(I started this on March 5, Fryderyk Chopin’s name-day, and continued over the next week, writing in bits for the reasons below.)
As of about February 11, it was 20 years since my association with him began. To my eternal regret, perhaps because I was knocked out of normal daily reality at the time, I didn’t make note of the exact date that I met him.
I haven’t come up with much in the way of suitably profound or brilliant observances for this anniversary. Instead, I’ve been drowned in professional responsibilities, especially the many Crises du Jour of the current state legislative session. The quiet, introspective time I’d planned hasn’t happened. And the man himself hasn’t been around much; no conversations, no revelations. Perhaps we’ll celebrate at a later date. Or perhaps, no longer being chained by time, there is no meaning for him in an anniversary at all. Still, I might as well go along with the human tendency to mark decades as they go by and look back a bit.
I could not have imagined, when that first clear contact occurred on a winter evening in 1993, how overwhelmingly important this event would turn out to be, how utterly my life would change. I had looked for him before, had felt that we had some deep connection I couldn’t fathom, but nothing had ever come of that, at least nothing conscious.
I was finishing up science classes at T-VI (now CNM) at the time that it happened, and then I started acupuncture school a few months later. I was still teaching music a little, and performing occasionally, but couldn’t really concentrate on that. It wasn’t till more than another year had gone by that the piano addiction hit full force. Then I couldn’t avoid music, and Chopin’s music in particular, even though I was still embroiled in school and would be for a couple more years. I started taking piano lessons again, and have kept them up much of the time since. This is all Fryderyk’s fault– isn’t it?
Those who know me well are so used to me playing the piano (or trying to, at any rate) that it probably doesn’t seem as crazy to them as it does to me. I had been at it since age 13, but never showed any great aptitude. It’s slow going for me, and for my long-suffering teachers. Almost on a daily basis, I’ve wondered why I have dedicated so much time, energy, and money to this pursuit. I turned away from the lute, which I was playing reasonably well, and even from my duet partner, in order to play Chopin. I didn’t feel that I had any choice. I thought it would be a phase that I’d pass through, and then I’d go back to my normal life. Apparently it is my normal life. Although every so often I still play the lute, sing, fool around with flute or recorder, or even have a try at my major instrument, the guitar, the piano has remained central over the years.
I’m not saying that seriously practicing the piano, making it central in one’s life, is crazy in itself– far from it. I’ve just had a hard time understanding why I insist on doing something that is a bit outside my ability to do well, when there are so many other possible choices, and I could be excelling at something else. To be sure, there are some real practical benefits I can point to, if I must be practical. In particular, playing the piano helps me keep up the upper body strength and flexibility I need to do bodywork; if I don’t play for a while, my hands tend to ache and feel stiff. I can always justify it that way if I need to.
My main dance teacher, Michele Diel, pointed out that if playing the piano were easy for me, it wouldn’t make nearly so much sense as a spiritual practice. It is my Zen archery, my Qi Gong, my yoga. It is my Kurukshetra, a battlefield upon which I constantly dodge my own friendly fire. It is a martial art in which I must learn to stop fighting.
My piano teacher since 2008, Stephen Montoya, says it is my soul.
A former friend once asked my whether doing so many different arts at once was a problem for me, implying that it had to be one and that I was messing up my life. This was an odd question, since she herself, in addition to being a healer, wrote poetry and prose, made sculptures, did calligraphy at a high level, and cooked like a dream. She exhorted me to pick one or two things and stick with only those. But this is simply not possible, and as I explained to her, healing, music, and dance feel like aspects of the same thing to me. It’s hard to articulate exactly why that is; roughly, all of them involve the movement of energy, tension and release. All of them are Qi in motion. (I’m not sure how writing fits in. I’ll have to get back to you on that!)
There is especially little distinction, to me, between playing the piano and dancing, and I don’t feel I could manage without either of those. Back in December, I had a sudden breakthrough in which the two arts came together in a new way. My piano teacher said, “I wish you could use your arms the way you do when you dance.” It was not a new idea, but because it would require me to Break Some Rules, I hadn’t completely followed it through before. I decided to do exactly as he suggested, whether it was “wrong” or not. Nothing else, simply moving my arms the way I do when I dance, with the movements emanating naturally from the center of my body.
