In the summer of 2014, after the first course of a proposed city-wide dinner crawl, I slipped down a stairwell and broke my hand. Instead of celebrating my husband’s birthday on the town, we ended up in the E.R. at Toronto Western, staring at x-rays of my shattered metacarpals. After the cast went on and the appointments with the surgeon were arranged, the first person I called was my piano teacher, Christine.
I started taking piano lessons at the Royal Conservatory of Music in 2008. I wasn’t a beginner. My mother taught me to read music with the old John Thompson books, and I took a year and a half of piano lessons with a woman from the neighbourhood. After that, I played what I liked. That is, I heard a piece I liked (a friend playing Mendelssohn’s “Rondo Capriccioso,” Lucy Honeychurch playing Schubert in the film adaptation of A Room with a View), found the music, and learned it well enough to stumble through. As it turns out, stumbling though was a pretty good stress reliever in university and grad school. But, it could have been so much more. Over the past decade, with Christine, I’ve been learning how to learn. And, this has brought me all kinds of relief.
First, to my surprise, learning to play requires acceptance of your body. Sure, you can strengthen your fingers with exercises. But, the main focus is accommodation. Working with your own hands, arms, chest, and core, you approach the piece the way only you can. You experiment with and choose fingering which works for you. (What? Your hand-span’s not as massive as Rachmaninov’s? Try using your thumb on two notes at once!) Lately, Christine has also been encouraging me to pencil in relaxation, to mark the music where I might want to loosen my shoulders.
Second, tackling a piece of music requires patience. You don’t just learn a piece “hands separately” until you “get the notes.” You keep practicing, one hand at a time, metronome on, until you’re comfortable with timing, voicing, and dynamics. Then, when you finally practice “hands together,” you tackle only a few measures at once. Sure, you can play the whole piece to assess your progress. But, play from start to finish too often, and all you’ll do is learn to repeat your mistakes. Do I still play through when I shouldn’t? Absolutely. But, I do far less of it.
While playing a piece well from start to finish is a pleasure like none other, learning in small pieces has become an essential means of mindfulness or meditation for me. If I’m home, I can stop whatever it is I’m doing, spend as few as five minutes working on a phrase, and escape the seemingly inescapable. This has helped with the little things, concerns about a sick child, that neighbour who complained to the city about our shade tree, as well the most difficult ones, like the death of my brother.
Of course, lying there at the bottom of the stairwell, my skirt ripped, the fingers of my right hand splayed, I thought I’d lost the very thing I depended upon to cope with stress and pain. But, by the time I picked up the phone to call Christine, I already knew I’d learn to accommodate. That summer, I worked on some insanely difficult left-hand- only pieces arranged for professionals who lost their limbs at war. And, in the process of making one hand sound like two, I improved my pedaling. I’m not going to say I had a great time. I was thrilled to get back to working on the pieces I’d chosen for myself. And, quite frankly, I’m still traumatized by the fall (which I can’t really remember), the pain (which I sometimes still feel), and the limitations I had to deal with from injury to surgery to recovery. But, as long as I can lift a finger, I’ll have a chance to sink in and escape.
Roseanne Carrara is a poet and novelist and the editor of Smelling Salts
Journal. She studies piano with Christine Surman at the Royal
Conservatory of Music, where she is learning selections from Bach’s
Goldberg Variations, Brahms’ Intermezzos 1 & 2, Op. 118, Schubert’s Sonata
in B-Flat Major, Op. post. D 960, and Rachmaninov’s Prelude in G-Minor, Op.
23 No. 5.