Today I sat down at the piano in my parents’ house for the first time in months. Or a year. I’m not sure the last time I played.
I was home alone except for the dogs, which is probably why I stopped what I was doing to give it a try. I’d wanted write, but Art is art, I thought.
I pulled the bench out and sat down, still too close for my piano teacher’s approval, but far enough away that my knees were not over the pedals. The place where sheet music goes was filled with decorative items–a picture, a nativity scene, a small ceramic plate painted, “Live simply, laugh often, love much”–and it seemed too burdensome to move the items, so I just decided to play from memory.
“Live simply, laugh often, love much”
I lifted the key cover and stared at the keys, wondering what to play. At first, my hands went to C major, the first chord I ever learned. I began with some nonsense, trying to remember songs I’d made up during my days of living in Roswell, improvising when I realized I didn’t remember them.
They were just musical moments, really, but also memories.
I thought of my friend Lauren who writes music. Back in high school, whenever I thought I had composed something beautiful, I would listen to a song Lauren wrote (who, by the way, was self-taught), and I’d be completely humbled. The way she was able to turn a minor chord into a broken heart was a gift I wish I’d had. Her songs were poetry, even the ones that didn’t have words.
We used to play duets together. I would basically play the same four chords over and over, and she would do all of the melodies–the hard work, as I saw it, because she could string notes together without ever hitting a cringeworthy sound. I never understood it, how she could manage such masterpieces (none of our duets were written down, solely improvised) but today I had a glimpse. I finally understood that there’s a release involved, just letting the music explore for itself. To feel the sound. To make poetry, because poetry is just an emotion inside of a frame.
Poetry is just an emotion inside of a frame.
But today was not a day to create, so I decided to return to the classics: Beethoven and Bach.
I’ve been playing Für Elise for as long as I can remember, and the refrain of the song is something I will never forget. But there are two sections that branch off, and I only know them by playing them. This is the remarkable thing about piano that I promptly forget as soon as I walk away: somewhere inside the recesses of my being, the notes reside. Each key is there. But I cannot think my way through them. My hands must do the work. In fact, the moment I start to think about what I’m doing, the song is lost. Most of the time, I can’t even look directly at my hands, otherwise I will fumble. I must simply let them remember while I keep my brain from interfering.
And therein lies the problem. The moment I miss a note and my hands freeze, the brain jumps in. MUST FIX MUST FIX. But the brain doesn’t know the answer. It tries to reason with my hands. Find the keys, play the correct notes, recover the melody, it says, but the only way to move forward is to start from the beginning and see if my hands can figure it out.
And therein lies the second problem. I anticipate getting stuck, so I get stuck again. In the same spot. Over and over. The anxiety builds. It’s just like playing tennis, when I would miss one serve, and then miss all of them. The brain is working too hard, but the magic is in the arms. In the wrists. In the fingers.
And it truly is magic. My fingers, when they’re on top of it, can do things that I don’t understand. I watched them today–not too closely, but peripherally–fly across the keys, and I marveled at what they were doing. They were dancing to the song that lived inside them.
That’s when I realized playing piano is like writing. Whenever I want to write a particular something or think I should write, I’m looking at my hands trying to will them to remember. Bob Ross, one of my favorite artists, once advised, “Relax, let it flow, think like water.” The stories live inside, the essence of them is deep within my being, but the only way to access them is to let my fingers do the work. My best pieces are the ones I don’t intend to write. They’re the ones that seems to flow from a reserve I didn’t know I had, and I don’t understand how it works.
Today is the anniversary of the day I read Big Magic.
Today is the anniversary of the day I started my blog.
I suppose today is the day that I’m supposed to remember to embrace magic.
4 thoughts on “What Playing Piano Taught Me About Writing”
Lovely, Jenny. I enjoyed reading this very much; good timing 😉
I’m so happy to hear it 🙂 Thanks for always being so supportive of my musings (it’s nice when it’s not just my mother). BTW! I signed up for AWP. You should go! Are you going??
Very true! I’ve been playing for about twelve years and writing since I can remember. I’ve learned so much from both – mainly being patient, being bold, and trusting myself. It’s amazing how everything then flows the way it’s supposed to! 😊 Enjoyed reading your post!
Wow, that’s amazing! It sounds like you have a natural gift 🙂 I’m glad you found my post and that it resonated. Thanks for commenting!