A RIGHT WAY TO PLAY
By Sarah Dorko
Mom set me on the piano bench before my feet could even reach the floor. They swung back and forth, just shy of the pedals below. That was the first time I made a key sing. It hung lonely in the air, vibrating against the white walls, louder than I was expecting. I hit another as the first faded from my ears. Mom slapped my wrist gently, cutting off the note.
“You don’t have to pound the keys,” she said, sitting down beside me.
She let me strike the keys a few more times, telling me softly, softly, until the keys sang just right. She nodded with approval and showed me how to use both hands spread over the keys, not just a finger.
This was the first time I had ever heard the piano. It had sat in our house for years, but closed, locked, and Mom always had the key on her. That day, she had unlocked it, just for me. She said I was old enough now. She laid out lessons for me to practice and learn the notes. She adjusted my fingers when they were off or to keep them curled. You can’t play with straight fingers, she’d say. But she never touched the keys. Never played a single note. Never said, here, like this, or watch me. She’d say, not like that, try again, and that was that. I played until she nodded and we’d move on.
When we were done, she lifted me from the bench, slid that fallboard back in place, and locked it. “We’ll try again tomorrow,” she said, the matter settled. She left me staring at the piano, waiting for tomorrow when the keys would be unlocked for me again.
“You were really good,” Joanna said, sneaking into the room after Mom had left.
“Really?” I asked. Joanna was a year older than me and she should have learned the piano first. But the piano was never unlocked for her. Mom said her fingers weren’t right for it.
Joanna nodded, but then laughed, something she kept sealed behind her lips. “Well, it wasn’t great, but you’ll do better, Sebby. Maybe you’ll be a really great piano player one day.”
Knowing that the piano’s secrets were tucked away under the fallboard, Joanna and I left the room, turning off the lights and closing the door. I could have sat in front of it staring all day. I wanted to play more, but Joanna told me, out of sight, out of mind. I told myself that those words helped, but I could still hear the memory of the notes.
Mom taught me for another week or so until, one day, a man rang our doorbell at lesson time. He wore a big puffy snow coat even though it was only November. He was an older man with a wrinkled face and thin, springy hair, which in the light looked clear instead of white. Mom pulled up a chair for him next to the piano. It creaked when the he leaned back into it.
“This is Mr. Rubins,” Mom introduced.
He held out a hand and said, “Call me Arthur.”
“And this is Sebastian,” Mom said while I shook his hand. It was rough and cracked and I wondered how he could play piano if he didn’t take care of his hands.
Arthur laughed at me. “Serious man, I see. Let’s see what you know, Sebastian.”
We started with flashcards first. Each had a note and Arthur wanted me to name them. I had to turn away from the piano to do so. I knew these already. Mom was strict about learning the basics first. We had been drilling these flash cards before bed each night, but she didn’t step in. I answered the first one for Arthur. “That’s a C,” I said. My eyes slid over to find Mom. She was perched on the sun faded green couch behind Arthur, her stare expectant, lips sealed.
Arthur went over octaves next. He had me point, but not play. He kept smiling, wrinkles etched deeply into the skin. His eyebrows raised with the next request, smile still there, and I watched those wrinkles dig deeper and deeper. Then he flipped open my lesson book and pointed to the notes and had me recite them. Bottom to top, left to right, one note at a time.
Mom and I hadn’t been doing much more, but at least she let me play the piano. Though I didn’t say anything other than what I was asked, Arthur explained all in due time. Whatever that meant. I just wanted to hear the piano again. Yesterday’s notes were fading from memory and I wanted to play the first lesson piece, show Arthur I could do more than this. But no, he’d say again, though I hadn’t asked. One step at a time.
Through the entire lesson, Mom stayed on the couch, halfway between sitting and squatting. She pressed her knuckles to her lips, watching like a hawk. I could feel her eyes. I could feel the unsaid words bubbling behind that fist, but not escaping while Arthur was here. He was in charge of the lesson. Her attention snapped to my fingers every time one played a note too straight. She wanted to fix and correct and perfect.
When Arthur’s hour was up, he left with a cheerful good-bye and promises of next week. The front door closed and the fallboard came down and was locked.
