1969 – It’s a toy piano that I get at Christmas, black and shiny, with black and white keys. A grand piano. It comes with nothing else, no doll, nothing. And when you push the little wooden keys, they make tinkling sounds. We live in Paris on the seventh floor in an apartment close to the Château de Vincennes – which makes us practically royalty. My mom takes us to the park to swing on the swing sets and sometimes we sit on the lawn of the pond to look at the swans and feed the ducks.
After lying on the floor in the living room next to the Christmas tree lights, the little piano moves to the bedroom I share with my brother, in the big toy box that is stored under our bunkbeds. That was my first piano.
One night Mom takes my brother and me in the metro at night, something we rarely do. I have to run to catch up with her quick giant steps. After the blinding light of the metro we get off at a grey station and walk down more dark hallways forever until we reach an even darker room full of seats and silent people. Here we have to sit and watch a wall-to-wall screen. And then there is music, delicious music and cute adorable kittens jumping everywhere. I don’t even realize that I am delighted. I delight in the voice at the beginning of the movie (I’ll learn later that it is Maurice Chevalier) and the song will stay in my mind for days and days afterwards. I try to hold on to it as long as I can by repeating it to myself. These little kittens jump everywhere in a lady’s apartment and especially, especially on the piano. They play music by jumping on the keys with their font paws, their back paws, they tease each other. The girl cat sings sweetly and simpers while her bothers stomp on the keys and hiss and misbehave in general. But this is all very charming in the end, and the kitten and their piano enchant me. Sometime later, maybe years, I receive from my grandfather a children’s book with illustrations from that movie and spend endless moments lost with Les Aristochats and my favorite scene, the piano lesson. What a wonder is a piano: a toy, a music-maker, an entertainer. When you play you achieve, you entertain, people want to hear you. It is absolutely pleasing and charming and elegant and delightful in every way.
1974 – I hear my mother talking to our neighbor about a piano teacher and his/her pupil: “ils doivent avoir des atomes crochus,” she said. Something like “they have to have warm fuzzies” . That makes me think: so a piano teacher is not like a normal teacher at school? No-one wonders there if you have chemistry with them. You just get what you get and you don’t get upset. Maybe piano is different, touchy feely, it seems.
* * *
I take Solfege lessons at the Conservatoire de Nantes. That means that on Saturday mornings, I have to take the bus by myself to downtown Nantes. I walk along the old streets bordered with stone buildings and there it is, the entrance to the medieval-style edifice. It is called The Conservatory as if it was one entity although it is divided among many buildings in this center area of Nantes and you have to make sure you are in the right place.
Right now, our sunny classroom on the first floor. Desks are lined up like in a school, but for fewer students. So it’s a little bit like vacation, or the days before holidays. Not really serious. The teacher is a nice young plump woman. She draws lines on the blackboard, a pretty squiggle, and black dots that go up and down a series of five lines. It is all very pretty. But the best part is when we sing. There is a piano in the room, this beautiful massive magical object. She sits at it and pulls some sounds from the key, actually makes sound by pressing the keys in a special order and they respond clear and strong every time.
At the end of the class, we rush to the piano to see and even try for ourselves, and she lets us for just a few seconds, because we have to go, and it’s always like that when you are a kid. And I see clearly in person for the first time the piece of wood that offers so many treasures all lined up cleanly like on a jewel case, the raised black keys, mysterious in between the whites. I am in awe. And then I am in the street again, on the bus going home.
Every Saturday afternoon, I enjoy the freedom of taking that bus to the center of Nantes, past historical monuments, and then down narrow streets with lower buildings or heavy stone. I stop at the Boulangerie in the corner of my street to buy a Pain aux raisins when I have enough change in my pocket. It’s not the usual “pain aux raisins,” but a gray and dry roll made of rye flour full of soft and sweet raisins and it costs only fifty centimes. It is a food that I proudly provided for myself and eat in the street in little pinches, and it tastes much better than something from home. Even if my mom is a connoisseur, this treat is strictly mine.
