My Piano and I

I’ve been playing the piano for the last 12 years. No, I played the piano for 10 years. For the last 2 years, its been sitting in my house, gathering dust, sometimes used, mostly not.

The first time I remember wanting to learn the piano was when my cousin Ajay played Twinkle Twinkle Little Star in his house for the family. I remember thinking that I wanted to play like that, hit seemingly inanimate keys to create music. I was around 4 years old then. I told my parents this and they were elated to have a child that took an interest in music (my sister was a baby at the time, so they didn’t expect anything from her. Come to think of it, they still don’t).

After we moved to Hyderabad, they scouted around and found my first piano teachers, Mr. and Mrs. Maarthand, a couple that taught students piano in their small flat. I remember it being grey, white, and dusty, with an old piano with yellowed keys. It was there that Binothi Mam first showed me the treble clef and the bass clef and made me repeatedly draw them. Then she showed me the notes on the different clefs: A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. And only after that did I touch the actual keys. I went there every Sunday morning, 6 or 7 o clock. Binothi Maam and Maarthand Sir were kind and patient teachers, always calm about the mistakes I made and always firm when they had to be. I’m glad I was introduced to the formal training of music under them.

At first I played songs like Mary Had A Little Lamb and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star (upon learning this, I was ecstatic to show Ajay to prove to him that we were on the same level). But soon, we started moving on to bigger things. My parents wished for me to take Trinity College of Music exams, and so we started with the first, most basic, level: Initial. I don’t remember much of this, I was only around 5 and 6 at the time, but I know that at home I practiced on a keyboard, a pretty small one with only two or three octaves I think.

There was an incident during my Hyderabad stay where, on the day of one such piano class, my mother was to escort me to it in an autorickshaw. My mother hailed the auto to our house, just as my uncle arrived. My mother and my uncle were talking to each other, while I, eager to go to class, hopped in the auto and told the driver to proceed on, thinking he knew where my piano class was. And so the auto went. I kept waiting for him to stop at my piano class, while he kept waiting for me to tell him where to stop. In circles we drove in the early Sunday morning traffic, until finally the driver realized that I had no clue as to where he had to drop me. He decided to take me back home; I was lucky to have gone with a good man on my aimless jaunt.
Meanwhile, back at home, my mother had been driven to tears by my disappearance and had feared the worst. She had phoned everyone she knew in Hyderabad (I think my dad was out of town), including the neighbors and some of my dad’s friends. My uncle was about to call the police when I showed up at the house. My mother grabbed me and held me close to her as she sobbed in relief. I still remember how much they had to pay that auto driver for driving me around town: 300 rupees.

I completed Initial, Grade 1, Grade 2, and Grade 3 in Hyderabad, after which we moved to Chennai, where I have been for the last 8 years. I think I saw Maarthand Sir only once after we moved to Chennai, but I felt he hadn’t changed in the least, in looks and in demeanor. In Chennai, I trained under Guna Sir and Chella Sir, brothers who had made music their life. Here too, I had classes every Sunday, wherein one of them would come to my house because my parents decided to buy a piano, seeing as I seemed to be committed to mastering the instrument. Guna Sir taught me for most of the classes for Grades 4 and 5, because Chella Sir taught the Guitar mostly. I remember him having a Cheshire Cat smile, his dark skin interrupted by pearly white teeth, and he was mostly playful at times. I was quite insolent in class over there. I guess it was because he wasn’t very firm with me from the beginning, so I took him for granted, which would lead to me getting whacked on the back at times. He expected me to practice each week before our classes, but I never did. Sometimes I got by, sometimes he found me out. He kept calling me a genius and exceptionally talented when I played the piano and to this day I don’t believe him.

I may have played piano for quite a while now, so my parents took advantage of this by showcasing my skills to guests when they came to our house. I hated this, because I always thought I would screw up whatever I played. I would screw my face in intense focus as I played, but I kept Guna Sir’s Rule Number One i mind at these times: If you make a mistake, don’t stop and play that part again. Instead, continue, acting like nothing happened. And so I did. As my sister also started learning piano, she could easily point out my mistakes, and like the idiot that she is, would shout them out when they happened. My nervousness went to great heights sometimes. When my father’s business associates from the UK and Australia came to our house one time, I knew my father would ask me to play the piano. I faked an injury to my finger and went around the party complaining about it to my father, and so when he asked me politely, I showed him the finger. He told me to play anyway and at the end of it he praised me for being able to play with an injured finger. I felt nervous when guests came home simply because of this, not because I was afraid of people.

As I tutored under Guna Sir, my mother, in her musical and social interests, decided to hold Piano recitals/festivals for all the students that were trained by Guna Sir bi-annually. Again, for my fear of screwing up, I hated these occasions. I also hated these occasions because the other kids that Guna Sir taught were way more skilled than me, but I was given my fair share of applause. The food was good too. The other kids were mostly from another school, so I didn’t see them much, but later on two twins, the Guhan Brothers, joined the group. They’re way better pianists than I am, and have composed their own pieces. And yet, when Guna Sir taught them in their classes, he would keep mentioning my name to them as a “shining example of how to play the piano”. Of course, in my classes, he would say they were “shining examples of how to play the piano”, so it was a stalemate.

