What you’ll need: 10 fingers, preferably long

SonglistPiano Man by Billy Joel, Prelude in G minor by Rachmaninoff

Further readingThe Piano Teacher by Janice Y. K. Lee

When I was four, my mom had a party at our house for her international graduate students. One of the Japanese women, Eiko, sat down at our Wurlitzer upright and began to play. My mom hired her on the spot to teach us–me and my seven-year-old brother–how to play piano.

For the next four years, Eiko came to our house once a week and spent a half hour with each of us, moving up through the Suzuki levels. On the weeks she couldn’t come she’d leave us with origami lesson plans, delicately folded pieces of paper we had to unravel to find out which piece she wanted us to practice. Even if we were unwilling students, Eiko meant a lot to us, and we to her. My brother was the ring bearer in her wedding, and I the flower girl. And because of Eiko I have a case of number-color synesthesia, which I attribute to her early association of notes and colors (I didn’t know of my synesthesia until earlier this year when I realized I liked a certain phone number because the colors were pleasantly arranged).

But while Eiko was an excellent performer she had never been taught to teach, and eventually she recommended that we continue on with teachers trained in both the music and the pedagogy. I went through a panoply of southeast Asian teachers, including women from the Philippines, South Korea, Thailand, and China, and a man from Vietnam. And I was introduced to the thing I perhaps hated most in my young life: recitals. When I think about those yearly recitals my heart still quickens and my stomach turns with the anxiety of waiting as the younger kids played through their pieces until it was my turn. I can still feel the shame of the one Christmas performance in which I completely blacked out the second half of my piece, and sat for a long moment before just playing the final three chords.

Debussy's First Arabesque

But I also remember the one recital in which I played my piece perfectly–Mendelssohn’s gorgeous Andante and Rondo Capriccioso–where by performing it I understood it as I never had in rehearsal. And I remember the Master Class for which I played Debussy’s First Arabesque; the visiting artist began his comments with You’re obviously very talented. The last teacher I had in high school tried to convince me to get a Masters in Piano Performance, a notion which seemed ludicrous at the time, and still does.

When I went to college I hoped to keep up my piano skills, and I did indeed go to the small, windowless rehearsal rooms several times throughout my four years. But it was a strange thing–I had defined myself for most of my conscious life as a pianist and suddenly I did not. I had too many new definitions, and pianist no longer felt true.

Today, though, I came home from work feeling incompetent and frustrated (self-inflicted labels) and sat down at the old Wurlitzer. I pulled out the Andante and Rondo Capriccioso and played it through without too much difficulty. And then I went to First Arabesque, to Chopin’s Rain Prelude, to a Mozart Fantasie, to Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G minor (that last one is a beast–see songlist above). My frustration melted and, even though my fingers felt just as clumsy as they always did, I began to feel peace wash over me. I was never good enough to continue on to a career in performance, perhaps, but piano still brings me more joy than most things I’ve known.