Piano Perfectionist

November 11, 2011
I press myself up against the cold brick wall, trying to stay out of sight. The spotlight flashes on the black baby grand piano but then turns off again. I feel my way down the stairs and make my way to the bench thinking to myself, ‘Don’t screw this up.’ I know my parents are in the second row, and I hear my friends whispering my name in the first row. A small smile spreads across my face; however, my hands are still trembling and my stomach is tight. The spotlight comes back on, and the audience cheers when they see me. Smiling again, I feel some pride that they remembered me from last year. I take a small, quick glance out towards the audience only to find that I can’t see past the first row. Momentarily blinded by the spotlight, I look away and try to compose myself as the audience settles down. I take a deep breath in as I set my trembling fingers on the cold, hard, familiar keys of the piano. Once I start, I try not to think too hard because then I’ll mess up. My fingers fly across the keys in a flurry, and I am done with the piece in what feels like only a few moments. I stand up as the audience erupts in cheers for my performance, and I grin as I take a short, awkward bow that I was told was necessary. Still a bit shaky, I run back up the stairs and through the maze of curtains back to the cafeteria, feeling so relieved and accomplished. ‘I did it. I’m done,’ I think to myself with a big grin on my face. I survived another Variety Show without one mistake.

When I was six years old, my piano career started. I walked into Mr. Estep’s apartment for the first time and hid behind my mom in fear. That fear still hasn’t completely worn off. For years I barely said a word to him; in fact, I still don’t talk more than necessary. He’s nothing less than a perfectionist, pushing me up and past my limit, until I couldn’t read the notes because tears blurred them. The only motivation that kept me going back was that every time I went I would get to feed his pet cats, Molly and Griffin. I formed a special bond with Molly, and she would hop on the piano bench with me while I played. I stroked her soft black fur and listened to her purr like a little motorboat.
That was years ago. Now I have to load up my old keyboard into the back of the car and drive to The Laurel’s, which is the nursing home where he is now because of his deteriorating health. As soon as I walk in the doors, the smell of it hits me, and I’m half-tempted to walk right back out the other way. His steady counting of “One-ee-and-ah, two-ee-and-ah…” is something I had familiarized myself with, but I still try to get away with as little counting as possible myself. The action of the artificial keyboard is so much easier than the action of his piano back at his apartment. I had to press harder than anticipated in order just to get the soft sound I wanted, and sometimes I pressed too hard, which resulted in a sound that was too loud and out of place.
He prepares me months in advance for solo and ensemble contest every winter. It is expected that I bring home a superior rating, which is a one. Last year I woke up before dawn and showed up without knowing where to go, so I had to walk around the school in heels that were too high and sent a sharp pain down through my foot. Finally, I found the practice room and saw the chestnut brown piano, sitting up on a little stage, beckoning for me to come and test the action. After limping over and testing it, I found that the piano wasn’t exactly quality, and that it was in desperate need of some tuning. There was talk of moving us over to a different building in order for us to perform on a better piano; but my time came, and everyone was still in the same room. My hands worked like they were programmed, and I just let them function on their own. I had been rehearsing for months, and it was finally time to put my full trust in the mechanic movements of my hands.
Upon finishing, I stood and walked off the stage as my peers and parents applaud for me. The judge stopped me and told me that my performance set the bar for everyone else. Then he asked, “Who do you take lessons from?” I tried to act composed and mature, when actually the inside of me was jerking around from the nervousness that hadn’t yet passed. I stuttered out in response, “Mr. Estep.”
The worst part of it was over, but I still had to wait for my score. A sense of relief washed over me when the band teacher walked up and said, “Congratulations, you’re our first one.” A one was my goal, and I felt so proud that I had achieved it. By then, there were a good number of kids in the hallways, and I pushed my way through closely packed bodies and loud chatter to get to my car. Another year was done, so I thought I deserved a little rest before starting on a piece for the next year.

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