July 7, 2008
By Grace Lee, Kyeonggi-do, ZZ

"The arms are the lungs, see?" she said, waving hers about. "And the fingers are the many mouths, all singing their own melodies and weaving them together to form a song. Get it?"

I didn't. We were still seated before the piano, my fingers and arms throbbing from all the exercise I'd given them for the last thirty minutes. I couldn't understand just why, every time I set out to play an exciting piece, my muscles would stretch and strain to their fullest, until I had no choice but to withdraw them from the keys. Piano wasn't much of the joy and beauty it used to be for me, when I was younger. Now, it was just a two-hour timetable block during which my arm muscles suffered in agony and my head hurt from severe concentration.

My teacher began her explanations again. "The arms are the lungs..."

What was she talking about? Arms weren't lungs, they were arms. She was quoting something an old musician had once said - she loved quotes. She always used them during my lessons. Maybe she thought I would understand better if she borrowed words from other people. Well, she was wrong.

I tried going over what she was saying in my head, slowly, taking my time and thinking over each word. The arms are the lungs. What do lungs do? They help you breathe. That's where all the oxygen and carbon dioxide switch and do their thing to keep a person alive. Very important things, lungs are. Now, the fingers are the mouths, she said. Mouths sing and talk. Got that. So, she means that I've got to breathe with my arms and sing with my fingers.

What does that have to do with playing the piano?

Frustrated, I stared down at my arms and fingers, wondering what power they might have to help me properly play. The teacher was explaining something again, and I could no longer hear the enthusiasm in her voice.

I closed my eyes and pictured someone singing a beautiful song. His voice rose and fell at the perfect moments, and his small pauses for breath were exactly right. The song rose high and beautifully, free. I thought about my hands. My arms. Maybe the reason for all the tension in them was because I wasn't letting them breathe. Maybe it was lack of air that made them strain so much. I imagined myself letting out the stress and allowing the arms themselves to take control over the keys. Like swimming, I thought. A little like swimming. The way the arms waded out through the water, catching the current and waving. I felt the freedom and liberty tingling now in my limbs, and I thought about how the music might sound if I were to let my fingers sing. It was worth a try. How bad could it be? The teacher and I, we were both tired out and weren't expecting much anyway.

"I want to try," I said. "I think I might know how to do it."

She seemed relieved. Her voice was a little hoarse now, and she swallowed and nodded for me to go ahead.

I gingerly placed my hands on the keyboard and felt the smooth, cool surface of the keys. I took a deep breath and emptied my mind of all the dissatisfaction and weariness. My heart calmed. And I played.

I felt a strange bliss through it all, as though I was listening to my own music outside of my body. The notes rose and fell and entwined themselves into a tapestry of plains and waves and green mountains, and whenever the hues of the music changed the shade of the colors altered, merging into newer ones, fresher ones with no name.

My arms do know how to breathe after all, I found myself thinking. Then I let go of that thought as well, and let them do their singing.

I finished and laid my hands back calmly into my lap. The echo of the last note hovered for a few seconds in the air before slipping away. I took a peek at my teacher, my heart already apprehensive of whatever was to come. But to my embarrassment I saw her eyes were sparkling. Glowing, actually. Whether those tears meant pride, I didn't know, but I could tell she was touched.

"You did understand," she said quietly. "This is it, you got it. This is music."

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