One of the biggest regrets of my life was giving up the piano when I was a rebellious teenager at 14 – somehow thinking I was going to find more excitement in discos, silly-headed teenage boys and dressing up like an underaged hooker. Since age 6, I had trained in classical piano because my mother, like every other eager mother, had hoped that her child would turn out to be a prodigy just like Mozart. If not, according to her other upper middle-class Chinese mother-friends, it supposedly helps a child develop superior scholastic abilities. It also doesn’t hurt that classical music is associated with an elite social class.
So, this child was grilled in staccatos, allegros, clefs, semiquavers, keys and tempo, and spent her childhood in a large house trying to master Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 after she heard her neighbour’s kid play it in another large house across the street. Most days, she would spend her time alone with her shiny black and white keys, and pedals, with the conviction that she must be able to play the deaf uncle’s most difficult piece and to play it well – because she felt a mysterious incentive to grasping his heart and soul. When she couldn’t, she indulged herself in the easier-to-play but depressing Moonlight Sonata. Für Elise was the elegant showpiece she played to parents in mini-concerts and to her own parents’ friends who marvelled predictably at how “clever” she was while pinching her cheeks.
Although I was pushed – like all other overachieving suicidal Asian kids – to take up piano, among the thousand other tuition and enrichment classes in a week, I loved the piano, maybe not having to practise everyday or having the crabby piano teacher hit my hand when I got a note wrong. I loved it because I understood the emotional rollercoasters of every composer, every symphony, every piece, and loved especially the most tragic ones… as if they were my own pain. With an almost rabid fascination to Beethoven, an old ang moh (derogatory term for Caucasians) with stern-looking eyebrows and strange white hair and who wore very strange clothes, I was a child who had multitudes of tragedy and drama in her. As a Chinese kid who straddled Mandarin Chinese and English, I was able to pronounce his German name perfectly and took offence at anyone who dared say it wrongly. It’s Loodfig Faan Beh-Toh-Fenn, thank you very much.
Music, especially classical music or opera, is a balm for the tortured soul, helping us get in touch with our “milk of human kindness” (Shakespeare, not me). The relationship between a musician and his/her instrument in particular is special. The musician uses and work with the instrument to articulate a feeling, mood or theme, and the resulting symphony resonates with the complexity of the human soul as it soothes it with mathematical intensity. Yet, my mother might afterall regret her initial decision to enrol me, because playing the piano and interaction with musical tragedies only exacerbated the sense of impatience, sorrow and anger for the unexact unhappiness surrounding her little girl. Metronomes and rudiments of theory books did not prepare her on how to deal with and survive the uncontrollable floods of pain, disappointment or hysteria that would crash repeatedly on her.
During my teen rebel years, I would tire of the routine, of being the sweet piano-playing little girl, and would go on to make one of the biggest mistakes of my life – giving up my relationship with the piano after nearly 8 years and with 3 more years to master it. My “childish” pursuits were seen as “uncool” and a hindrance to my “cool” activities such as playing truancy, going to teadances and getting into fights, so my deep friendship with my black piano and my passion for musical tragedies suffered as a result.
Today, I am no longer able to play and have avoided the piano altogether since the day I gave it up. I suppose it’s because it’s just too painful to recall a connection that you used to have – much like it is difficult to reconcile with a former lover without first resolving the issues that caused the problems in the first place. As time passes you by, there forms a comfortable distance between you and that former lover so much so that all you once shared has become phantoms of a past so far away that you often wonder if the affair ever happened. Was it made up?
But every time I see a piano, hear a concerto playing in a store or a music school, I can’t help but wonder what if I had continued. Would my life have been different? Perhaps even if it is not different, I would still be connected to an old friend who’s always there, who always helps me understand the complexity of human emotions, and who will always be a balm for my tortured soul. Perhaps, one day, I will go back to it again, in a large house, playing to perfection, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5.