What is the point of a melody when the notes are strung together with a technicality that cannot be broken for a single second? I was taught that there are notes that go together and others that do not, and you cannot choose to singlehandedly change their order or create the clash of dissonance that your fingers are twitching with desire to play. But what is the point of that melody – of that sound – when all it is, is a repressed sense of who you really are?
Piano. It’s an instrument of the ages. That classic cascading waterfall of white, speckled with black, is iconic and yet modest at the same time. A timeless beauty that captures dreams and emanates a kind of expression that everyone desires.
And yet, my journey with the piano has been anything but elegant.
I started piano at the ripe age of six. My sister, Rachel, was eight. The Steen family had just packed up and moved everything to Holland for two years, and adventure was broadening every perspective we had in our new horizons. My great-grandmother had been a successful concert pianist, which caused my mother to believe that one of us had to have inherited that gene. What better place was there to begin our musical discovery than the mystical land of Europe?
My first teacher’s name was Hanukkah (Luckily I am not Jewish or this experience probably would have ruined the entire holiday for me). She was Dutch and couldn’t necessarily speak English well enough to put things softly for my sister and I. At least, that is what I tell myself in place of believing that she really was the evil person she seemed to be. A month or so into our lessons with Hanukkah, she told our dad that we had “bad fingers” and she just could not teach us anymore.
However sad that is, it was for the best. From what I can remember in the midst of that dark time in my life, Rachel and I cried after (or during) almost every single piano lesson with Hanukkah. That woman really had no idea how to teach piano to non-prodigies, and definitely not to children as young as we were.
Anyway, the entire time that I was playing piano with Hanukkah, I didn’t learn the notes I was playing. I didn’t know their names, or even where exactly they were located on the piano. I learned to look at the sheet music I was given and guess where the notes were by repetition. Soon, I could almost – slightly – decipher the general vicinity they should be in. It usually didn’t work out for me, but sometimes it did, and that was enough for a rambunctious six-year-old like myself. My flawed method was still better than asking Hanukkah to actually teach me something.
By this point, I had already decided that I despised piano.
What I loved was biking through the rainy streets to and from Hanukkah’s house for lessons. I would ride on a small seat on the back of my dad’s bike, and he would hold my sister’s handlebars so she wouldn’t have to do any work either. On the way back, we would always stop at the same place for dinner. It was a small, dirty restaurant called “Hollandje Pot” that served strange, greasy Dutch food. Rachel and I ate the chicken fingers every time, thinking they were the most delicious delicacy in the world, oblivious to the many health code violations that were most likely occurring all around us.
So that is what piano was to me: an hour of yelling and guessing and crying followed by greasy, chewy, finger-shaped fried chicken.
After a few months of blissfully ignoring the small upright piano we had sitting next to our kitchen (and the tragic rejection from Hanukkah), my parents found a new teacher. I cannot for the life of me remember her name, probably in part because it was something strange in Dutch, but mostly because she rarely showed up. We were supposed to have lessons every other week, but it usually ended up being once a month. This woman would travel to our small row house to teach us, and honestly all I can remember is that she was young and beautiful and did pretty much whatever she felt like doing. She would flip through my lesson books and only teach me the pieces that she liked, which meant that I was continuously playing the same few songs.
Piano now was something disposable to me. I didn’t despise it as much as I had with Hanukkah, but it was still a relief when my dad would sigh and say, “Well, I guess she isn’t showing up today for your lesson…again.”
Time passed, and we moved back to the states — to Minneapolis. I was awkward and boyish, but not in a cute way, with wild hair that I never brushed and a little bit more weight than the other girls my age. It was the first time in my life that I was truly searching for an identity and discovering where I fit in.
For a while, I didn’t play piano. As far as I can remember, I didn’t miss it either. Then, Rachel and I were introduced to our new teacher: Elizabeth Stavrou.
Mrs. Stavrou was tall and big-boned with silvery hair and glasses. She was terrifyingly eloquent and always also spoke with air of superiority, towering over me in more ways than just her height. My sister and I began 30-minute piano lessons with her once a week. She soon discovered my absence of knowledge on the instrument, specifically notes, and decided to completely start over with me.
