Memory Slip

25 August 2012 in Heather

After the concerto competition, I fell in love. “Finally!” clicked my heels as I paced the Conservatory hallways looking for an empty practice room. Hearing a clarinet, I’d stop and peer through a small window to see Pi, his back to the door, practicing long tones. I’d tap our secret knock and he’d smile in the mirror at me. Then I’d return to my hunt for an empty room. Practicing took priority, even if I was in love.

Those were the days of the 4th Chopin Ballade, a work said to contain “the experience of a lifetime.” Throughout the piece, Chopin evades expected tonalities yet always, eventually, surrenders to them. He hides melodies he later reveals. The opening measures of the Ballade, for example, are like the sighs that yield to the unlacing of the corset. The theme that follows is simple and meandering, unaware that transformation lies ahead.

My work on the Ballade culminated in a master class the week before Valentine’s Day. I was prepared. I was confident. I was in love. And that night, I was nervous.

My right hand began, but my left hand—poised to play the opening melody—hesitated, and forgot what it was supposed to do. I forced through it, but the performance was marred. I stumbled in the upper-register filigree leading into the second theme, smudged chords I’d never given second thought to, and botched the sweeping D-flat major arpeggios at the climax. Surprisingly, I played the fiendish, contrapuntal coda better than I ever would again. But the damage was done.

The pianist Charles Rosen has written that, “the finest pianists, when they are not in their best form, do not give a mediocre or moderately good performance, but tend to produce a disaster or an outrage.” I fled the hall after the class and found Pi in his practice room whittling reeds. Holding my head in his arms, he consoled my grief as he always would. “Oh, my dear head.” The next day he drove me to the ocean, where the white noise of the sea erased it all: Chopin, Beethoven, and the dream of becoming a concert pianist.

Ten months later, I left formal music training at the Conservatory to study poetry, literature, and writing. In the summers, Pi and I road tripped across the country to chamber music camp. I’d arrive without caring that I hadn’t touched a piano in three weeks. The memory slip still haunts me, but I may have learned more from forgetting in that moment, than if I’d performed flawlessly, by heart.