The first time I saw my piano, it had been abandoned. It was left curbside on a shady suburban street, too old and out of tune for its owners to put up with it any longer.
The day we took my piano home, my dad strapped it on the back of his green Chevy pickup truck that’s older than me. As we drove, I stared out the back window, willing the cables to hold their tight grasp for the four blocks left on our trip. With every bump or turn, the keys shook softly and I could already hear music tinkling out.
When we put the piano in my dining room, it fit perfectly between an old chair and lamp, as if the piano was meant to come to us by a cosmic force. The piano was by no means in mint condition: the ivory on the keys was chipped and jagged, the pedals squeaked every time you pushed down and the wood was faded and discolored.
Something about the piano’s imperfections were endearing to me in the way an old man’s calloused and wrinkled hands do not convey weakness. Being weathered does not make something useless; it shows experience, wisdom and resilience.
The first time I played on a real piano, my clumsy fingers slipped on the smooth ivory. The first time I played a real piano, I discovered how the nooks and crannies of my house could echo sound in a way I hadn’t realized before when I practiced on an electric keyboard. The first time I played a real piano, I found out what it feels like to make an inanimate object breathe and convey more through melodies than any words ever spoken.
Needless to say, I was hooked.
My grandma taught me my first song. I would drum out the lower chords as she filled in with the rest of the notes, nodding her head and singing along. As a little kid, I was always amazed at that superpower my grandma had. She could look at a page covered in black ink blots and transform it into something wonderful.
When I told her I was learning to play, I remember the way her hands wrapped around my arms. I remember her smile. I remember her asking when the recital was—months away at that point—so she could write it down on her calendar. I remember her showing me the sheet music she had collected over the years, saying she would teach me all of it.
The first classical, challenging piece I ever learned was “Moonlight Sonata” by Beethoven. My fingers fumbled almost as often as they did when I first learned to play. It took weeks of mastering crescendos and difficult chords before I could finally run through the song without stopping from a bout of frustration.
I played and practiced so often I caught my mom humming the opening notes of the song as she drove me around or cooked dinner.
When I sat down at the annual piano recital in a cramped room of a piano store in Cherry Hill, I looked down at the keys. Those ivories were pure white and smoother than any I had ever played on. The black frame of the piano was so glossy I could see my reflection staring back at me. The perfection was daunting and part of me missed the jagged and discolored keys I was used to.
As I played “Moonlight Sonata,” my fingers slipped on the smooth ivory, but found their groove by the end of the first two stanzas. The music echoed in all of the nooks and crannies of the small room as I made another piano come to life.
That was my last recital. After that day, practicing the piano felt more like a distraction than a hobby, and I eventually stopped playing. My piano’s discolored wood started to collect dust and became more of a decoration than an instrument.
This past winter break, the long, boring days in my house had me roaming aimlessly. I found myself sitting at the piano bench again. I pulled out crinkled music sheets and prepared for the frustration of relearning my most challenging piece.
As I started, my fingers moved effortlessly. It was the best “Moonlight Sonata” I ever played.
Grace Shallow can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @Grace_Shallow.