One and two and three and one and two and three and—
Running eighth notes drive the song at the pace of a half-open faucet, rapidly dripping, just before it becomes a full blast of water.
If my childhood piano teacher’s voice continues to count from inside my head, she will not stop counting those furious eighth notes until the very end of the song, when a lingering quarter note and a few rests finally grant the song pause.
One and two and three and—the right hand passes the eighth notes to the left hand—one and two and three and—then back to the right, broken chords ascending and descending across the keys.
I first began playing the song because it looked easy enough for my brain and fingers to relearn. Months later, without having achieved full mastery, I continue playing for its title: “A Steadfast Resolve” by Cornelius Gurlitt. As I rehearse, I ponder that word—resolve—and try to understand what it means.
While playing, I discover myself at age seventeen. I am in the center of a vocal classroom, surrounded by built-in risers lined with chairs. Several dozen parents and students scatter around the room and three judges sit at a long table. I am sitting near them on a bench in front of a grand piano, playing some other fast and up-tempo song—a more challenging one—where forceful, nimble fingers are requisite.
Keep your hands moving. I lower my head and focus on the keys, determined to play this song as I have rehearsed. But my hands and feet are visibly and uncontrollably shaking, more rapidly than the tempo. Even the edge of my skirt is quivering, fearfully waffling just above the floor. As my fingers try to move, I falter and miss notes. The fear of failure I usually keep closely guarded behind my countenance now runs down my arms and legs, puddling onto the keys and pedals.
I reach a transition in the song, and then—
Keep your hands moving. I will myself to depend on my decade of training, hours of rehearsal, and the muscle memory hiding inside my fingers.
Returning a few measures back, I start again. But when I reach the same spot—
How many unplayed measures pass—one and two and three and—while I consider if I can find my way back into the music?
Why do fearful silences move so slowly?
I stand and bow to a flourish of polite clapping. But all I can hear is silence.
“I need to quit lessons,” I tell my piano teacher a few months later, just before my senior year of high school. “I have too much going on. I’ll focus on choir instead.”
My presence in her living room has been a constant in my schedule since second grade. She has both challenged me and comforted me (once, just after my sixteenth birthday, she lent me her phone and a box of Kleenex while I called my parents to tell them I had wrecked my car into a curb). She has introduced me to scales and key signatures and Italian words like adagio or con gusto, gently pushing my practice forward in a calm voice—one and two and three and—for thirty minutes, once a week, for ten years.
By my calculation, that’s over 250 hours of her voice in my young life, coaching me through scales and life transitions. I am poised to take my final lap of studying with her, until—
I do not play the piano regularly again for over fifteen years. Although I touch the keys now and then, I do not return to any consistent practice until my mid-thirties.
In the interim, I study and work as an English teacher. At the start of my classes, I assign a task called freewriting. Just keep your hands moving, I tell my students. Watermelon, watermelon, watermelon.
One and two and three and—
Silently, I count off the minutes, keeping time while the class writes. Everyone works at different tempos. Some people struggle to form words and sentences at first, then catch momentum as they uncover the edge of a story or thought or idea. Some people start quickly and then slow their pace as they lose interest. Perhaps some are taking me up on writing about watermelons.
I become good at keeping time while others write (even about watermelons). And yet, years pass—one and two and three and—before I realize I have found myself inside another form of silence: I am writing little myself.
The movements in which I wander from and return to writing are more nuanced than my leave of absence from the piano. I hold writing far away by keeping it within reach.
Still, to begin again, I must surrender to unsure and timid starts, to missed keys and faltering fingers. I encounter transitions followed by long pauses, in which I forsake the work to anxiously scrub my kitchen counters, eat tortilla chips, or mindlessly scroll on my phone. I am unable to hide my fear behind a calm countenance, my vulnerability still exposed by shaking hands and fingers.
I begin to write my way into my past, finding memories I had forgotten or buried. Over time, I even write my way forward, into risks and a work transition, towards a future that seems both more exciting and less certain. And, in a move that is equally a step forward and a return to start, I eventually write my way back to the piano.
“When I am stuck in writing a book, when I am stuck in a problem in life, if I go to the piano and play Bach for an hour, the problem is usually either resolved or accepted,” Madeleine L’Engle writes in A Circle of Quiet.
As I begin to write again, I recognize L’Engle’s wisdom, discovering my need to process rhetorical and existential problems in ways that do not involve words.
One afternoon, I stumble upon my old piano books in the basement and sit down again at my childhood piano—a 1992 Kawai digital, somehow still in working condition, given to me years ago by my parents when I moved into a house with enough space to store it. Even though I have forsaken it, my childhood piano has followed me.
My husband recently gave me headphones that fit its nearly thirty-year-old headphone jack so I can practice at obscure hours of the day without waking my children. With massive headphones over each ear, I rehearse the handful of songs I am trying to relearn.
But I am no longer playing to perform. I am playing to listen.
I am listening today to clumsily-played eighth notes, broken chords made even more broken by my playing. I have been rehearsing “A Steadfast Resolve” for months and still cannot seem to fully master it—a micro-experiment in my declining neuroplasticity. Still, I play in an effort to understand that word resolve, my fingers growing slightly steadier and moving with more assurance each day.
Most of the song is fast and loud—forte, appassionato. Never-stopping eighth notes require confidence, movement, decisiveness. Resolve, after all, does not involve silence, tasks stopped just shy of finishing, years of wandering from music or stories, joys or challenges, because a person is too afraid to fail.
Yet, for nine brief measures in the middle of the song, although the tempo never decreases, the song grows very quiet. Instead of rising, the notes begin descending and sliding downward, a slight question before a crescendo into the high point of the song.
I listen carefully to those nine quiet measures. In them, I identify the edges of something familiar—a form of resolve I might understand.
Perhaps, they sound like prayer.
And when I play them as such—and listen for a response—I can always hear a steady, gracious voice, to the tempo of rapid eighth notes in nine quiet measures, gently coaching me—one and two and three and—to keep my hands moving.
Cover image by Siora Photography.