In another lifetime, I was a concert pianist.
It was a convoluted route, to say the least. Formal lessons started at the age of four, when my preschool teacher reported to my parents that they could not keep me off the piano bench. My father claims I made it through the first Suzuki book in six months, studying with a Daemen College student. I soon rocketed through the next several books; fuzzy memories of book graduation recitals at our house, various churches and recital halls all meld into the pastel blur that is childhood. I still remember my second piano teacher, Mrs. Soong, a delightful Asian woman who taught me for several years. She would take me into her living room to play on the “fancy” piano when a piece was finally polished, and would clip my fingernails for me if they grew too long. (To this day, I own at least five pairs of fingernail clippers and carry one in my purse wherever I go.) When my grandmother died, we found several cassette recordings that we had sent to her, some that were just us two granddaughters reading to her, but mostly informal music performances. I was blown away by a performance of Mozart’s Sonata in C Major, K. 545 from when I was eight or nine years old. At that time, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing was extraordinary in any way, and aside from the usual adults telling me how beautifully I played the piano, it was no big deal and life was pretty normal for the most part.
I gradually lost interest in practicing towards the end of junior high school. I’ve tried to pinpoint the exact cause, but there were probably several contributing factors. Suddenly there were nerves, cold fingers, rapid pulse, nausea, shaky hands, and memory slips. It occurred to me at some point that I was being evaluated; not just my piano playing, but my whole SELF was on display for my audience. At times I was completely immobilized by stage fright. But there are tools to overcome such nervousness, and one of the most important tools is adequate preparation. Piano came so easily to my fingers at such a young age, I never learned how to properly practice, which meant learning a piece backwards, forwards, and upside down. I didn’t have to work hard until the repertoire became hard, and once it did, my practice habits (or lack thereof) were firmly established. There were other issues, too–I wonder what different teachers would have done with a child like me, and perhaps a more supportive classical music community would have helped stoke my interest. Piano is an awfully isolated instrument, which is why I started drifting towards the cello and choral singing as I grew older.
Long and not-terribly-interesting story short, we fast-forward to the end of my junior year of high school, 1994, where I decided I wanted to be a high school choir director. Piano probably held my best chances at securing scholarship money, even though I had a decent soprano voice and played the cello well enough to earn principal chairs in All-County/All-State Orchestras. I had never studied any instrument privately except piano, so I started taking lessons again, auditioned at a handful of schools, and ultimately chose Hope College for its accredited music and arts programs, small teacher-student ratio, and supportive environment. It took an Educational Psychology class and its accompanying placement in a local kindergarten for me to declare that music education was NOT the career for me, and my dear piano professor Charles Aschbrenner wasted no time in encouraging me to consider piano performance as a major. Those four years at Hope were life-changing for me–lessons that extended far beyond the obligatory hour I was scheduled, often into the late evening hours, solo and collaborative performances, auditions and competitions, travel (I studied at the Gnesin Institute in Moscow, Russia for three weeks in 1998). I knew this was the life for me; this was where I belonged. And I was ready to move on to bigger, greener pastures.
During my parents’ generation, it was thought that if you earned a college degree, you were set for employment. Graduating with a Bachelor of Music degree in piano performance left me with ZERO job options other than becoming the kindly West Michigan neighborhood piano teacher, so if I wanted more, I would have to pursue graduate studies. In hindsight, I wish more than anything that I had taken at least a year off, maybe two, between my undergraduate and graduate studies. I was so young and naive, and coming from such an extremely small pond (first Buffalo, NY, then Holland, MI), it’s a wonder I didn’t drown when I headed off to Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory for my master’s degree. I was not mentally prepared for the rigors of what lay ahead of me, and though I emerged stronger and wiser because of the experience, it was not a happy time for me.