Solfège classes go quickly. Sometimes the teacher plays a tune and we have to transcribe it in pencil notes in our spiral notebooks. Always pencil so that you can erase easily. Or we have to sing what she wrote on the board – which is much easier. We learn about the white notes, the black ones. She teaches us how to say ti-ti for the “croches” ti-ti-ti for “triolets”and taa for the blacks and to tap the table to keep the time.
I am pretty good at that, if I may say so myself. And some of the tunes she plays are pretty. Something by Rameau: Sol fa mi fa re mi fa mi re mi do re mi sol fa mi re do re do si la sol… It is simple, melancholy, like a little sad dance. I can see a little boy doing a reverence, turning on himself and bowing. It is something I can contain, a whole that I can make mine. Repeat it over and over again it doesn’t lose its magical quality. Nothing can take that away from me.
I am learning to read music because I can’t take piano lessons at the Conservatoire if I don’t know how to read music. I have to learn to read first.
So we read, and take dictations, and twice a year there are exams. Not very hard, but still, you have to come at the regular time, except in a different classroom, and you find your name on a piece of paper attached to the wall to know the time.
The day of the exam I am very nervous and I tremble and shake as I come into the room where a teacher or two ask me to read and sing. It goes very fast and then I can go. And when I am outside again in the sun it’s as if nothing has happened. I can saunter back home, free. And it’s almost as if I had gone to confession, the lightness and the relief of it. And I find out with surprise, year after year, that I passed, that I made it to the next level. It always surprises me.
One day, one of the exams takes place in a different building. It’s another door down on the other side of the street. A grey hallway is lined with closed doors. The air vibrates with odd sounds: an airy wooden low vibration from one room, then something metallic, or a trumpet from another door, then a light brush of percussion instruments. Noises that you don’t hear in the streets, no honks or jack-hammers, no engine or fire-truck siren, no car-garage clang. It’s a magic forest of artful sounds. It feels like a temple and I realize how holy this all is. I realize that there is no use for those airy sounds, only people practicing for the sake of beauty, to create joy like birds sing. And yet this is no easy joy, but discipline and effort. Work for the sake of beauty. And in the long hallway the various instruments mix up in a bizarre and gentle cacophony softened by the closed doors, and it fills me with pride at being one of the few to find myself elevated beyond the utilitarian world of survival, and a greater joy at realizing that yes, there is Beauty, there is Sacred, and aren’t we getting a little bit closer to God?
1977 – The Conservatoire has now moved away from the old buildings in downtown Nantes to a newly built center on the Ile Beaulieu, across the Loire river.
I have a big crush on our solfège teacher Mr Nedelec. I know it means Noël, or Christmas in Breton, because my father is a specialist in Breton. I heard that his first name is Patrick. Patrick Nedelec. I make sure I wear short-sleeves for the class on Wednesday afternoons, so that he can see my pretty arms. I think I have pretty arms and I look at them during class to admire my late summer tan and freckles. Hopefully he’ll notice them or my glossy brown braids. He himself is blond, very handsome, and he makes us laugh sometimes.
My mom has to drive me there most of the time, and we pass by the old LU biscuit factory where the famous Petit-Beurre cookies are made. It does smell of warm butter and cookies baking when we pass by.
The new Conservatoire is a giant modern structure of glass and metal and the floors and walls smell of new materials, plastic, glue, plaster and paint. It smells of muffled wealth, importance and seriousness and it is all very impressive. Every classroom is bright and airy with a whole wall of windows, and equipped with sliding white boards, markers and erasers.
But the most impressive are the concert halls and rooms for rehearsals. All around the lower part of the structure are doors that lead to soundproof rooms protected by glass, or Plexiglass or whatever material lets you see through while keeping the outside quiet. One day, Mr. Nedelec takes us to a rehearsal of La Symphonie Pastorale and asks us to listen to the different movements and how they make us feel, and what story Beethoven wanted to tell. And although this is overwhelming and too big for me, I understand better the layers of music performed live. I am humbled by the number of musicians, their talents, and the room itself, with the new clean carpet, the transparent walls, the facing dark walls with the recessed lighting, the smell of newness and of the energy and money that went into this experience.