“But I haven’t played all day,” I said.
Mom glanced at the piano before her eyes settled on me. “Your lesson is over, Sebastian. We’ll practice again tomorrow.” Then she left, all those words unsaid.
After turning off the lights and closing the door, I found Joanna sitting against the wall outside. She frowned up at me.
“How come you didn’t play today?”
“Arthur said not yet.”
“Well, that’s dumb.”
“Mom said we’d practice tomorrow.”
She smile, satisfied. “Good.”
A few years later, Arthur didn’t come over anymore for lessons. Mom said I had learned all I could from him, so she went back to teaching me herself. She still treated the keys like they might burn her fingertips if she so much as brushed them. A wooden ruler became her hand’s extension. It could rap commandingly on the page, directing my eyes to something she believed I didn’t see. It could reach up under my fingers, a silent instruction to keep them curled because she was tired of repeating herself. It could whack against my knuckles when I made a silly mistake.
She tackled our lessons with a new kind of ferocity. She left the fallboard up longer now that she had doubled our practice times. After she got off work, she sat next to me and had me drill through songs over and over again. At first, I was elated that I could play the piano longer, but my fingers got tired and I got tired.
“You’re not following the music,” she said in her stern voice.
I stared hard at the sheet music, right at the little p that told me I was supposed to play quietly. I stared until my eyes went out of focus as she continued.
“The music instructs how you play, Sebastian. If you can’t read it then we might as well stop.”
But we couldn’t stop practicing. My fingers might have ached from playing the Mozart piece so many times that they could barely stay curled enough for Mom’s sharp gaze and her ruler, but I would do anything to have the keys under my hands.
I entered middle school with a newfound fascination with band-aids. The plain ones were fine, better even. When I glanced down while I played, it was like I didn’t have any on in the first place. I wrapped them around my fingers, avoiding the knuckles so that they could still curl perfectly on the piano. I even spread them out over the backs of my hands. While I perfected piece after piece for Mom during our lessons, I could not perfect the art of spreading a bandage one-handed. They rose up and gapped on my hands and I crisscrossed some just to get them to lie flat.
Teachers and kids asked me about them, but not nearly as much if they saw the bruises instead. That’s how it started. The blue and purple blossoms that later wilted to green and yellow weren’t bad. They just came to life under the harsh light the lamp gave off above the piano. I just found I bruised easily. The fingertips were wrapped next. I bit my nails down too low. Any little scrapes I acquired or the way my hands dried and split in the winter started needed covering, too.
Kids will be kids, my math teacher said and he laughed. Plenty of kids got scraped knees and hands. It was just odd with me, the kid obsessed with the piano. They thought I’d be one to keep my hands safe. My music teacher cherished my hands, asking me to play for the class. She clicked her tongue when she first saw the band-aids, a few plastered across the back of my hands, the older ones sagging with a line of dirt around the edges.
Jo walked with me to and from school each day. Mom worked early and we lived close enough that she had us walk. It was Jo’s last year before she started high school. When she noticed the band-aids multiplying, she helped me wrap them tighter each morning in the bathroom.
“I don’t care if the recital is coming up, Sebby. It sounds beautiful,” Jo said. “Mom should really give you a break.”
I shook my head. “It’s fine, but it’s not perfect.” Recitals are nothing. I had played plenty before. From mock recitals with visiting family to real ones held in the high school’s auditorium or in the church down the street, they hardly bothered me. Nerves of steel, Mom said of me before each performance, though it sounded more like instruction than compliment. “In high school, kids play competitions. Mom says then, it doesn’t matter how nice it sounds. It’s all about how closely you play the piece to how it’s written.” The judges want perfection, she’d say. You won’t go anywhere without that.
Jo sighed. “Well then what’s the point?” She still sat outside the room while I practiced, doing her homework on the floor. It was a conversation we’d had many times, but there was nothing she could say that would persuade me otherwise. Precision is key in playing. Mom said so and she hadn’t led me wrong. “How’re your hands?” she asked, looking at them closely and changing the topic.
I pulled my hands away from her eyes, stuffing them into my pockets. “They’re fine,” I huffed. “I was just playing too fast.”
“But you got every note right. I heard!”
