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  • Sophia Dunkin-Hubby

Relearning to Play the Piano


I learned to play the piano as a kid and continued to play long after I stopped taking lessons. It has never been about the performance aspect for me, I still get weird about playing for people, but making a piece of music come alive using my hands is magic. I don't have a piano at home. I don't have the space and have never enjoyed playing on a keyboard. I've always used the piano at my parents house - a baby grand, the same one I learned to play on. Except I haven't played at all over the last three years, other priorities taking my time and attention, until a few weeks ago.


Our lovely old piano stopped being able to hold a tune. Something about the wood and glue shrinking so the pegs weren't tight enough. It was an old instrument, so old it had actual ivory keys. My mom bought it refurbished before I was born. But it's time had come. My parents decided to replace it and a new piano took its place.


I helped pick out the new one. Every piano has a different sound and feel and the right mix is a matter of personal preference. The feedback of the keys - how hard you have to press to get a sound - varies. Steinways, for example, require a lot of pressure. They have a lovely, clear sound but I object to having to pound on them to get anything out of them. (My high school had an old Steinway grand piano in the theater with the same feel.) The shape of the instrument and length of the strings influence the sound. Although most pianos of a given size look the same they can sound vastly different. I tried one in the store that sounded more like a harpsichord than a piano. (The strings of a harpsichord are plucked rather than struck from below and the sound is completely different as a result.) Selecting one that felt and sounded "right" took a lot of trialing. It also reminded my how much I love to play, and how rusty I am.


Some people can easily memorize things and play without music. Others are able to pick things up by ear and reproduce them. I am good at neither. I need music in front of me in order to play anything. When I've practiced a piece the music serves as a guide. I follow the written notes with my eyes, only glancing down at my hands on the keys every now and then to make sure they're in the right place, especially during long runs up and down the keyboard. Except I haven't played in three years, and the new piano is unfamiliar. I look at the music and can't remember some of the notes, especially more than one octave above or below middle C. I have to relearn how to play.


I start with music that I've played the most over the years - the soundtrack from the 2005 Pride and Prejudice film. The memory of what it sounds like is fresh because I've listened to it on my phone recently and as I make my way, haltingly, through the first piece the memory runs through my hands as well as my mind. It's faint at first, but it's there. My brain picks its way over the music on the page, learning to read again. The processing is slow. My hands remember at a different pace and they fight my brain causing me to stumble. That first piece - Dawn - is full of runs in the second half, beautiful cascades of sound, up and down the keyboard. But I sound like I'm tripping and crashing my way down a rocky hill. It's frustrating. I used to know how to do this. I'm a beginner again.


The second and third times are better than the first, every run smoother than the last. I can't play for more than about 10 or 15 minutes at a time but I'm confident that my skills are returning. I come back the next day to try again, ready to pickup where I left off. But my brain and hands fight each other. I can't get them to work together at all. I make no progress. The third day is a little better. The fourth day worse again. My hands shift several notes off of where I think they are and I have to look down more frequently to readjust them. The fifth day I'm able to play Dawn the way I want. It flows and there are moments when I can let my hands and brain work while I pull a part of myself away so I can really listen to the notes, hear the piece as if someone else is playing. It's pure bliss, but fleeting. The next day is difficult again, and the process repeats itself.


I play every day now and every day continues to be different. I'm working my way through a book of sonatas and sonatinas that one of my piano teachers gave me. I play each piece once before moving onto the next, working on my sight reading and strengthening my fingers. I only remember how some of them are supposed to sound which is a little less distracting. My hands give way to my brain more easily. I sometimes pull out Pride and Prejudice and play a piece at the end of each session. These pieces come easier now, but my brain and hands still fight each other most of the time. I can now feel that this is a conscious choice. A different part of my brain doesn't believe I can play without controlling which part of my body holds the reigns at any given time. To play well means switching back and forth. Relaxing into it, trusting that my body knows what to do and will shift effortlessly is the part that is the hardest to relearn. And that is perhaps the biggest lesson of all.

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