My mom tells me that one of the hardest things she ever had to do was leave me alone, in my studio apartment that I rented sight unseen, in the middle of downtown Baltimore. I was twenty-two years old and had traveled all over the country, including overseas twice, and was living on my own for the past four years, even during the summers. (I stayed on Hope’s campus and worked at CIT, which was short for Computing and Information Technology, where I mostly answered phones, made and drank coffee, and did some minor troubleshooting. To this day I still say it with a raised inflection at the end, as if there’s a question mark–“Computing and Information Technology?”) So even though I was a legal adult who could clearly handle life on my own, I was still her baby, and she was still abandoning me in The City. I’ll admit to a few pangs of emptiness and fear as I watched their Nissan Quest minivan pull away from the street parking spot in front of my building (my dad parallel-parked a minivan. BADASS.). But more than anything, I felt excitement. This, I thought, is where my life truly begins.
The Peabody Conservatory of Music is affiliated with Johns Hopkins University and is world-renowned for its outstanding faculty and alumni. I entered Peabody with no pretenses of becoming world-famous or anything like that; I really just wanted to play the piano well, and to enjoy the benefits of a stimulating learning environment. I loved my classes–most of them were small seminars, and though I wasn’t entirely thrilled with a few of my necessary electives (Renaissance Counterpoint still gives me nightmares), I eagerly lapped up the knowledge. I also loved living in such a culturally dense region. Within walking distance of my humble apartment there were art galleries, the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, where the Baltimore Symphony plays, international restaurants galore, historic monuments and buildings. I could see layers of time in the potholes on the streets–asphalt upon brick upon cobblestone–and felt as if I was living alongside of history. Not to mention I could take a short, cheap (on weekdays) train ride and be on the Washington, D.C. mall in about an hour.
What I didn’t like was the isolation. I was a graduate assistant for the keyboard studies department, and several of my fellow graduate students were enrolled in the classes I assisted. I was supposed to avoid cultivating friendships with these students, advice which I mostly ignored. Many of the graduate students were from Taiwan or South Korea and stuck to themselves; the other students were from all over the North American continent, and we banded together somewhat, but we were all so busy, there wasn’t much time for socializing. I was drowning in work; my assistantship required fifteen hours a week of my time, and between my own coursework and practicing, there wasn’t time for anything beyond the occasional late-night gathering at the Midtown Yacht Club, where we guzzled pitchers of Bass Ale, threw peanut shells on the floor, and shouted over the din of live music and conversation.
Practicing. Remember what I said about my practice habits? During my junior and senior years of college, I practiced longer and harder than ever before. Harder isn’t necessarily better, however, and I developed a left shoulder injury that to this day still bothers me. At Peabody, you had to fight for practice rooms at all hours of the day, and there were students who camped out in practice rooms for hours, probably skipping class. I was extremely fortunate to have access to my professor’s studio, but I had to share it with the other graduate assistants, and I soon found that the best time for me to practice was during the wee hours of the morning. I regularly found myself getting up at 5:30 or 6:00, brewing some strong morning joe, and braving the somewhat sketchy neighborhood walk to school in the dark so I could practice for two hours before my 8:30 class. I carried my keys in my hand–“stab an attacker in the eye!”–and figured I could dump the boiling hot contents of my travel mug onto anyone who harassed me, but fortunately I was never bothered beyond a “spare some change” inquiry. This was one of the many instances where it pays to be 5′ 9 1/2″ tall.
I struggled. I lacked the foundation that most of my fellow students had; many of them had been playing competitively since they were children, and they had spent the time developing the technique during their formative years that was needed to play the music I longed to play with finesse and confidence. My teacher spent the first year completely deconstructing the way I approached the instrument and gave me only a handful of pieces to work on–Chopin’s Étude in C Major, Op. 10 No. 1, and a Haydn Sonata, to name two. Instead of taking this all in stride, I began to feel panicked that I only had two years to fix every technical problem, pass a jury, and play my master’s recital. Combined with loneliness and the distraction of a long-distance relationship, I lost my motivation and focus, and was plagued with self-doubt. As always, my dear friend hindsight tells me I should have taken an extra year to work slowly through these issues, but I didn’t have the luxury of unlimited funds, and I was already in debt, so I made a plan to finish my degree in the allocated two years and get the hell out of there.
Then my professor announced that she was retiring, and she wanted me to be the interim replacement while the school looked for a permanent faculty member to fill her position. I was about to become a temporary Peabody faculty member, but I could apply for the job long-term, and I had a pretty good chance I’d get it. Another year would be spent in Baltimore, this time with income. This was an unexpected gift, and I leaped at the chance.