“But the piece says to be played at one sixty, not two hundred.”
Jo bit her lip for a while until we neared home. Then she looked at me and we halted before we started down the driveway. “If Mom didn’t make you, do you think you’d still play?”
I nodded. “I love the piano.”
I started to question that during my first year of high school and I began signing up for competitions. Most were out of town; some were even out of our county, an hour’s drive at least. Some days I had to skip school and Mom took off work to drive me. I placed well and did better with each one. Mom said that the judges must be impressed. I even placed higher than some seniors. It was when she told me this that I felt a swell of pride in my chest and I knew that all the times of bruises and accidental split knuckles had been worth it after all. Just like Mom had always said, without blood, sweat, and tears, you don’t deserve anything. Of course, I remember staying up late before the first few competitions, on my bedroom floor crying until my eyes swelled because the fear of disappointment was gnawing at the insides of my stomach. That didn’t matter now. Not when she was praising me, in her own way.
But our practices grew. I couldn’t become complacent. There was always someone better and I had to make sure I was practicing just as hard—no, harder—and longer than they were.
Mom didn’t use the ruler anymore. She gripped it tightly in her hands during practice and I thought that it was just instinct to grab for it before sitting down to begin. A few times it would strike the sheet music on the stand, making me jump, but other than that the ruler had no purpose in our lessons anymore. There was no need to slap my knuckles with it. I could drill out piece after piece like a machine. My fingers were always perfectly curled. I was a pro by now.
Hours and hours we spent practicing, but on the day I turned sixteen during my sophomore year, I didn’t come home to practice. Whether it was the rebellious teenager inside me finally emerging or I had just had enough, I didn’t know. But I stayed at school long after the buses had departed, their engines’ roars fading off down the street, and long after the time I was supposed to meet Jo outside the school. My phone buzzed on the piano and it was in the complete silence of the practice room that I could hear the strings beneath quivering from the vibration. Without looking at the screen, I tucked it into my backpack and sat down at a piano that didn’t even have a fallboard to lock.
The first time I saw Mom after skipping the first practice since our lessons began, she was furious. Why, she demanded. I didn’t think she knew quite what to say. I must have caught her by surprise.
“I don’t know,” I said, trying not to rise to her anger. The last thing I wanted was a shouting match in our kitchen. I’d heard her and Jo a few times once before. Something about college. I remember seeing Jo’s face afterwards. Nothing good could come from arguing with Mom. “I’m just thinking of taking a break.”
“That’s throwing twelve years of practice away.” Her eyebrows were drawn sharply. She sounded equally confused as angry, but she was still angry enough that I wanted to back out of the room as quickly as I had come.
Neither of us won that argument. It was a stalemate and after Mom didn’t touch the subject again. She treated it like she treated the piano keys. She started giving me a wide berth whenever we were in the same room. Even if she did want to talk about it, I don’t think she knew how. She knew I loved the piano, so it was beyond her why I wanted to stop so suddenly. On the other hand, I did my best to avoid her. I was still unconvinced that skipping my lessons would make me feel better about playing and I thought it would be all too easy for her to convince me to start practicing for her again.
I didn’t make practices for months and I didn’t see much of Mom either. Without my lessons, she could pick up more shifts at work. She started leaving earlier on some days and coming home later on others. Some days she wasn’t even home during our lesson time. I only saw that once. For the most part, I hung out a school until I knew I had missed it for sure. Though I had successfully escaped her, eventually I found that I could not escape her voice. At some point, a week into my lesson hiatus, she put found she could put her thoughts into words at last. She let me know exactly how she felt, sticking post-it notes to the counter, sometimes needing two or three to finish her message. I stopped reading them after the first two days. They told me I’d better be at lessons, or else. The piece was far from finished and the auditions were next week.
She was worried, I could tell. Still angry—more angry than anything else—but worried nonetheless.
I laughed at her notes, messily scrawled in the spare minutes before driving off to work, but the anger boiled and splashed in my stomach. When I found the first note, I felt sick and nearly skipped school, too. But then she’d find me and I couldn’t get to my practice room, to my piano. Or else what? I thought as I shredded the notes and tossed them into the garbage. She couldn’t do anything. She wasn’t even home to do anything.