All of a sudden my tone acquired more depth and beauty, my dynamic range expanded, and I was playing music in a way I don’t think I ever had before. And I had a feeling of joy and physical pleasure at the piano that was beyond anything else I’d experienced, too. Everyone, including my teacher, could hear that something was radically different and better. My dancing, away from the piano I mean, also suddenly deepened and became more ecstatic. I felt like I had been released into the air to fly for the first time.
Crashing back to the ground, which happened all too soon, was pretty painful, and I’ve only been able to take off for very brief flights since. I’ve spent a couple of months trying to integrate the technical issues I must consciously practice and intellectually understand with this other practice of freedom and intuitive movement. For a while I had to insist on hanging on to the joy and to my inner sensations, no matter what, because having found that, I’m not willing to ever let it go. It seems that at last I’m getting back to where I was and where I want to be, beginning to feel the softening and peace in my body again as I work with the piano instead of against it.
Despite this new connection with my innate musicality, a strange phenomenon has continued to plague me, even on some of my better days. At certain times I start into a piece and it’s as if I’ve never seen it before. Sadly, this is most likely to occur early in one of my lessons, during my first try at a piece. I play something like a quarter of the notes wrong, feeling utterly disoriented, and I get stuck over and over, unable to create any kind of flow. It may have to do with the lighting being different or my chair being off center or something else one can detect in the situation, but most of the time there is no known explanation. It isn’t a matter of simple “nerves.”
Then, typically, I try the same piece again, and everything is fine; in fact, I may well play it far better than I’ve been able to at home. I wish I could solve this mystery and get more control over this unfortunate habit of my brain, eyes, and hands. It’s bad enough that it’s embarrassing, but mostly I’m frustrated because I haven’t been able to figure it out or change it. My best understanding is that it is most likely to happen with a piece that I know well enough that a lot of it is “on automatic,” but not well enough that it’s completely memorized or otherwise under the conscious direction of the objective, analytical part of my mind. At my last lesson, a few days ago, on the second try with a nocturne I’d played early in the time of my addiction, it felt like I succeeded in flipping a switch that allowed me to consciously read the notes clearly again and not slip into an inadequate connection with movements I only half remembered. (This is not easy to describe!) When I fully remember those movements for a given piece, this phenomenon should greatly diminish if it happens at all. Should.
Since if I try again I can often play pretty well, sometimes even quite beautifully, this may not sound like much of a problem. However, if it keeps happening, I can’t trust myself to perform in even the least stressful situation. This feels very limiting, and now that I’ve gotten a taste of what it’s like to be so much less limited, I want even more to let go of it. Suggestions are very welcome!
Meanwhile, in looking to connect with my solidity-challenged friend during this special time, I had a go at relearning how to draw, and in particular to draw his face, which I still can never get a good look at. I used to do pencil portraits when I was a teenager, some of them fairly impressive, though I never drew brilliantly. Julie Brokken’s “QuiArt” classes/mini-retreats/informal tea parties have provided a framework for getting the pencil moving again. Unsurprisingly, I used to draw on a tiny scale, at my best when there were a bajillion picky details– the same tendency I’m dealing with in music and dance. I would erase over and over and spend days on a piece just a few centimeters across.
The other night I brought Chopin’s death mask to Julie’s studio, and while she showed me pictures of her family, pointing out the similarities between faces, and gave me a helpful hint now and then, I sketched his profile. I concentrated on the tea and chatting, trying not to pay too much attention to the fact that I was making marks on paper. I stayed away from detail and attempted to produce lines with flow and movement, life-sized (death-sized?) instead of tiny and cramped. The result would allow a person to recognize its subject on the street, I’d say. I feel like I’m beginning to recapture an important part of myself, so I’m inordinately pleased with this piece, stripped-down though it is.
In order to share this with you, I photographed it and processed it so that the tentative, faint lines were dark enough to show up well. The white paper now looks like some sort of grey stone, matching my blog background. I hope to be able to portray him alive and awake in not too long. As Julie points out, I need to practice seeing what’s really there, rather than what I expect to see. Then I need to move freely and confidently to project that clear perception. Not so different from the process of bringing music through one’s hands.
Heartfelt thanks to all my teachers in the arts in these past two decades, including:
Piano– Jane Viemeister, Suzanne Dawson, Stephen Montoya, and of course Fryderyk Chopin, whose music gives me profound daily lessons whether he is present or not
Harpsichord– Susan Patrick
Dance– Michele Diel, Michelle Morrison, Flo Bargar, Erin Damour, and so many others
Visual art– Julie Brokken
For a few more thoughts on why a person might want to do this crazy music thing: