Piano Man

July 26, 2006

When I was 7 years old, my parents sent me away to boarding school. It was far away from home, and for some reason I just did not fit in. After two rather miserable years there, I had just about had it with the place… I was done struggling with trying to fit in and not being able to. I was done with the bullying, I was done with the bad food, I was done with waking up at 5:30 every morning. I was done with it all.

And then, in my third year in that godforsaken school, I discovered the piano. I don’t remember much about that period of my life… I blocked most of it out very soon after, when I left the school forever. But I do remember when my parents first bought me and my sister my first piano. It was a Casio synthesizer, jet black, sleek, and it cost a whopping amount to my indulging parents who gave up so much just so me and my sister would have even a moment of happiness. It was primarily for my sister, that smiling, beguiling creature that could convince my dad of pretty much anything, and who always got her way (yes, i’m mildly bitter!). But I remember being drawn to it, to the intriguing sounds it would make at my command. And as I awkwardly strummed my inexperienced fingers over the keys, unfamiliar ground to them that had never held a musical instrument before, I felt some connection to it, amazed that such pure sound could come from my actions.

And so when I went back to school the next term I signed on for piano classes. For the life of me, I cannot remember the name of my teacher, though he was immensely important to me at the time, and I remembered him well for many years afterwards. But now, I have lost that along with many other surrounding memories. Still, I remember him well. I remember his watch that he wore on his wrist. It was old, like him, and distinguished, also like him. I remember that watch because it was a part of him, as much a part of him as his face. It had yellowed with time, and I imagined that it was quite white when it was new. But as the years went by, and the glass got scratched and scrubbed, the face changed slowly, aging along with its owner. It was slightly loose, and klinked when he fiddled with it, which was often. Maybe I just remember the watch because that’s what was at my eye level at the time, short, small thing that I was. But it stayed with me all this time, and as I sit here and try to remember what I can of him, that watch is what sticks out the most.

He was a distinguished old man, probably not very well off, but passionate in his love for the music, and a wonderful teacher and mentor. There is little I remember from then, but the feeling of going for music practice after lunch in the afternoons, after we had rested in our rooms, and we would get ready and walk across the main field in the hot sun, to reach the cool shade of the auditorium in which we practiced. A small piano lay dwarfed in a single corner of the oversized room, and we would walk across the painted lines of the basketball court, and when I sat down in front of the piano… it just felt right, somehow.

I was devoted to the piano, and they were happy months for me. I would practice religiously every day, praying to god every morning at assembly and every night before I went to sleep. There is one moment that sticks with me to this day… It was a ways into the semester (or term, as we called it) and it was pretty clear that I was way beyond the other kids (false modesty was never my thing). And one day during practice, I was playing whatever song we were supposed to, and I was so confident, so happy, so secure in my ability to hit the right keys, I put my head back and leaned far back enough to be almost horizontal, all the while playing the rather complicated song with my 9 year old fingers pitch perfect, without missing a beat. We were all just fooling around, playing the song a little faster than I was supposed to, with the others singing along… but that was just about a perfect moment.

At the end of the semester, I was asked to play in front of the entire student body of some 700 students at the final assembly… I was a huge deal. This wasn’t some junior school production… it was for the whole school. My parents were coming to pick me to take me home, and were supposed to see me play. I can’t remember if I told them or not, but in my head it I didn’t… I seem to remember wanting to surprise them, imagining them walking into school and stumbling into the middle of my performance, astounded that their son was playing for the entire school… I don’t even think they knew I was any good… they hadn’t really heard me play since I had developed my abilities rather quickly within the school year.

Anyway, the big day came, and I remember I played in front of the entire student body, the teachers, and a number of parents. After I finished, all my classmates, my house-mates gathered around me congratulating me, saying how I had surprised them all, that I actually could play the damn piano after all. These are the guys who wouldn’t notice me at all… and if they did it was just to say something mean or stupid. It felt… gratifying. And I looked around after a while and I saw my parents walking up, and I ran to them. Imagine my disappointment when I found out that they had just arrived and had missed the whole thing. I told them about me playing for the assembly, but I don’t thing they got it.

Soon after I left the school forever, joined Doon and my 10 year old mind decided that the best way to get over the bad experience of the past 3 years was to completely ignore it. And so in honour of my new beginning, my new me, my version 2.0, I announced to my parents while filling out some forms for my new school, that I would no longer choose piano for my spare time activity from now on. I wanted a change. I remember them asking why, and I remember getting flustered by the question, ignoring it, changing the subject, telling them to “Just trust me, cause I know best”. I remember thinking that they wanted to say something more but didn’t… and then I never played the piano again. My new life in my new school began, and I was wildly successful at forgetting everything (well, almost everything) from my last school. I actually managed to erase whole people from my memory, so strict was my devotion to my “new” life. And I managed to forget the piano, quite completely.

A few years later, I was hanging about the music school in the afternoon, and I noticed the new violin teacher. To my surprise I recognized him – he had taught at my old school, and had been friends with my old piano teacher. Eagerly, though shyly, I went up to him and began asking him about my old mentor… his name bringing to mind all things old, British, and music related. And of course bringing to mind his yellowing watch. I can’t tell if my addled, screwed up brain has just made up the next part in an effort to compensate for the erased portions of my memory or if it was actually true, but I have the distinct memory of him telling me that my old piano teacher had passed on. Dead. I remember feeling like I had lost a friend, an uncle, like I was lost. It was, I think, my first real experience with death since my dog Spotty had died after being run over by a truck, and I had cried to my father on the phone, “Why did he have to die?” It shook me up. I tried going back to the piano then, for a little while, but it just so happened that right about then the school’s piano teacher had decided to move out of the country, and she wasn’t replaced for over a year.

I soon forgot about the piano, even that I ever played it at all. It seems like a dream to me now, like I’m not sure what’s real and what’s not. But I remember that feeling, that feeling of creating music that soothes my mind. I regret that decision of mine, as you might imagine reading this. I imagine how differently my life might have turned out. I don’t think of it much, but every once in a while, I’ll hear a piano playing in the background of a moving scene in a weekly tv show, or see a young prodigy playing in a movie, and I’ll think of the summer afternoons when I walked across a sun-swept field, into a cool room, and played music like a young god.

And I’ll think of all that could have been.