Instrument of torture: The story of a piano, a flaw, and a search for joy.


Winning isn’t everything, football coaches likes to say. It’s the only thing. But music is supposed to be different. With music, if you don’t make it to Carnegie Hall, there’s a consolation prize—you can still play for your own enjoyment. Music, after all, has charms to soothe. But in the province between competence and genius, enjoyment is elusive. If you can play 22 of the 24 Chopin preludes, as I can, you know, as I do, precisely what you lack ever to play the other two. Music can also torment.

This problem of getting to enjoyment once reality has mugged your dreams is peculiarly American. It’s the painful side of our passion for equal access, the democratic answer to the snobbish European policy of “Only geniuses need apply.” Who gets more lessons than the American kid? From gymnastics to art, from tennis to piano, middle-class children are exposed to every cultural form. Many of us get good; some of us get better than good; and in becoming the local whizzes we hear ourselves hailed as prodigies, headed for a place called Carnegie Hall (and we hear the parentheses draped around the idea of enjoyment if we fail). But audiences don’t want competence; they expect a miracle of nature, a Mozart, a Midori. In music, finally, only genius does apply.

Starting out, I displayed signs of genius. When I first heard the piano’s siren call I was 9 years old, visiting cousins, listening upstairs while downstairs they played duets—it did to me what poetry did to Emily Dickinson: It took the top of my head off. Within hours, at Grandma’s, I was breaking the code of middle C, teaching myself to read music. Weeks later, back home, I began lessons with Miss Petersen; unlike ballet, which I battled, this was a natural form, bodying forth what I intuitively knew. I didn’t have to hunt for the notes; my fingers homed in, with a touch producing a melodic line that sang. In the first year I mastered the rudiments, with counting the only one requiring effort. By my second recital I was playing works by the serious composers—such as Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-sharp Minor—and that was when I heard myself called a prodigy, bound for New York. Performance, then, seemed the point, a notion reinforced when I heard my first professional pianist. Presumably also a former prodigy, he became my model and, in moving me to tears—sobs—with Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata, my mystical guide. I was called.

I kept the mystical part to myself, as well as the intimations of vocation. In the ‘50s girls didn’t have vocations. Meanwhile, I advanced con brio. By Year 3, my teacher, Mr. Schultz, declared me ready for the city. Even the rigors of advanced training didn’t dispel my illusions, not those first years. Handed music I judged waaay beyond me, but abiding by his injunction to conceive the whole as well as parse the measure, I’d astound myself to find the piece in my hands, mine. Soon I embarked on entire suites—Schumann’s Fantasiestuecke, Grieg’s Holberg Suite, Brahms’ heavenly Opus 118, Six Piano Pieces. I was building a repertoire, a very encouraging word; you build a repertoire not for home use but for a career, oui? Also encouraging were the superior-plus ratings I won at my annual adjudications. But most of all it was Brahms who confirmed I was special. Playing his ballades and rhapsodies—for me, pure passion on tap—a “nice” girl could express, legitimately, all the rapturous feeling otherwise proscribed. So it was settled: My Carnegie debut would feature Brahms. Next: What to wear?

Looking back now, I see it was with Brahms, when I was 15, 16—before I realized I was not a prodigy—that my enjoyment at the piano was purest. Recognition of my mere competence came gradually. In studying various suites, I bumped up against the one piece (or two, as with the Chopin preludes) that, because of its rhythmic complexity—my problem rudiment—I saw I could never play. Worse, in group recitals in Seattle, I encountered a girl who could. Foursquare music I could parse, but with sixteenth and thirty-second notes I was more approximate than precise. Finally, I connected the dots: (1) Since music is the art of sound in time, my flaw was central; and (2) genius would not be so flawed. So I was not undone when my teacher suggested, but did not urge, that I consider the conservatory. I did consider it, and I rejected it.

I was a pretty good sport, considering that the Dream had evaporated and I had no Plan B. In college I declared several majors, taking piano as an elective. I gave a senior recital—Bach, Schumann, Poulenc, and of course Brahms—more to vindicate all the lessons than to rekindle hope. With the pressure off I played well, had a good time. (I wore crepe.) Then, in graduate school in Europe, much too late, the Dream revived itself, fanned by European classmates who “adored” my playing. Europeans know, yes? What if….what if I specialized in the Romantics, big on passion, not so big on counting, might I yet make a career?

Returning home I took a job with a concert management agency to soak up ambience—and got a very rude awakening. Observing the towering greats—Rubinstein, Horowitz, Michelangeli, Watts—I sank back in humiliation, chastened by a level of playing leagues beyond me. What had I been thinking of, sneered a hypercritical voice that, as it happened, sounded a lot like Jerry Brown’s.