One day, my father accompanies me to a concert in one of the big concert halls. Here too I am awed by the glossy wooden steps that lead to a varnished wood podium, ceiling spotlights flooding precise spots, all contrasting with dark walls. We sit on brand new seats and I feel very privileged. The music starts and I am overwhelmed.
Monsieur Nedelec is only one of our teachers. We have different subjects now. And as the school year comes to an end, we are informed that the following year we will have to add more classes to our curriculum and choose different sections. Some of us will sing in chorus, some will study harmony. I don’t know what I will study. I am only eleven, I don’t know what fate has in store.
As it happens, nothing happens at the Conservatoire for me. I didn’t know that this new marveling was the end of my experience. I will never go back to the Conservatoire de Nantes.
* * *
First piano lesson
I am holding my mom’s hand. We parked her little white LNA in a large parking area outside a row of stone apartment buildings lined in an angle toward the Loire river. It’s a part of Nantes that I don’t know very well. It looks like a more affluent, older and historical area of Nantes.
But what is important is that it is a hot day for our standards. I am wearing flip-flops. My feet are sweating, and I hear my flip-flops plastic squeaking. And a nasty fishy smell rises from the cheap foam and plastic contraption.
We get in the old stone building and meet Mlle Gauthier, her sister and their mother. My mother is always effusive, too nice maybe.
I sit at the piano. The living room, separated from the hallway by a French door smells strongly of furniture polishing wax. Mlle Gauthier my teacher, is a short woman with cropped curly dark hair. She wears the ubiquitous seventies brown corduroy pants. But the main thing is that she is blind. She sits behind me at the piano, a straight piano of light brown wood pushed against the wall. On the perpendicular wall is a window and a tall Westminster chime clock. She takes my hand in hers and I flinch – I am not used to strangers holding my hands, but she is firm and authoritative. I forget that she is blind as she shows me the keys. “This is called an octave.” I worry that I will never remember what she is telling me. And I am embarrassed by the odd plasticky smell of my flip-flops. She must smell it too. I worry that she will not want to keep me as a student, with those flip-flops.
In the meantime, she shows me how to place my fingers on the white keys. And finally I am there, entitled, even expected to make those sounds. I own the keyboard now, I have to understand it, assimilate it, integrate it. And that feels right, and daunting. Finally I am where I was supposed to be all that time. She tells me to keep practicing those octaves during the week. And I do.
Now that I know how to read and write music as they requested, my mom has learned from the Conservatoire that I am too old to start piano there. Therefore we had to find a teacher, as I dreamed of playing the piano more than ever.
Now every Saturday morning I ride my bike to Mlle Gauthier’s apartment, down our house, down the different quarters of Nantes down to the old port. I relish every minute of the trip, the smell of fog and wood smoke in the air, the empty streets on a Saturday morning, the sight of Wisteria flowers growing on old walls, my heart beating a little bit faster when I get closer to the street of the boy I am secretly in love with, and finally, the fog lifting and the sun sparkling on the Loire river.
At the door, I always try to get a glance of the bright red fuzzy bedcover in her sister’s bedroom. Mlle Gauthier’s sister is less blind than her and sees some color.
I sit at the piano and she takes my fingers in her hands again and places them on the keys. “You have to make a bridge, you see, to have power in the fingers” she explains. “If they are flat you won’t get any sound.” Mlle Gauthier doesn’t have much patience but I am a good student. And she gives me methods, and exercises, and teaches me how to practice scales first, then to go to exercises in the Czerny book. Then to something more fun. Like most students, I start with la Méthode Rose.
I go to a catholic high-school in downtown Nantes, in the equivalent of 6th grade. It is an all-girl school but it doesn’t make any difference to me at first because everything is new, the building, the girls, the teachers, what we learn. I like to take refuge in the fact that I take piano lessons – a refuge against solitude, because I know how “friends” can hurt you and I am not really gregarious. I might be one of the lonely kids no matter what. I get to know Martine, Anne and her sister, the girl who sits next to me when we change desks but I like to be different.
