Reflets dans l’eau

6 September 2020 in Music

When asked to reflect on my character strengths and virtues while also refraining from discussing “performance,” I crumple. Performance is something I believe in. To perform music—on the piano, accordion, toy piano, or with voice—is to stand up for being alive. To perform is to take the stance that “liveness” matters, more so than recordings, film, or videos; paintings, sculptures, or edited text. Simply put, performing—or rather, playing piano—is me at my best. I would not consider myself a great pianist, nor can I claim any achievements derived from playing. But, I may have demonstrated some … character strengths in my activities as a pianist.

Playing piano, as I did for ballet classes or church services or, once, in a chic gallery in New York City, requires complete presence. Admittedly, there are moments in between—when the dance instructor gives the combinations or when the priest gives the homily—where my mind might wander or I might idly munch some trail mix. But while playing, the world shrinks, and there is only being in the presence of performing. There is not thinking, and there are not feelings. There’s only playing. Maybe I make the pianist (myself) sound like an automaton, and yet, I declare this is me at my best. An automaton that produces audible ephemeral beauty.

As a kid, I just loved piano. As an adult, it was harder to dodge the question “why do it?” Being a performing musician doesn’t seem all that altruistic. How is playing piano an act of kindness? I played piano professionally for fifteen years, but trying to sort out those innumerable performances and experiences as virtuous, selfless, or sacrificial? Again, I crumple.

But then I remind myself: There I was, in my 20s and 30s, every Saturday evening and every Sunday morning in a church. I never missed a weekend. I didn’t go to parties. I didn’t go out of town. No. I was there. I was present. And during the Christmas holidays, when I’d played through all three verses of “Silent Night” yet the line of parishioners waiting to receive communion extended, still, to the back of the church, I’d keep going, turning “Silent Night” on its head, inside and out, in endless variations, until the last person was seated back in their pew. Then, swiveling on the piano bench to face the congregation, I’d sometimes catch a few heartfelt glances. The “Silent Night” marathon had made a difference.

Or, similarly, at the end of ballet class, sometimes a dancer would step over to the piano to add, “thank you.” I often recoiled. I was confused or shocked that the music might have brought joy or ease or a sense of beauty to this other person. Playing music (and especially, practicing music) feels incredibly solipsistic, but in hindsight, I can see it as a gift, too.

When I think of the years I spent running around the San Francisco Bay Area playing piano, I tend to remember it as a peak creative period of my life. It was the last extended period of time when I felt “engaged” for what seemed like a majority of the hours in a day. And though never my intent, I may have even helped others to engage—with their music making, their movement making, or their spiritual practice.

The rosy colored memories are stronger than the stressful recollections about never being able to make ends meet, financially, or never knowing how much work I would be able to scrap together, from one season to another. So, the emotions around what might be my great virtue are twofold: There is regret that that time has now passed, even as there is now joy in discovering the subtle qualities of “gift” in an act I never deliberately intended to offer in that way.