So the question became how to get back to enjoyment. It meant making a friend out of a lover, a recovery process all the harder if you can play all 24 Chopin preludes brilliantly and still not make it. It’s then that many musicians quit altogether. Those who do not quit, who remain in the foothills of music—as teachers, orchestra members, Sunday amateurs—must first somehow come to terms.

For my part, I could not quit playing; things still happened to the top of my head whenever I heard the piano. But was I enjoying myself? Not really. With my inner critic firmly ensconced (proving as tenacious as the real Jerry Brown), for 20 years I played with a bad “Who cares, anyway?” attitude. Practicing less—I was searching for my genius elsewhere—I let mistakes into my repertoire, and with new pieces, I skimmed rather than parsed.

Once pleased to play for others, I now wouldn’t touch the keys without a petition. I’d comply eventually, because to know me was still to hear me play. But not if there was a student of piano in the house, and not without serving plenty of wine to soften criticism. This was not joy.

My breakthrough, finally, had less to do with joy than with guilt. The guilt came when my husband and I took out a very big loan and bought a very grand piano. Hyperventilating at the expense, and not sure I wanted my piano anyway, I had to put our acquisition to use, not just dust it. Plus, a huge instrument in a teeny apartment makes for acoustics unforgiving of sloppy playing. I had to get good again.

So I began to play daily, limbering up with Czerny exercises, then hacking away at my repertoire’s undergrowth with measure-for-measure parsing. This stimulated the first wave of pleasure: playing the right notes. In turn, getting good again activated a second factor: my neighbors. Rather than asking me to keep it down, they opened their doors when I played. They became lyrical expressing their enjoyment; now they actually make requests. And the enjoyment spreads: The handyman likes my “tunes”; tenants from other floors cruise the ninth, “where the music is”; a construction crew shouts “Encore!” after a mighty Bach. My, my, my, this is very nice.

This time, though, I was prepared. Getting good again had to be accepted not for its promise but for its pleasure. I wobbled at first. When my neighbors asked, “Why aren’t you playing at Carnegie Hall?” I had twinges. And when a couple new to the floor exclaimed, “Whoa, we thought you were a recording!” I had a bad week. But then another voice emerged in my head that put to me the key question: “Do you really count yourself unlucky that you play like an angel? Give it a break!” This voice, sounding less like Jerry Brown’s than Murphy Brown’s, introduced a long-overdue note of asperity, freeing me up for a policy review.

Why, indeed, should enjoyment be had only atop Parnassus? If only titans can experience music’s joy, those of us in the foothills are, well, screwed. On equity grounds, I object. We Americans tend to think that if you’re not a winner you are therefore a loser, that if life delivers few of its glittering prizes—or, poor sap, none at all—yours is a benighted existence. In its premise and conclusion it’s a merciless formulation, fatal to self, to contentment, certainly to any joy, and I reject it. Also fatal is an inner critic. I fired mine.

How had I gone so far astray? Mostly I know a hawk from a handsaw, but our culture’s approach to Culture (and to Life) is driven not by love of craft but by tests that rank and compare. My teachers surely transmitted the counsel to enjoy music for itself, but I, working my secret scorecard, was not receiving. “Are we having fun yet?” is bumper-sticker rhetoric with deep implications.

These days I play for friends even if they have studied the piano, and I don’t try to knock out their critical capacity with wine. When a Russian friend sighed over my Scriabin, saying “I feel I’m in a conservatory,” I sighed too: “That good, eh?” And when we went to hear the young pianist William Wolfram perform, I felt no twinge of resentment. Okay, so I liked my interpretation of a Gershwin piece better, but to save my life, I couldn’t play any of the rest of his rhythmically stupefying program, and rather than get melancholic, I admired him for it.

But best is the change in the core relationship between me and the music. The yipping inner critic is gone, as is the static, and my contact with music is direct. And what makes contact into communion is that, in getting good again, I now play better than ever. Expressive as my playing was in my early years, I was playing from feeling imagined, projected; now I play from feeling experienced and authorized.

And after much struggle I understand this: If you can play only a fraction of the 24 Chopin preludes—and my grip on the 22 has loosened; I play with greater feeling but also with less dexterity—pleasure yourself with the preludes you’ve got.

Carla Seaquist is a writer living in Washington. Her play, “The Washington-Sarajevo Talks,” premiered recently at Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater. This piece is adapted from one that appeared in Lear’s magazine.