After school some of us cross the street to the bus stop across Boulevard Guist’hau and stand with the cluster of people waiting for the bus, a daily exercise in patience and obedience. Stuffed in the middle of a narrow vehicle that stops and goes and swerves, you have to hang on tightly to whatever you can, a hanging handle, a dirty metal bit, someone’s coat. You are pressed against strangers in a forced unwanted intimacy, you dislike them and their smells as much as they try to avoid you.
When I get home, I have to practice the piano for one hour. Everyday. Otherwise, my father says he will return the piano that we are renting. It’s a big black clunky piano that sits in the living room against the wall.
I start with the scales and then my Czerny exercises, and then a couple of exercises in the books Mlle Gauthier assigned me, the pretty songs and the less pretty ones. I always surprise myself with the sounds I can create. Some chords delight me. But sometimes I repeat and repeat and repeat the same phrase without getting it right. Or I think I got it right, but still get caught on the same snag a little bit later. And I have to play for one hour. So I find myself repeating mechanically without trying to learn. In the meantime I hear my mom in the kitchen preparing dinner far too early in advance, since we don’t eat until about eight o’clock, and it’s not even seven. I hear the electric knife she uses to cut bread, I hear the oven fan, I hear her beating the vinaigrette.
There are moments of thrill and satisfaction at playing some of the pieces I find in those books. Not all of them. Some are boring, some are ugly. But some pieces are musical poetry.
Some things come easier than others. I like Bach, the mechanical orderly motions of the Inventions. My fingers fall into place neatly and even if the sound is not musically perfect, there are fewer catches than in other pieces. Some days playing feels like a drudgery. Some others less. But I am an obedient child. I do it. I forget how hard and long I wanted to play, now that it is an obligation.
Mlle Gauthier tells me sometimes that I do better than her students, that I am more prepared. That I know how to read and that it makes things easier. That I place my fingers well on the keyboard.
I now have my own piano. Because of my dedication, my progress, and the fact that he admires my skills (each hand is doing something different!) , my grandfather bought one for me. The new piano comes into our living room, black, with ultra-modern elegant straight lines, and so perfectly varnished that I can see myself in it.
Every Saturday morning, my bundle of books attached to the back of the bike, I pedal down to my lesson, feeling the wind in my ears, the fog in my nose and eyes.
When the Westminster clock times the hour I have to leave and another student comes in.
One summer vacation, we stay home and do nothing. My parents have decided to change the wallpaper in the house that we are renting in Nantes. It is a lot of work for them. There is a tall skinny aluminum ladder reaching from the bottom of the stairs, askew, up to the ceiling, and it is a high ceiling. My father is perched up there precariously. They argue about how much glue should be on the paper, make more glue, brush the glue, then climb and hang the paper that falls down after a few seconds. There is always too much glue, or not enough. And then the little bubbles have to be chased out, and it is such a boring hassle. I am bored to death. It is hot and I have nothing to do. I don’t have anything new to play. So I ask my father if I can go to the music store downtown and get something new. In the store, I rummage through bins of sheet music and look for something that could be at my level. I fish out a copy of Shubert’s Trout, which I think could do the trick. It is something I know, and that should make it that much easier. Back home, I happily start on the job. However, the seemingly easy sheet music is challenging. I get caught at some point down the line, and I just can’t do it. I grow frustrated. The weather is getting hotter. My father nags me to practice. I start hating that trout. The skipping jolliness of the beginning reeks of fake cheerfulness and hypocrisy. The whole summer smells of fishy wallpaper glue and efforts at taming an elusive fish. I am angry at myself for even thinking of buying that silly happy piece, at my father for forcing my defeat and humiliation and at the world in general.
Another time, bored again, I start a new page in my book, a selection of exercises. I am adequately pleased with myself: the triplets on the left hand come out smoothly, I think, and I manage a relatively pretty melody on the right hand. I bring my work proudly to Mlle Gauthier, at the next class to show how I didn’t stay idle during the summer, and learned something without her help.
Filled with the excitement of my accomplishment I can’t wait to present it to her. “Ce n’est pas fait et pas à faire !” she pronounces after I am done, visibly displeased. “It is not done and not to do.” I puzzled at the expression, which I had never heard before. I knew I didn’t have to do it, but it was somewhat done. And I have no idea what I was doing wrong. This is the first and really only time when I see Mlle Gauthier really mad at me. And to this day I hesitate before starting something on my own.
