Après un rêve
I started piano lessons when I was 5 years old, clumsily plunking out the single staff melodies finger by finger on our oak upright Yamaha. I loved opening the hinged wooden cover, finding the keys draped in that elegant red felt. I felt akin to those black and white keys, solid, defined, usable, beautiful, and still, always waiting to be played. I would stroke the keys, the black, the white, bang my palms on the clusters of porcelain, slide the fingernail of my index finger from the highest note to the lowest and back, enthralled by the breadth of sound. I would find songs I knew (Twinkle, Twinkle or Three Blind Mice) and would hold down the Sostenuto pedal through the entirety of the short pieces, listening to the thick, dwindling sound cluster until it was almost silence. The notes on the page were not as appealing: clefs, key signatures, sharps, flats, fingering. Practicing meant playing the same song over and over again until you hated it. It meant those dreaded Hanon scales, ascending arpeggios, up and down, across the keys until you forgot why you loved the instrument in the first place. Except you never really did. And years later realized that because you can read music you can do anything.
I had grown up hearing about my Taita, my dad’s mother, who was a concert pianist. As a boy my dad would stand by her side as her fingers spun across the keys, his eyes wide. He would tell me I looked like her, short and stocky, busty by the time I was ten, which must’ve meant I was going to be play like her too. Although my mom would probably tell you differently, I’m not sure there was ever a time I didn’t want to play the piano. I would take years of lessons, settling in around 16 with a teacher who went to my church and let me play anything and everything I wanted (at one point I was learning Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata side by side with “My heart will go on”).
One of my favorite sounds in the world has always been an orchestra tuning. The A played by the oboe, the winds fluttering, quieting, the A again, the strings entering cacophonously, musically, the chaos anticipating the order to follow, each separate timbre perfectly in sync with its neighbor, like holding two crayons in your hand and tracing a heart. As an elementary school student I wanted nothing more than to play the cello, a privilege only the fourth graders in our school were allowed to enjoy. But we were moving during November of the school year and for two months I had to watch other kids leave class with the instrument I loved and go to the orchestra rehearsal I had dreamed of for so long. To my dismay at my new San Diego elementary school orchestra didn't even start until the 5th grade and the cello wasn't offered. I played the violin unhappily until entering middle school.
The first time I got my rented cello alone in my room, I took it out of its case, undressing it, revealing the scratched, taupe, wood, the chipped, curved f holes, the spun scroll, the smooth black fingerboard, and metallic strings. I tightened the bow and rosined the delicate horse hair stretched taut between the delicate arch. I sat at the kitchen chair I had dragged into my room that morning and tucked the cello between my legs, holding it tight with my knees. I pulled the bow sloppily across the lowest string with my right hand, waiting a moment before using my left middle finger to press the string to the fingerboard close to the scroll. I paused, the edges of my mouth turning up. I almost blushed. Jaws. A movie I had never seen, the soundtrack to which I could now play.
My poor cello teacher, Catherine, never seemed able to keep my attention. A small British woman with perfect pitch, she would frequently get frustrated with my lack of focus and have me lie on the floor under her piano as she plucked out notes I was to name. She would drone the A440 at the beginning of each lesson attempting to instill in me the pitch to which I was to tune my instrument and myself. Catherine had quickly removed the familiar tapes from the fingerboards, leaving me floundering for notes I could read but not play. I would tell her how frustrated I was, beg her to give me back the markers, and she would tell me I simply needed more practice. So I would close myself in my room, and stare at the music. I would try to play, each phrase sounding contrite and abbreviated. I could hear it in my mind, the wave of the vibrato, the crisp tapping of my fingers on the strings, the slick transitions from one position to the next, the clean defined pitches, the smooth pull of my bow across the strings perfectly parallel with the bridge. But I could not realize it.
My freshman year of high school my parents bought me a cello, brand new and chestnut brown. I remember the fade of the stain, the paisley of the grain. By the time I got this instrument I could play Bach, and did, pressing and vibrating the strings with my fingers, sliding my hands up and down the smooth wood of the neck, playing the piece I had now been practicing for a year, the first six measures of which were almost perfect. For that moment, because I could make music for those short six measures on an instrument of such undeniable physical beauty, I knew I would play it forever just as I had promised my parents I would, would practice for hours a day, would practice until the strings’ sound bent to my will.