While it took Mom a week to find out how to communicate her thoughts, it only took Jo a few days to find me in the music hall, in my practice room. She didn’t ask any questions, just scared me when she knocked the first day. I jumped and my fingers slid to flat notes, wrong notes in a chord beneath my finger, still curled to perfection as I cringed at the sound. She just sat and did her homework, pressed into the corner of the room where the walls shined yellow against the harsh lighting. But none of that mattered. Here, the piano was mine. Here was silent. Here was easy.
But here, I began to lose the love of the piano.
Even though the notes sang off the walls, perfectly tuned, even though the keys didn’t stick like the other piano in the band room, I felt like I was losing. Like I needed Mom’s approval, her attention, magnified on me and my hands and the notes we were creating, but it was the last thing I wanted. I wanted to be far away from those lessons and here alone in this practice room, playing what I wanted, with Jo as she did her homework and listened and told me just how good I sounded on a walks back home.
Somehow I kept up with my competitions, placing about the same as always. Jo drove me now that she had gotten a car, an old rundown thing bought with the money she had saved up with her summer jobs and the late shift she took at Starbucks. She always joked how it might break down halfway to the concert hall, but it did nothing to calm my nerves.
It was like I was a completely different person before the competitions now. I was jittery, like I had had one too many cups of coffee. My stomach would rumble and my mouth would taste acidic and I’d swallow over and over, like I was going to be sick. Nerves of steel, Mom used to say. That went out the window. Those middle school days of unflinching concentration vanished.
I was beyond frustrated, stomping out of the hall, slamming the car door, staying silent as my sister drove us home.
“I don’t know what you’re so upset about,” Jo grumbled beside me. I felt her eyes slide my way. Maybe she could tell I was not in the mood for a lecture because her tone lifted ever so slightly. “You played great. I can’t tell how perfect it was, but second place speaks for itself. You’re moving on, Sebby. What’s so wrong with that?”
I stared out the window, thumbnail between my teeth. I didn’t know what was so wrong with that. That was the problem. I had been shifting back and forth between second and third place all of sophomore year. No worse than the rest of my high school career, but no better either. Competitions were the whole point of playing piano. If I didn’t show improvement, I’d flatline. Then there was college to think about. Jo had already been accepted. In two years, it’d be my turn as well. If I wanted to continue with music, and at this point I wasn’t sure I did, I had to improve.
“It’s just—nothing’s changing, Jo.”
The next year, Jo went off to college and I had stopped playing completely. I abandoned competitions and avoided the practice room. I didn’t even allow myself to stray to that side of the school. I made the mistake once and the music teachers pounced on me. They wanted to know how my auditions were going. Had I made nationals again? What was I thinking about college?
I still didn’t go home either. I found empty classrooms, unable to face the practice room and its piano again. It’s not that I was still avoiding Mom. I mean, I was, but I had already gotten used to being around her by the end of my sophomore year. She couldn’t work all the time, everyday, as much as I had wished. But, by the time we ran into each other again, it had been too long. I had walked into the kitchen just as she walked in from the garage, like the day after I skipped lessons for the first time. There was that stunned silence and I waited for her to chew me out again. It was finally happening, I was just waiting for my nightmares to play out. I had already imagined it too many times, too many versions stretching out our first argument to grotesque measures. But she didn’t. She just turned back to whatever she was doing and I was ignored as always. It was for the best really.
I didn’t go home because I was still avoiding her, as unavoidable as it was now that her hours had been cut back. I just didn’t like the sour look she got on her face when she spotted me, the way her eyebrows pinched together. She looked like I had broken something expensive. Like those cartoon moms get when their kid breaks the expensive vase, which shouldn’t have been set out in the first place.
She was disappointed. Well great, I thought. So was I.
I especially didn’t like the way the piano room door was always closed now, probably locked, too, though I never tried. Though I imagined the fallboard definitely was.
When fall break came for Jo’s school, she texted me that she wouldn’t be coming home. There was too much going on, work, midterms—but I knew she didn’t want to anyway. What was there to do here? Sit around the house with Mom? Even I knew that wasn’t a fun idea for a break. So I let go of the hope I had been building up the last few weeks and went back to my normal schedule, classes, homework, and avoiding the music hallway.