One day, Mlle Gauthier gives me a book about Ana Magdalena Bach, which she has read in Braille. I like to watch her hands glide on top of the dots raised in the paper.
Another day, Mlle Gauthier tells me that she would like to register me for a piano contest in Paris. She thinks I could win a prize. But to my family, the idea is very far-fetched because we never go to Paris. We are five and there is no time and no extra money. Maybe I am not part of the conversation, but the decision is that no, they are not going to take me to Paris for piano contests, whatever the excellence of my level.
At this juncture, Mlle Gauthier tells my parents that she doesn’t have anything more to teach me. That we have to find another piano teacher.
So I say goodbye to her, to her sister with the big rolling eyes and the red fuzzy blanket, to their mother, to the smell of wax in the living room and to the Westminster clock chime.
1982 – Saturday afternoons, the pedestrian area in downtown Nantes is buzzing with shoppers, tourists and locals. I spend a few minutes at the PierOne Imports store taking in the Chinese satin sandals, printed tapestries, bundles of incense sticks, bottles of essence extracts, the sea of colorful embroideries and printed rice-paper umbrellas, and emerge giddy with patchouli and strawberry incense before going up to my piano lesson across the street on the second floor. There is a levity in the air that I bathe and breathe in, an air of tourism, of festivities.
Mlle Vauthier with a V. is the antithesis of Mlle Gauthier with a G. With her blue eyes and bleach blond hair she looks like an aged, more confident version of Marilyn Monroe with doughy skin. She wears tight sweaters in pastel colors that show soft rolls, straight skirts and heeled pumps and receives her students in a small boudoir-like apartment where the piano stands directly across entrance door.
The first time, she listens carefully to the story of my early years of learning. She wants me to play and compliments me about my technique.
“What would you like to play?” she asks me. I am disconcerted because Mlle Gauthier never asked me what I wanted to play. She gave me things.
Her question makes me wonder.
I feel slightly frivolous, and I don’t know if I should trust someone who appears like a hedonist to me, compared to Mlle Gauthier. I am afraid I will lose my technique due to a loosening of rigor and values. Will I turn into one of those students who try to impress by playing fast and flashy pieces that they don’t really know how to play?
It takes me a while to find the audacity to tell Mlle Vauthier what I like to listen to. I feel as if I was confessing shameful secrets. I say something about Fauré, Schumann, Debussy, Erik Satie, Chopin, Schubert.
I have mixed feelings of excitement and doubt when she prescribes a Chopin nocturne to me. Isn’t this too vaporous and shallow? I feel I am going from austerity to luxury, from serious to trivial. So while the gauzy curtain of her window billows in the soft air, I sit on the bench next to Mlle Vauthier.
Another difference is that Mlle Vauthier can see, and that she doesn’t hesitate to take a pencil and make large marks at places on my books where I make mistakes, so that I will see them. None of my previous books had such marks on them.
Piano takes on an entirely different flavor.
After the lesson I am back in the crowd of tourists and wealthy downtown residents. I return to my humble home outside of town, in the long street punctuated by a giant supermarket.
Sometimes we have guests for dinner, and my parents ask me to play something to show my skills. I don’t want to. I don’t feel like showing something private. I am not used to it and I am not very good yet. But they feel entitled to put me on the spot. Sometimes I reluctantly oblige. And they and the guests become disinterested after five minutes, which makes the whole affair even more absurd.
Whereas Mlle Gauthier held no public hearings and everything was kept between the two of us, I am introduced to recitals. I have heard school friends talk about recitals, but never attended one.
Big bouquets of flowers over the piano, floor, tables around the rented hotel room, make you feel you’d better do well or you will be really ridiculous. I just had a haircut that I don’t think is great, and wear blue capri pants which are not bad. Thirty to fifty people are sitting on chairs just for the pleasure of listening to you or their own children, waiting for their turn, waiting for your turn, while your nerves are in knots.
