How do you explain the different ways you love? In Greek there are four separate words to express love. However, there is no word in Greek for our base love of toys, gadgets, french fries, and television, or of philosophy, physics, mathematics, art, literature, theatre, and music. For the months I was contract teaching I feasted my brain and body on metaphorical candy. It was my way of bribing myself to persevere through sleepless nights of arduous work. However, that era has terminated and opened up to a new year and time of reflection.
I have now committed myself to taking music exams at some point in the future, but that won’t be an easy task either. I need music as much as I need oxygen, but I do not experience a primal need to create music in the same way as I do to write or do research in physics. When I suggested studying music as a college major when I was in high school, my mother asked me what part of music I like the best. Jokester as I am, I said listening to it, though it is a half truth. This is due to my complicated relationship with the piano and my voice. Some of my earliest and most treasured memories are of sitting next to my mother at the age of three while she taught me to read music and play facile pieces on her spinet, a gift given to her out of love by my father on their anniversary. These memories form a gift from my mother to me and a foundation for my experience with making music, but not unlike an old house foundation, later became cracked and crumbled to some extent.
Musical education in the US was not standardized when I was a child as it is in Canada. Many colleges and universities did not require an entrance audition. I don’t know if this has changed. This is a mixed blessing, as it means that a musical education is accessible to anyone, and not just those who can afford music lessons as children or who have the support of their family to study music before college. It also means that many colleges and universities produce music major graduates whose education might be faulty. In Canada, as I understand it, there are conservatories with international reputations that guide some of the musical education, and students must pass certain exams in order to qualify to teach. The teachers adhere to a curriculum which guides the musical education.
My experience as a child was that the teachers found to teach me were lacking. One I had before the age of twelve or so even stated she had nothing left to teach me, though I knew nothing of rubato, pedaling, finger pedaling, or really any technique at all. What is even more astonishing is that I had never even played so much as a C major scale with her as my teacher! Already a temperamental child, I became frustrated with the limited instruction, even with a teacher who chatted with me for five of my precious thirty minutes in my lesson, and eventually quit. I took piano lessons off and on until I was about eleven or twelve and again when I was fourteen. That last year I was so at odds with the teacher my parents foisted on me that my mother stated memorably that she didn’t care if I ever touched a piano again. I remember, like most children who play an instrument, her continual pecking from the kitchen while I practiced about wrong notes and my bad ear. When I picked up the piano again later in life, I learned my mother was happy to hear of my renewed music making.
As a senior in high school, I did find an experienced teacher myself through our local community college. I paid for the lessons myself out of a practically nonexistent savings account but could not afford the lessons in addition to becoming again frustrated when we spent an entire lesson trying to time the length of a pause between two notes in Fuer Elise. In that month I did learn the famous Beethoven solo from scratch by memory which provided me much comfort on the Wellesley College Steinways that populated each dormitory and practice rooms. I wrote a film in French for my French class in which my friends and I acted that documented my struggle between music and science.
I briefly studied piano in my later twenties, but my perfectionism and anxiety curtailed the effort in less than three months. However, it was in my thirties that my relationship started to mend. I was matched with a maternal and patient instructor at the McGill Conservatory in Montreal. I began to learn to pluck the keys to play staccato, to create a singing tone, and yes, to play scales. My husband, Andrew, has also been extremely supportive of my music making. My supporters are the architects who build new musical memories in my mind. My foundation is still cracked, as I have not yet made playing piano or singing part of my daily routine like brushing my teeth, as my kind teacher in Montreal recommended. However, perhaps this is what my first goal should be.
We are always growing up. George Smoot, the physics Nobel laureate, told me upon learning about my childhood fascination with the universe that I never grew up. I used to think he was right, but now I disagree. Perhaps my childlike mind needed to grow up and pass through the trials it has, needed to find new connections, teachers, support, and patience, before I could be ready for this moment to truly love the piano without abandoning it. I do love the process of playing piano; it is almost an incomparable experience for me, though I suffer from inertial issues with starting. I have overcome much before this though, so I am confident I can conquer this small impediment as well. My piano I love deeply and wholly. Music is a companion that does not abandon me.
So what is the word for the love between a mere human and the divine in music or between the music student and her teacher?