For my Trinity College exams in Grade 4 and 5, I had to go to Ambassador Pallava, a swanky hotel. I had to dress myself in a suit, look suave and play my examination pieces. I remember the waiting room to be tense and extremely silent as parents and Guna Sir listened to what was being played in the room next to theirs. The Trinity College Exams have four stages: first you play your examination pieces, three in number, then you have to play your Scales and Arpeggios. Next, the Examiner gives you a small bit of music notation that you have to play on the spot after seeing it for a minute (literally) and then you either have Ear Testing or Improvisation. The former requires the Examiner to play a bunch of notes and you have to identify them with your eyes closed. The latter involves you making up a bit of music based on either a few notes that the Examiner plays or a beat that he makes. In my earlier grades I chose the former, but for the more advanced grades, I didn’t have a choice; it was usually Improvisation. I don’t know how I got through that and the Sight Reading parts, but I did. My Grade 8 Improvisation was actually pretty decent, but it got repetitive before time ran out.

After Grade 5 it was my Sir’s bright idea to skip the next couple of grades and go to the Big Final One: Grade 8. When he first decided this, I was unsure of whether I could do it, but Guna Sir, as always, said I could because it was all easy. I took his word for it. Preparing for Grade 8 wasn’t like preparing for the other grades. I had a whole year to prepare, but I wasn’t serious about it until four months before the exam, where Chella Sir (who at this time had stepped in more than Guna Sir, I don’t know why), gave me a reality check and said that if really wanted this, I would have to step it up a notch. I realized that it only made sense for me to put in my best because this was something I had been working towards since Initial and I would have to get the job done. For three months, day and night, from 3 in the morning to 10 at night, I would play the piano. At school, I slept in between classes and in free periods because I didn’t sleep much. I just kept playing, practicing and refining the pieces, honing the scales and arpeggios, heck, even practicing Sight Reading, until Chella Sir approved. I became an introvert in those three months and it even gave me time to reflect on the set of friends I had been with for a long time. I decided to leave that group (that’s for a different time) and move on, indirectly thanks to my piano. When my Grade 8 examination came, I wasn’t nervous at all. I felt prepared, and I knew I had done my best for this. I went in, did my thing and left. The Guhan Brothers were there for the same exam as I was, and yet they seemed much more nervous even though they were better pianists. The venue had changed to Musee Musicals, a musical instruments shop pretty close to Ambassador Pallava.

But what happened after my Grade 8 examinations? I didn’t touch my piano for something like 6 months, I didn’t even think about it. I felt a sense of closure after that examination, after being so close and intimate with it for 3 months, I needed my distance from it. Slowly, as is typical after my examinations, my piece faded away from my mind. I couldn’t play them even if I wanted to. It’s been close to two years and I haven’t got back into the Piano routine. Part of the reason for this is that Guna Sir and Chella Sir and I parted ways badly. After the examination, they told my parents and I that we were supposed to pay them extra money as opportunity cost for their services specifically for this exam. My parents didn’t buy that bullshit; my father’s theory was that they should have told us that there would be an extra cost before they had started tutoring me for the exam, but they didn’t. It wasn’t about the cost, it was about the honesty. And so we parted ways, but I believed in them as great teachers who thought I had what it took to be a great pianist, even though I don’t think of that myself. My parents haven’t been able to find a replacement teacher yet, and I haven’t expressed an interest in having one.

Now, the piano sits there in the living room, unused by my sister and I, and I feel great shame because of that. That I have a proper musical instrument in my house, that I’m supposed to be a Trinity College graduate and yet, I don’t play it anymore. I can only play one piece on it now: Fur Elise, the first proper piece I ever learned. It’s embedded in my fingers and my musical memory, but nothing else is. I feel regret sometimes when I see my Piano and I know I should play on it more, and I have of late, compared to the last 2 years. I tried learning Moonlight Sonata on my own, and I’m 3/4ths of the way there, but it’s not the same. I can’t compose music on my own because Guna and Chella Sir never taught me piano theory as much as made me learn Exam pieces. So I don’t know Chords and Scales adequately enough to be able to compose. My musical proficiency is now that of an amateur. Yeah, shame is the right emotion to feel with regards to my Piano. My parents have stopped asking me to play for guests when they come home and I don’t blame them. My father plays the Mridangam at the age of 49 and he berates me for giving up the Piano. Sometime when my friends come home, I quickly make sure I still remember Fur Elise so that if they ask me to play that I could.

And now? Now the piano exists and is in the background of my life. I’m glad I did what I did with it, but I know I must do more. I’m only 17, but I know that time is short, and I should further my Piano skills. I doubt it, but let’s see.

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