Naked Notes

by Kate Kimball

Keynotes, June 1996

Every week I drive over an hour to meet with a man about whom I know very little. During the meeting, I take off all my clothes, I exhibit myself shamelessly in front of him, and I tell him the most intimate sexual details I can think of.

Actually, I do not do that. But if I could come closer to doing that during my piano lesson, the real purpose of these encounters, I would probably play much better.

I am terrified of music. It can evade some of my best defense mechanisms and, without warning, evoke a tsunami of emotions. And that is just when I am listening. The performer in me is terrified both of the emotions and the sense that real musicians understand the music in ways I will never be able to. It is like pretending to speak Chinese when all you know how to do is read bad fortune cookies. It is a fake and everyone knows it.

To minimize my terror, I play it safe. No loud noises, except when all the notes are uncontrollably loud. No faster and then slower (I have never figured out how the counting can stay the same but the pace changes). No crescendo not carefully calculated to induce sleep in an insomniac. As a result, my piano playing sounds like a Sunday crossword puzzle: potentially intriguing, but once you really pay attention it is downright annoying.

I know my playing would be better if I would take more risks. It would be more like music if I could move past my preoccupation with playing the correct notes. But at heart I am a coward. I am too scared to have any idea of what the music would sound like if I were to let go, just a little bit. Boring my teacher is better than the nagging fear of what would happen if I were to really let go. I have convinced myself that if I were to do that my playing would sound like a loud, wet, smelly fart. Everyone would be horribly humiliated and I would never play again. I might not ever go outside again.

Certainly I would have to move out of town. Change jobs. Maybe my name. I don't want to go through all that, so my teacher and I remain frustrated and bored.

There is some consolation, however. I am not alone. In my pinched state of withdrawal, I have been watching how other people relate to music. Strange things are happening out there:

An intermediate-level musician, upon having a houseguest absent-mindedly compliment his playing, was unable to practice for weeks because of the pressure the compliment caused. He believed no one was actually listening to him and he was safe in his cocoon. But the judgment, even a friendly judgment, unraveled him completely.

Two musicians, trying to become romantically involved with one another, established detailed practice schedules to avoid playing in front of each other. They could not expose both their music and their romantic lives simultaneously.

A house-putterer loves to sing while he fixes things. He has a beautiful baritone voice. He only sings if he is alone. A compliment from an unsuspecting neighbor silenced his voice until he and his wife moved out of their house.

Music is about personal exposure. It is being willing to breathe while staring your worst fears in the face. Music is also very delicate. Too much attention and it evaporates. For me, any hope of creating true music--where you hear the music and not the playing--is dashed the minute I start to think about it. My most common thoughts are:

"Here comes that part I always play wrong." (And, indeed, I do play it wrong - again.)

"Gosh, this is really going great. I'm into it now." The next thought invariably is me wondering where I am in the piece, which causes me to either make a mistake or stop altogether in total confusion.

"Hey, I'm half-way through this monster and I'm still counting", followed by "Am I on the 2 or the 3?" My piano teacher likes it when I count during any part of the piece. Counting for only part of the piece is sometimes worse than not counting at all. It is a car crash slowly coming into view.

Yesterday, during my lesson, I had a new thought. I was playing a Chopin Prelude. I have been playing it for five years. Really. The Prelude is clearly bigger and better than I am. During my lesson, as I am playing it (badly) for the third time, somewhere in the second line the Times Square of my mind flashes in neon:


The fingers kept going. I willed them forward because I was not going to let an uninvited neon sign keep me at this piece another five years. The rest of the piece sounded to me like cats mating. It wasn't pretty.

But I kept playing. I knew a small war was erupting in my mind. I wasn't making music exactly, but I remained committed to trying to make music. Some days, that is the best I can do. Some days it is more than I can do.

So what keeps me coming back? I have considered several explanations. In the beginning I was sure it was because I was simply insane. To start piano lessons at age 40 with no musical talent is clearly the sign of a deranged personality. But since that was the only significant sign of insanity, I rejected it. Next I decided that I had a need to fail and piano lessons provided inexhaustible opportunities. There are days that I still believe that.

But the explanation I like the best is that I play for those moments when the music plays me. It doesn't happen very often. It doesn't last more than a second or two. My playing may not even sound any better. But that moment when I am inside the music is about the sweetest feeling I have ever known and I will do anything to get back there. Even practice.

Copyright 1996 Kate Kimball


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