic importance, fading in and out. Inventions typically have only two voices, and sometimes the structure takes more liberties.
The piece felt to me like a flowery, ornate, doily of a piece that was more about proving the mind of the creator to be brilliant than it was about expressing any kind of interesting feeling.
I resented it.
Eventually, I’d learned and memorized all the notes, but it was a long way from performance standards—and I was completely over it. It bored me, frustrated me, and annoyed me. I felt like Bach was a selfish prick for writing it. So this fancy guy gets famous and now people have to play his stuff that’s just about making him look smart? What’s the point of that? What’s it doing for me? What’s it doing for anyone? I was pissed at Bach.
For about a month, I stopped practicing it altogether.
But as I slacked off on practicing it, I started losing ground. Adjudications were coming. I had to figure something out, but I just couldn’t bring myself to play through a single additional round of dutiful practice.
So I did the only thing that I could stomach.
I tried teaching it a lesson.
I vividly remember the feeling of trying to hurl the stupid invention at the piano, slap it around, and show it what I thought music was really for. I let my feelings about the piece take charge, and bypassed all my thoughts about what I was supposed to be playing. I went into a strange sort of chaotic zen. It was magic.
The experience was both intoxicating and sobering. Not only did I suddenly feel this powerful force driving the music, but I felt all my technical shortcomings exposed.
It changed everything about how I viewed music.
In that moment I realized that if I was really going to “teach it a lesson” I was going to have to rely on my hands to perfectly strike every key exactly as I intended to. I was going to have to practice it until hitting every note felt as simple as breathing. Because only then could I do the truly exciting thing. I could play with something beyond the notes.
It was at that point I started playing with this intangible thing that music was made of. These threads of emotion that communicate more and faster and deeper with whatever mind will involve itself in them.
I felt like Bach became a weird sort of frenemy to me that day. I tried proving to him that I saw past his pretense, and he responded that, yes, he was pretentious, but so what? His music was good enough to match his pompousness about it. I thought he was ridiculous. He thought I was idealistic. We debated each other on a raw, honest level that I could never expect of any person I knew at that time.
I never tried explaining this breakthrough to anyone. I’m pretty sure no one noticed. It was probably for the best; if they had asked me to explain it, there’s no way I would have expected them to understand what I told them.
Today I still think Bach was ridiculous. But we’ve spent a lot more time together. And he’s since then proved a point to me: “so what? I really am at least as much of a genius as I think I am. Maybe even moreso.”
That freaking guy.