Usually the other students play things that I despise in general, popular movie themes, or very fast pieces that sound terrible. I have been working on Dolly, by Fauré, with four hands. And Mlle Vauthier is sitting on my left. It goes fast, in a blur, and I don’t think I did either too bad or too well, until Mlle Vauthier tells me, later, that I skipped one repeat. At least I am grateful that she was sitting next to me.
One day, sitting at the piano at Mlle Vauthier’s apartment I notice a room divider in the already small living room, so that I cannot see what is behind. “I am putting up a friend,” she explains. Don’t pay attention to it.
This is a lesson like another, except that I cannot help noticing that Mlle Vauthier, when she shifts on the bench, smells of something fishy and unpleasant. I tell my mom when I come home, as I tell her anything, lightly, as a passing observation. My parents take an interest in this and start drilling me with questions: did I see anything behind the partition? Or someone? I say that I didn’t hear anything except my teacher telling someone about preparing a cup of tea. But my parents are intrigued. And very soon, they ask her to come for dinner. My parents like to entertain guests occasionally. We receive my father’s colleagues or work-related acquaintances, or some good neighbors. My mother usually makes intricate meals and serves them on our big round table beautified with our new elegant china, silverware and crystal glassware. And much later did I understand why they had been curious, or even concerned about my innocent observation. I heard them during the meal talk about Mlle Vauthier’s relationships, that she had been putting up a boyfriend that she liked for his “organ” which means “voice,” because she liked voice in general.
Maybe I am growing up. For some reason the air is lighter, the space more expansive around me, walls open up. And it is often spring. The French window in the living room is partially open onto the garden and lets the breeze and the fresh air in. We have planted a hazelnut tree years ago and its roots took surprisingly in the poor soil. These days it gives shade and some semblance of a real garden to the square lot surrounded by cement blocks. We could be somewhere in Normandy when my father has taken the garden chairs out. We could be in Combray, in a Proust volume.
One day, I am playing a piece by Schubert. I have undeniably made progress. My father, who sits in the garden, sipping tea and observing the birds or conversing with a bee, says he is happy. How I know, I don’t know. Maybe he said it loud: “I am happy.” Maybe he said it to my mother and I overheard.
And I feel that I am part of the happiness, the Schubert sonata flows through the French window and reaches outside in the garden under the hazelnut tree while the bees are humming in the Wisteria tree and the cat is chasing the field mice in and out of the grass.
I feel partly responsible for his happiness. We have both reached something, an accomplishment, another stage of life and we can share and revel in it. Without saying it.
1984 – I have been working on a Mozart Sonata for the Baccalaureat because I am taking the Music option.
June is radiant. The exams are scheduled at random schools and places in Nantes. This time, I had to travel to an impressive stone building with arches and columns, some academic or government venue. We are a small group of candidates in a hallway. I look at the boys in their jeans, looking relaxed or uptight; the girls’ long hair and cool outfits, looking for clues as to whether or not they are better than me. There are a series of closed doors in that darkened hallway. Outside, the June leaves are sparkling in the light, in the breeze. Some of us get closer to the closed door in hope of hearing a piano sound. Do I know it? Is it good? Will there be drama? And we wait. A list of our names is scotch-taped on the door.
Then my name is called. The room is gray, the light shallow. A silent jury sits behind school desks, a pencil in hand, a sheet of paper waiting.
I sit at the piano. This is an easy piece, I always thought. It starts slow and then goes in to show some technique in climbing scales. Mlle Vauthier thought that it was better to show off technique with a slower piece. I don’t know if I play it well, because it sounds a little mechanical to me, and I am not sure I keep the right tempo throughout. I would need an internal metronome.
Playing piano in this low-lit room in the spring in this building is the official validation of my informal studies, a rite of passage. I am now graduating to … what? A life without piano.
I receive an honorable 18 out of 20 for that exam, so I must have done OK.
In September I am going to college at a University in a nearby town. I am going to study English, in view of becoming an English teacher, the one idea that gelled most about what I want to do with my future. It is not a vocation, but I am not seeing anything else on the horizon. I thought for a few days of going to Paris and study Philosophy and Psychology at la Sorbonne. But my parents didn’t think that this would be a good idea, what with the unemployment rate in France. The key words all around us are “chômage,” “filière bouchée” et “pas de débouchés.”
