THE DAY MUSIC LET ME GO
BY ANNA MONGAYT
I made a monumental decision when I was sixteen: I quit playing the piano. In any other family, there would be nothing exceptional about this. However, in mine this action was a bold and unprecedented step. Music has been in my family for generations. The walls in our house are lined with diplomas, awards, and competition certificates that depict the musical accomplishments of various family members.
My grandmother held the highest position in the hierarchy—distinguished music professor at the Moscow Conservatory. On her birthday, some of Moscow's most outstanding musicians and composers (such as Richter and Shnitke) gathered at her house for dinner. In between servings of her famous borche and pirogy* , she dished out criticism.
"That piece was too long, Alfred," she said, and frowned at Shnitke as if he was still an amateur in her classroom and not the renowned composer that he was. These dinners forever embedded in my mind the image of my grandmother as a respected titan of the musical society.
Nobody ever asked me if I wanted to play the piano. It was assumed that as soon as I was tall enough to reach the keys I would be expected to uphold the family legacy. To my misfortune, I inherited my father’s predisposition for height at the tender age of four. I still remember the numerous monotonous lessons I had to endure with my grandmother. While other kids played in the field outside our balcony, I sat in a dark corner wedged between a wall and the stern eye of my grandmother, perfecting my scales behind our dusty Steinway.
As an energetic child, I had trouble concentrating. My grandmother would occasionally smack my hands when I made mistakes to help me overcome this problem. However, I soon became too quick for her. Upon noting the glee in her eye, an indication that her heavy hand was ready to strike, I would leap off the stool and run out of her reach. My grandmother would then retaliate by taking off her slipper and throwing it in my direction. By this time she was too fragile and ill to chase after me.
Years later, after my grandmother passed away, I went to visit her old apartment. I noticed a worn-out yellow patch on the light blue wallpaper near the piano. This was the spot I used to press my body against, to dodge the loathsome slipper.
I accepted my fate without much resistance and entered the Moscow Conservatory. I gave up sports—the risk of breaking a finger was unacceptable. I also gave up vacations. While my friends went away for the weekends, I had to remain within a mile of an accessible piano. According to those around me, I had "natural talent" and "great potential," but they failed to notice that this "natural talent" was overshadowed by an even greater natural stage fright. Before a performance I would shake uncontrollably and hyperventilate. I cursed and imagined all the other places I would rather be—a jail cell, a hospital room—even the dentist's office was pretty high on my list. My father once had to pick me up and literally carry me to the concert hall because my nerves left me lying limp on a chair in the practice room. My mother somehow managed to revive me seconds before the curtains rose.
I had to gather all my courage in order to perform. Despite my anxiety onstage, I became fairly good. Winning competitions only resulted in more competitions; one concert led to another; recordings brought more recordings. This "career" was like a snowball rolling down a hill, only this time I was trapped helplessly inside.
The biggest opportunity of my life came in the fall of 1997. I won a competition and was chosen to be a soloist with the Salem Philharmonic Orchestra. This would undoubtedly be my most challenging performance. It would be my best as well.
The month of preparation flew by. I spent every spare minute I could at the piano. I got up early before school to practice; after school I ran home and hurried through my homework so I could practice several hours more. I cut all corners to devote as much time as possible to piano. I ate, slept, and breathed Mendellsohn's Concerto # 1.
A week before the scheduled concert, my piano teacher held a dress rehearsal. I had the worst case of stage fright thus far in my career. I managed to pull my wits together and play but I did not make a favorable impression on the audience. My piano teacher, a heartless character, further degraded me in front of her students.
"I knew this would happen!" she said in disgust. That was not the end of it. She insulted my outfit and my work habits as I stood before the room, subjected to the scornful glances of other students.
Something in me snapped. I didn’t wait for her to finish. I picked up my things and calmly walked out, without saying a word. I had made up my mind.
The day of the concert, my body felt like an instrument itself, every string tight and vibrating within me. I felt my heartbeat begin its usual fluttering moments before I was to go onstage. The thick, warm air suffocated my lungs. This was the feeling I feared and loathed. I looked down at my hands—they trembled. I knew I would have no control over my music if they didn’t stop shaking.
As I walked across the stage to the piano, my senses became overwhelmed. The bright yellow lights of the auditorium illuminated rows of nameless faces. The scent of anticipation lingered in the air. Relying on reflexes attained over twelve years of performing, I took a bow and sat down. I suddenly felt numb. I could no longer see the lights, the crowd, or the orchestra behind me. Everything around me ceased to exist. My heart's fluttering subsided to a slower beat. My body still harbored slight nervousness, but it hovered at exhilaration rather than all-encompassing panic.
The orchestra released a sea of sound that coerced my hands to the keys. I allowed myself to follow the sound’s current—it felt so innate. My fingers perfectly obeyed the musical notes as they glided over the all-too-familiar spaces. I was creating music. Every nerve in my body was connected to the orchestra and the audience. This bond magnified the resulting sound. The concert hall became one musical rhythm, one breath…one heartbeat. For the first time in the twelve years I’d played piano, I felt what it was like to be truly free, uninhibited, and completely submerged in music.
That was the day I stopped playing piano. My family did not understand—no one really did. Only I knew that the exhilarating emotions I felt that day came from knowing I would never play again. My last performance was arguably the best day of my life. It was the day music let me go.