A Piano Story

Playing piano is the result of some long tough years of practice. It was my mother’s idea supported by my father. I hated it as a child. The sound I was making made me shudder. It was loud and dissonant as my fingers stumbled over the keys, stubbornly refusing to do what my brain wanted them to do. I accused the notes of looking like black bean sprouts. Tired of my complaints, my mother let me quit.

Years passed. I found myself curious to try it again. My older sister started out the same time I did, and had been practicing and improving by leaps and bounds. She was now playing some more advance pieces that made me wishful. Not sure if I was serious about it, my mother began teaching me herself instead of sending me to costly lessons, and lo and behold! I began improving at age 12.

The keys on that same Yamaha piano seemed less heavy and clunky, and my fingers felt more fluid and more connected to my brain. The music I was making started sounding decent to my ears. It was Beethoven’s Pathétique that was the turning point. It gave me hope I had the ability to play something exciting to listen to. Pleasure for the first time!

While in college in Albany, New York, I enrolled myself in private lessons. My teacher had studied at Yale and taught at Emma Willard School, the private boarding school for girls. Her Queen Anne house looked magical against the dark skies and snowy landscape. A grand piano stood alone in the large, high ceilinged living room, along with the piano bench and a chair where she sat. There was no other furniture. Long billowing curtains draped down covering tall narrow windows. It was freezing cold inside. She had me take off shoes and wear thick yarned slippers.

Then I moved on to take a piano performance course with Professor Findlay Cockrell. In his piano studio, there were two baby grands next to each other. One for the student and one for him.

Professor Cockrell never set limits on my playing despite the fact that I wasn’t a piano major. One day, I attended a student concert and saw a talented guy in my dorm play Saint-Saëns and Grieg piano concertos. I was enthralled. He was from the Philippines, lived in the same dorm building, and introduced famous concertos to me that I listened to on his stereo in his room. Immediately I wanted to take on Tchaikowsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 (the first movement). Only I wasn’t sure if I was ready.

My professor asked, “Can you imagine yourself playing it?”

I nodded and said, “Yes, sure.” Why not, I thought. I had played Chopin. Why not try something different and to me, more exciting?

“Then you can do it. If you can see yourself doing it, you can play it.” His encouragement was exactly what I needed.

I practiced for three hours a day for a whole year, skipping a few weeks here and there due to being away from school and not having access to a piano. My fingertips became calloused from relentlessly pounding out those octaves, something I couldn’t possibly do now. That got me ready: fifty-five pages of music memorized, performing with the university orchestra in front of 300 people. On a Steinway concert grand. My friends and roommates were all there in the front row, tremendously supportive, cheering me on and handing out bouquets at the final bow. I was beaming with a big smile the entire evening from start to finish, though sad that my parents who lived on the other side of the world weren’t there.

All those hours of practice through the years of my young life for one glorious moment. Energy coursed through my body and fingers and emitted sounds that rang in unison with the orchestra and drew response from the audience. It felt like a magnificent energetic exchange that radiated through the entire auditorium. I never thought of it this way then, but now as I describe it, that was exactly how it felt. And all the unwavering support I had, from family to teachers to friends, helped to get me where I was at that very moment. Our successes are never a lone journey.

A decade later, I met a professional concert pianist. I asked him how long it would take for him to practice before performing the first movement of the Tchaikowsky concerto if he never played it before. He shrugged and said, “Oh, I don’t know. Three months?” Wow.

Nowadays, seniors and churchgoers are my audience, keeping my fingers nimble, mind sharp, and hobby alive. I’ll never look at these bean sprouts the same way again.

Here are two beloved pieces I played and recorded, with my own photos that lend the mood:

Piano“Piano”, 5″ x 7″ Watercolor, 2012, by Frances Ku.