So in desperation I picture myself as an English teacher. Quiet and orderly and safe. Secure, boring and sedate. I feel simultaneously relieved and resigned. Nobody objects and no-one will get hurt.
1988 – I have accepted an assistantship at Kenyon College in Ohio, my first visit to the United States. There, in this idyllic campus perched on the top of a hill, I teach a couple of French classes and help in the language center. This leaves me plenty of time to study, write essays, meet people and play the piano. I have one whole school year to do this, and then I will return to France.
Here I find a tiny room with a grand Steinway piano in the middle. Since I found out about the music center, I sneak in whenever I can to enjoy the pure sounds of the Steinway. I sneak because I am not enrolled in any music class, and should probably not be there. But no-one sees or hears me. Or they don’t say anything.
It is an isolated little room with no space for anyone but me. The walls are covered with thick padding, for acoustics reasons, but I imagine it is designed for the protection of people who would become so delirious playing this divine instrument that they would hurl themselves against the walls. Playing in this tiny space is almost a guilty pleasure. It is just me and the piano, and the memory of what I used to play. I haven’t played in four years but some pieces come back, Fauré’s Sicilienne, Barcarole #4, Debussy’s Clair de Lune, which sound magnified and sublimated, so much that I feel tremendous satisfaction at my own accomplishment: I had these skills and didn’t even value them.
All of Kenyon College is made for enjoyment of art and learning. There is no other responsibility. Food is provided by the several dining halls, and there is really nothing to worry about except exams, learning, and social life. One evolves in a world of art and pleasures.
The Women center also houses a piano in its living room, a grand white piano that is nothing like the concert Steinway, but still in good shape for an instrument available to whoever passes by. My boyfriend and I sometimes come in the center to use the kitchen. He admires the fact that I play the piano. And I thoroughly enjoy the view on the garden, all around the windows when I sit on the bench.
* * *
2000 – My American boyfriend and I have been married for ten years. He says that one of the reasons he fell in love with me was that I played the piano. We started our life together in Boston, then in France, then in Boston again. For a very long time, over twelve years, I didn’t play. We didn’t have a piano.
Then one day, out of the blue, it comes back to me. We are walking on the beach in New Hampshire one evening. I am wearing a white summer dress with flowers on it and the piano idea comes as I am making an arabesque in the sand with my foot, dancing and making circles. The possibility of playing the piano, of owning a piano gets a hold of me, grows on me, and it became something that, yes, could be done. Maybe. If we could afford to buy a piano, if this and if that. If he lets me.
The problem is that I am a young mother. I have a job but he controls the money. I don’t know how to go about things, especially in a foreign country. But thankfully he likes the idea. He likes the idea enough to look for a piano for sale in the Boston Globe. And he finds one that belonged to the Boston Ballet.
I imagine ballerinas rehearsing to that piano. Dream is coming back into my life.
We buy the piano and it comes into the house. I put a lamp on it. I buy some sheet music of the things I knew. I buy some bound books of easy classics.
And I start to play again and the joy comes back in my life. I don’t play very well, and I don’t have time. But I could if I wanted. Just for me, just for the fun of it. My daughter dances when I play.
2012 – We have been married for twenty-two years, and we divorce.
I take the piano with me, and suddenly I decide I want to play jazz. I want to have fun, to break the conventions or at least break out of my classic mold. I want to romance myself with syrupy cocktail piano tunes heard in jazz bars in movies. I buy a few books and start by myself. But I find out it isn’t as easy as I had thought, that I have to take lessons. I realize I don’t have the time to practice as I should. “Jazz players learn from each other” the teachers tell me, “not from book. You don’t read jazz, you just use your ears and your fingers. Just listen to music. Do you ever listen to music? Just play and repeat. You got to hang out with them… ”
When I come home at night, when the pasta is boiling, when I am waiting for my daughter, when I have a few minutes, I sit at the piano. I play something and I smile, and I am out of myself, out of time and out of space. It is fun. Or beauty. Or dream. Or love. Or romance. Or passion. Depending.