I miss mastery

I’ve been thinking about the piano again lately, probably because of RECITAL. I think back on my years of piano with such longing. Of course there were times when I hated having to practice, but at some point the whole business just started to feel good. I was on the right side of the learning curve and my practice was moving toward prowess. I remember how capable I felt, knowing that there was this wide range of music available to me, knowing that if I worked at it I could call the notes forth as if they were so many dust motes in the air to be waved around at the will of my fingers.

In grad school I went to hear Chris O’Riley in concert (he hosts “From the Top” on NPR, and transcribes/performs indie rock songs for piano, notably Radiohead and Elliot Smith). Afterward I wrote:

When he first started playing and I began watching his hands, I felt wistful, remembering a time when my hands, too, could move so quickly and with such strength and facility. At one time Erik praised me for my octaves. After I first noticed Chris O’Riley’s hands reflected in the piano, I wanted to weep from all the memories. How many evenings of my life have I spent seated in a darkened room, playing, lit only by a single light?… I always used to imagine myself under the spotlight in a concert hall, whenever I practiced at night. These memories are not just in my mind but also in my eyes, my hands and fingers. And tonight here I was, seated in a concert hall, watching someone else’s two pairs of hands, my own two tendinitis-stricken hands tired and sore in my lap.

The other night I already had piano on the brain when O’Riley’s wistful version of Radiohead’s “Let Down” came on shuffle, bringing to mind that concert. I miss making music on a regular basis, I miss choosing new pieces to learn, but most of all I miss the mastery.

I guess at this point I’m probably about as good at writing as I used to be at piano, but writing isn’t like music-making, in that it’s not entertainment while it’s happening. In both cases there are a lot of exercises and slog work and all. But when it comes to piano, once that’s done, you can sit down at a moment’s notice and play a passable “Appassionata” or what have you. And if you want to learn something else (and are a good sightreader, like I am), you know it’s just a matter of finding something that’s within your ability.

Writing is not like that. It’s not fun to watch, and it’s not very physical. Yes, there is a ritual thrill to moving a particular special pen across a luxurious paper, but it doesn’t begin to compare to the feeling of partnership with a musical instrument. Painting, on the other hand, is a lot more like playing the piano (and has the added bonus that I get to listen to music at the same time!) — but I don’t have that level of mastery over painting yet, and likely won’t for many more years. Sigh. Siiiiiiiigh.

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