I was just as obsessed with the piano as I had been when Mom had unlocked it for me for the first time. Only this time, I was running in the opposite direction, constantly thinking I’d bump into it. Then I’d have to deal with it. The one reason I didn’t want to see the piano was because I knew what would happen if I did. I’d have no choice but to sit down and play again. What would I play? I had no idea, but I knew I’d have no power over my fingers. They would be drawn to the keys like magnets and I wouldn’t be able to stop them.
And I kept this up until December, over six months away from the piano. Mostly now I was just scared that I wouldn’t be able to play again. That I’d never be as good as I was and certainly never surpass myself. That had always been the goal. Get better and better. Do lessons with Arthur until he couldn’t teach me anything else, then practice with Mom. Then do recitals. Then do competitions. Score higher and higher in those competitions. Be the best. Go to college and get better. Be better there. Keep improving, but where was the goal? Isn’t that why I stopped? There was no light at the end of the tunnel because I couldn’t imagine what that light could possibly be. I had practiced and practiced with no end in sight, just kept going until I was out of breath. Tired. I couldn’t find a reason to play anymore. So I just stopped.
When Jo found me, a visitor’s pass clipped to her shirt, she didn’t ask why I wasn’t in the practice room. She had sat through every lesson, even the ones by myself. She knew why I wasn’t playing.
“Come on, Sebby,” she said. “I want to hear you play.”
And that magnet pulled stronger than ever and I couldn’t resist it any longer. I stood up, packed away my homework, and followed Jo to the music hallway.
“I would’ve come home for break, but I was too busy.”
I shrugged. “It’s fine. I know you didn’t want to.”
“At first, I was positive I didn’t, but I really missed hearing you play. Didn’t you get my texts?”
“I took a break.” I guess I could call it that. A hiatus from the piano. One I hadn’t plan on returning from. And, as we turned and opened the practice room door, I knew that now I was. An unplanned comeback. At least for an hour or so.
Jo sat in her usual corner, scrolling through her phone as if we had done this every day for the past three and a half months. She didn’t look up at me when I stayed standing in the middle of the room, hands on my hips as I stared. The pull to the piano was strong, but I couldn’t sit down just yet. I studied the smudged fingerprints on the wood that reflected in the bright light.
The band kids came in here after practice. I’d heard them before, giggling while they got the one kid who actually knew how to play. A few could pound out Jingle Bells or Chopsticks. Or get two of them and they’d start playing that annoying Heart and Soul duet. That was an easy one so of course everyone knew it. I think there was one time I went a week hearing that song float out from the band room. I had never been more grateful that the practice rooms were sound proof, at least for the most part.
I pressed one key slowly. It barely made a noise, but the sound hadn’t changed. If anything, it was reassuring, enough so that I could sit down. At the same time as it was a relief, the keys were intimidating.
It took a half an hour of me pressing keys and playing around with the pedals for me to actually start a song. Even if it had been so long, it would take more than that to forget those songs that had once been drilled into my fingers hours and hours a day.
And after that song, I started another. Then another. Soon there was hardly a pause between the songs as the memory of them came back with each chord I hit. Every crescendo, every trill. And when their memory had expired, I went back through, changing the speed, the key, whatever I wanted. I brought a song that raced through my memories down to a crawl and pounded it out the slowest and quietest. There was no sheet music to follow here. I vividly remember the instructions on the pages and pages of music, but for once I ignored them, allowing them to fade to the back of my mind.
My chest squeezed tight with fear as I created those changes, as if judges were sitting behind me instead of Jo. Like Mom was in the same room, ready to snap and demand perfection because that’s not how Mozart or Bach or Chopin or Beethoven or Debussy intended for it to be played. But along with that fear coursed adrenaline through my veins and the longer I played, the less I cared.
It was dark by the time we left for home, Jo offering to drive with a smile, and maybe that’s why I now felt the need to play. Somebody wanting to hear without needing perfect, changing routine, Jo saying, “What a great homecoming present,” and “Can I come again tomorrow?” Because no matter how perfect or imperfect the playing, I knew there was someone who just wanted to hear the notes.