My Junior year I quit the orchestra and joined the chorus. While singing at church or around the house, my parents and friends had always told me I had a lovely voice, and by now, despite being the first chair cellist in my high school's orchestra, my perceived pitch problems had overtaken any joy I had in the instrument. I knew deep in my gut that no matter what Catherine or my mom told me, it did not sound right. Months before, my parents had taken me to see a famous cellist whose name I cannot quite remember. After a breathtaking concert, for his encore he played Fauré’s art song “Après un rêve.” The cello wept, the cellist swaying side to side with the bow, as though rocking the instrument and himself back to sleep after that beautiful, terrible dream. The audience burst open as the piece ended, standing and shouting. At that time I had no idea there was text to this piece, I only understood the title due to my limited French, only knew the dream was everything he had ever wanted, and his waking world only darkness. I cried myself to sleep that night and dreamt I was on that stage, except my cello was out of tune, and the strings wouldn’t tighten. I spun the pegs endlessly but the sound didn’t change, and I could never play in front of people like that.
I moved into the chorus seamlessly, my loud, irreverent personality deeply appreciated amongst more artistic types and even got cast in our high school’s production of Fiddler on the Roof. After a few voice lessons I told my choir director I wanted to be an opera singer, and she—a failed opera singer herself who had never let go of the stage as indicated by blush whipped so high on her cheeks that even though we worshipped her we called her a clown—told me she didn't think I was cut out for it. I’m sure she thought this a kindness, but I would tell this story triumphantly while attending the conservatory, as though I had already made it just by nature of paying my scholarship-less tuition by way of student loans and being cast in a small lead my second year.
In college and in grad school I finally did learn to practice. I spent time at the piano learning notes, translated foreign languages, and memorized sounds I didn't understand. I rehearsed when and how to gesture (which I would sadly forget the moment I stood in front of an audience). I could sing in tune, usually anyhow, but my stage fright was debilitating. Before standing up even in a classroom, my heart would beat so fast I would feel on the brink of death. I would stand at the piano, my prep simply an attempt to still the shaking of my hands. It was worse if I wore high heels, my feet unable to ground, my calves shortened, my knees trembling. In a session with my coach and pianist, a small, swarthy, sensitive, South African man, just weeks before my graduate recital, I excused myself to cry in the bathroom for 15 minutes. When I came back, he had closed the piano cover and was leaning on it, looking at me intensely across the wide expanse of the piano’s grand back. I apologized for crying, and finally looked him in the eye. “There is a small part of you that is not afraid,” he said. “You have to access that part, and then, if only for an hour, you have to try to live there.”
I took a break from music after grad school and got a job. My parents had given my cello to an inner city school in Washington, DC my freshman year of college, since my dreams were more focused on the Met stage than in the pit. When my parents sold their house to travel around the country in their RV for a year, they gave my piano to my brother Jeffrey so my niece, Alysha, could learn to play. She's is in nursing school now, and Jeffrey recently sold the piano for a thousand dollars on craigslist, an act that against my will felt as though a part my self was no longer mine, as though with the piano he had given away all of the wonder surrounding a seemingly random combination of sounds somehow changing the space in a room, prying open your heart, uncovering a joy, a safety you thought long gone.
My one year break turned to two turned to three turned to ten. “Where’d you go to school?” “The Boston Conservatory.” “Oh, what do you play?” “I sing. Sang. I have a Master’s degree in voice.” “You're an Opera Singer!” I smile, “No. Not anymore.”Sometimes I will hear a Bach suite or a Beethoven concerto or the opening lilt of the violin signaling the beginning of “Donde lieta” and my chest will swell, and I'll think maybe I could do it again, maybe I can practice harder, be better, play in tune, stand solidly in that pin prick of a place where there is no fear. I close my eyes and let the sound of possibility settle warmly on my chest.