I haven’t done any composing since the first week of September. That puts me at about seven weeks of not putting pencil to paper, the longest stretch I’ve gone without composing in probably five to seven years. It’s not writer’s block; I always have ideas. These last several weeks I’ve lacked the emotional energy to flesh them out.
I am exhausted. We’ve had one week off this year and went camping in New Hampshire; it was a bust and not at all relaxing. My kitchen is still not finished. Covid has shut down my work until who knows when. I haven’t been able to find a part-time job despite applying to many places that I would actually like to work (is the problem that I am overqualified or that they know I will leave once my real work returns?) And personal stuff dredging up thirty years of muck has reared it’s head. I haven’t been this depressed since high school.
So, instead of composing, I’ve been practicing the piano. A lot. Much more than I have in a long time. I’ve been practicing solo piano music. That’s significant, because I usually only practice music I am working on as an accompanist.
I find it much easier to play than compose. I can just open up a book of music and get to it. My sight-reading skills make learning a new piece an almost-instant gratification. Someone else has told me what notes to play when and how; all the decisions have been made, and I’m only responsible for executing. (Of course, executing the most difficult passages requires serious technical skill, so in no way am I disparaging performers.) At the times when I am too worn out to make creative decisions, being able to just play is a balm.
The truth is I’ve been a reluctant pianist. When I was five, I told my parents I would never be a concert pianist despite already playing some basic classical repertoire. I never liked playing by myself and joined the school band as soon as I could. However, I never quit the piano. I studied saxophone in college, but continued piano on the side out of some sense of obligation, knowing that piano is good for musicians, like a health tonic. I kept up my piano skills because I should. It paid off; now I make most of my income through piano: accompanying and teaching. I have long joked that I was married to piano, but saxophone was my mistress. Piano was dependable, but boring, and demanded hard work; the saxophone was fun, had vibrato, and didn’t require nearly the effort.
But the piano has always been there, like a faithful lover waiting for me to come to my senses and truly appreciate it.
Piano was there for me when I was a weird elementary school kid who had no friends calling me up inviting me to play, and I spent much of my afternoons practicing.
Piano was there for me in middle school when I was the lonely new kid in town and lived ten miles from my classmates, too young to drive.
Piano was there for me in high school when I could go practice no matter how badly I was feeling.
Piano was there for me in college, a productive diversion, when I was overwhelmed by my work.
Piano was there for me as my children grew and I taught them that mothers have their own lives and interests; they played in the playpen or learned to quietly amuse themselves while I practiced.
Piano was there for me when my children entered high school and college, giving me an opportunity to earn some money.
And the piano is here for me now, at the ready however and whenever I play it, for work or for pleasure.
Of course, the piano is not a person. It doesn’t feel slighted when ignored; it doesn’t require much attention; it doesn’t have emotional needs; it doesn’t have its own thoughts; the care it needs is minimal and relatively predictable.
And yet, like a friend, it listens to me and responds to my feelings. I play whatever I want, and it empathizes. It helps me process. There is no judgment; the piano isn’t bothered if I play a wrong note or if I play the right note wrongly. I can come angry, happy, sad, or stressed and it helps me relax, refresh, and refocus. The Bible has a verse in it that says the Spirit prays for us when we don’t know what to say (Romans 8:26). Often times, I feel those incommunicable prayers are given voice through the piano keys.
In this trying time, I can depend on my piano – sturdy, patient, and expectant.
So, hello piano, my old friend. I’ve come to talk with you again.