Rachel progressed quickly with our new teacher, while I was left behind as I tried to start from the beginning. Mrs. Stavrou’s piano-teaching style was traditional and very intense. Along with our performance pieces, she taught us sightreading, music theory, and the other technical aspects of piano. She entered us in countless competitions, exams and performances. As a “fun fieldtrip” to reward us for our hard work, Mrs. Stavrou took us to the Russian Museum of Art and gave us a worksheet to fill out. That was “fun” for young, energetic girls according to her. And you can’t question that woman.
I was lost, dizzied by the different notes and key signatures and scales. I was lost within a maze of sharps and flats, ups and downs, and expectations for me to play “at least 45 minutes a day, every day, no matter what.” I desperately wanted it to come as easily to me as it came to my sister, but piano technique was never my forte (pun most definitely intended).
To fill up the 45 minutes a day that I’d sit at my small, often out-of-tune piano, I began to look up and play chords of songs that I liked and even write my own music. I learned more about myself and what music meant to me within the songs I printed out, and the times I closed my eyes playing whatever came to me, than I ever had sitting up straight at a piano lesson.
Soon, Rachel quit and I became Mrs. Stavrou’s new pride and joy. She entered me in contests that I often won and applauded me on my ability to play each piece with dynamic emotion that set me apart from most of the other students. When I performed, I simultaneously lost and found myself within the music, even if I didn’t particularly like the style I was playing in.
After many years of growing to appreciate Mrs. Stavrou, beginning to understand and love the piano, and finding myself along the way, I told my parents I was ready to go in a different direction.
From the endless hours of playing Taylor Swift songs in my angsty middle school years, I learned that there was a way to play the piano other than Mozart or Haydn or Bach. A way that I felt connected to myself. A way that opened my eyes and allowed my fingers to go wherever felt right. I did some research, and found myself on the website for Linden Hills House of Music. There, I read biographies of the different teachers and later approached my parents with my research and a proposal to switch my piano education.
My mother, the one who had always encouraged me to keep playing no matter how discouraged I became, was hesitant to allow me to move away from a classical piano style. She had previously bought me a brand new baby grand piano just as a way to bribe me into playing. She told me that she would upgrade me from the tiny upright to the shiny, new baby grand as long as I played until the end of high school. Since I had found a loophole in her bribe, and reminded her that she never specified what kind of piano lessons I had to take, she finally agreed.
I started lessons with my new piano teacher, Charlie Smith, at the beginning of my 8th grade year. I felt bad leaving behind Mrs. Stavrou, and I honestly regret it every once in a while, but it was the right thing to do.
I walked into Charlie’s piano room a little shy and nervous, not knowing what to expect. He was young and friendly and immediately made me feel comfortable. We talked about what kind of music I liked and what I wanted to do with my lessons. I had never been asked what I wanted to do. I listened to him speak about what music meant to him with bright eyes and admiration; I had finally found what I had always wanted — musical freedom.
I remember being so nervous singing for Charlie the first time. I had never believed I had a very good singing voice and it surprised me how simple it could be. It didn’t have to be perfect every time. Throughout the years he has continuously boosted my confidence and introduced me to performance in a completely new way.
Charlie has taught me so many things — not only music, but life lessons as well. Because of him, I have been exposed to more jazz and blues and alternative and indie and current music. But I have also learned the importance of believing in myself and exploring my own interests and appreciating every aspect of something beautiful and sharing my art with the world and much more. I’ve been taken out of my comfort zone when asked to improvise on the spot, when I’ve never been asked to be creative in that way before.
I am able to read in between the lines – play in between the measures if you will – and I have never again felt obligated to contain myself. Now when I perform, I not only lose and find myself within the music, I also discover new things about myself every time. It means so much more when someone comes up to me after I perform and compliments me, than it ever had before with Mrs. Stavrou. I have even had Mr. Dahlen, my elementary school media teacher with a long silver pony tail, come up to me and exclaim how very impressed he was with me. It’s those moments that I will remember simply because of how proud I was of what I was doing (and because the ponytail is hard to forget).
Because of piano, and with much thanks to Charlie, I hear music in a new way. Not only because I have learned to hear each aspect of the song, from the bass notes that I’ve learned to listen for, to the rhythm that I’ve learned to mimic and make my own, to the melodies and harmonies that I’ve learned to appreciate and transpose to my vocal range. Not only because of those things, but because when I find myself subconsciously listening for those different aspects of a song, I am reminded of something so beautiful and special that I have. I hear music in a way that speaks to who I am.
It truly feels like now, for the first time, I can hear the music.