Debussy: Suite bergamasque, L. 75, 3. Clair de lune
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TFW Debussy Changes U

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Perhaps I shouldn't have been so confident.

I was eleven years old, mature enough to begin assuming responsibility for my own decisions but still young and naive enough to believe the world catered itself primarily towards me.  I was apprehensive for my turn, yes, but I had been denied very few things in my life up to that point and auditioning for a piano performance at the Weill Recital Hall inside of Carnegie Hall seemed to be something as easily attainable as a piece of candy, even if students who had been playing their whole lives were competing for the same few spots.  Seconds before I was called to audition I steeled myself to perform Edvard Grieg’s Bächlein, a short but intense piece meant to emanate the unrelenting rapids of a brook, and composed to display impressive technique and showmanship.  There was no way I could be turned down.

I sat at the piano with an almost overzealous fervor and truly made a show of my performance.  I opened with harsh and aggressive broken chords, followed by arpeggios with fingers dancing across the piano’s keys at dizzying speeds.  The piece finally culminated in a rollicking crescendo resembling more of an agitated ocean than a moderately turbulent brook.  It was always loud, though; I made sure of that.  My judges had to hear my confidence, of course.  I distinctly remember walking offstage with certainty that I would be performing at Carnegie Hall in three weeks.

You can imagine, then, the shock and confusion that flooded my body when I opened the email containing a program with my name missing.

My stomach plummeted to the ground in a nauseous shock, shattering into tiny fragments onto the earth below.  Even the piano, where I had felt more or less at home, was a place that I could no longer  count on success or comfort like I had once thought.  I was an expendable pianist who could be tossed aside when unneeded.  My eleven-year old self was barely able to process the bitterness of rejection and unworthiness--piano was something I had been good at, or at least that’s what I had thought.

My anguish soon morphed into anger towards my teacher--she had been one of the judges and I was ravenous for answers.  What did I do wrong?  How could I have done better?  I thought I was a great pianist.

When I perched at the piano bench in my teacher’s home for a lesson the next week, however, my teacher opened her mouth before I could begin interrogating her.  Sighing as though something heavy had been weighing on her shoulders, she asked me something deceptively simple: “Ali, why do you play piano?”

Without much hesitation, I said the same thing I would have a week before: “I love the feeling of everybody looking at me, of everyone marveling at technique.  I play because I’m good at it and because I enjoy it.”

My teacher twisted her face into a severe grimace, as if my words tasted unpleasant to her.  “No,” she reprimanded me.  “That’s why you didn't make it.  Your performance is not about you, Ali.  It’s never about the pianist, or the performer, or any one person.  It’s about what you create and give to other people.”  She gaped at me with absolute seriousness, as if trying to etch her words into my skin with her stare.  “It’s about the music.”

I froze for an entire minute, swallowed in thought by her words, and that’s when I realized it.  I had only been playing the notes, not music.  While the correct notes were technically there, that’s all they really were: notes.  Not the poetry that is music.  I had brought the wrong emotions into my music,  I had taken on a challenge and thought I had accomplished the objective goal.  That was why I had not been selected to perform. Not worthy of creating the emotional beauty that music can be.  It was a harsh but necessary realization.  

With the epiphany lighting my way like a beacon,, I approached the ivory keys with a new fervor for the next twelve months in preparation for next year’s audition.  The difference, while not immediate, was incredible.  After experimenting  with softer and lighter touches, and with a more elegant style, for the first time I did not play piano for myself or to advertise my skill. I felt the composer's emotions from piece to piece even though they had been written decades or even centuries ago.  I played for something greater than myself--I played for the sake of creating a lyrical journey of  music for myself and others. Different pieces stirred different emotions inside of me, and to my surprise, inside others who were watching and listening.

Looking back upon my eleven year-old self now, it almost seems silly to have called  my realization a life-changing epiphany, but that was truly how it felt at the time.  Freeing myself from my manufactured self-importance rejuvenated my senses.  It was not about me; it was about the music.  

A month prior to next year’s audition, my piano teacher placed what seemed like a six-page monster on her piano’s music stand.  “Clair de Lune,” she stated plainly.  “It means Moonlight in French.  Claude Debussy’s most famous work.”  Her face softened as she added, “It suits your new style.”  

Even with my teacher’s reassuring words, the six pages of the score stood in front of me tauntingly, the myriad of arpeggios and fermatas resembling Chinese more closely than a musical score.  A byzantine array of broken chords occupied one section, while the key signature changed twice in the next.  To say I was overwhelmed would be an understatement.

The first two weeks of practice were perhaps the most aggravating of my life, riddled with furious outbursts, threats against my mother, tears, and hysterics.  Stretching drills were necessary in order to give my fingers the flexibility they need to play the octaves, and the initial note-reading of the piece was exacerbated by the near-incessant key changes.  

Fear, however, can always be overpowered by determination.  The bitterness of last year’s rejection had taught me the importance of humility and fueled my motivation to play at Carnegie Hall for this year.  I wanted nothing more than to be able to play music in its purest form, so I concentrated all of my efforts on learning and memorizing Clair de Lune--I would not be permitted to have the sheet music in front of me when it was time to perform.  

Auditions had arrived impossibly fast.  My heart had never beat as fast as it had mere minutes before my performance.  I caught a glimpse of my piano teacher and the array judges sitting to her side, and my nervousness only increased.  Seeing her, though,  reminded me of her words to me just a year before: “It’s about what you create and give to other people.  It’s about the music.”  She had been able to help me realize that art could not be selfish, that playing piano was something more ethereal than a combination of notes and quick fingers-- she taught me that the skilled pianist must become part of the music.  With that in mind, I strode to the piano bench with the sole purpose of creating something bigger than myself; to communicate the intangible through music.

My foot quaked involuntarily at the pedal as I performed, and I barely managed to conceal a stumble during the troublesome calmato section, but there was a certain sort of celestial quality to my playing--I was inside Clair de Lune; no, I was Clair de Lune, the moonlight itself.   

As I lifted my hands off the piano and turned towards the judges, the warmth of unadulterated satisfaction spread through my nerves--and I could see it spreading through the judges as well.  I had left a piece of myself on the stage; a sliver of my heart was left in between the thin cracks of ivory.  It was not about me; it was about the music.  

I distinctly remember walking offstage with certainty, but a different kind than last year’s.  It was an emotional certainty that I had touched other people without even using words.  I had finally been able to truly play music for others.  

Reading my name on the Carnegie program the next day was simply icing on the cake.