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Diminishing Chords of Passion

Olivia Tung, Austin, TX.


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I wiped my sweaty palms against the itchy chiffon tightly wrapped around my body. The bench felt worn beneath me. My heart pounded as my eyes darted back and forth across a sea of black and white. I finally looked up one last time: impatient judges glaring, pens in their hands, ready to evaluate every second of my performance. With no escape from the intricately-embellished, grand hall, I placed my shaking fingers across dozens of keys, beginning my final audition.

Playing the piano comes natural to me. After nine years of national and international performance, getting assigned an unknown repertoire to learn, perfect, and memorize within weeks of competition comes as no challenge. My childhood consisted of long, grueling hours on stiff, pebble-leather benches, perfecting trills and runs. However, mesmerized by my piano’s beauty and grace, no practice session felt longer than a few hours. Endless possibilities to adorn unknown works with my individuality captivated me. There was something about the flexible harmonies and chords and phrasing that comforted me; a feeling of comfort I thought would never leave.

Sometime during those nine years, there came a point where I forgot what it felt like to enjoy music’s elaborate melody lines. The importance of bringing home dust-collecting trophies buried the enjoyment I found experimenting with different tones. Essentially, the chatter got to my head. Pressure from family and friends and other pianists burst my safe haven, leaving me to fill the footprints of those who came before me. Like a well-oiled machine, I churned out pieces fit to receive high critiques, satisfying those around me.

My playing was emotionless; my mind would go blank, falling back to depend on finger-memory. My focus would wander from Chopin Etudes and Nocturnes to friend drama and my plans for the weekend. Landscapes of crowded ghost towns I had once painted with contrasting dynamics and tempos evaporated; a series of monotonous, rhythmic notes replacing them. No story, no message, was being conveyed to my audience, only the wishes and goals of students and parents around me. No emotion meant no rubato - no pushes or pulls. No rubato meant no opportunity to miss a beat. And no opportunity to miss a beat meant higher chances to win. Like a cold-blooded sniper, I was in for the kill. Sometime during those nine years, my passion for music was reduced to the primary goal of rushing offstage, only after thanking my judges politely.

A local audition concluded my nine years of national and international performance. Maestros filed into that grand hall, expecting nothing shy of flawless playing. Nerves pinched my stomach. Even after performing numerous concerts, this last one felt like the first. After all, this was the concert ending my piano career, the one I would remember forever.

The itch from my dress disappeared. I pressed my trembling fingers into the smooth and oily ivory keys. Pedal. Lift. Pedal. Hold. I closed my eyes, trusting my instincts for the first time in years, following the rhythmic and phase shifts ending each eight-bar-phrase. The need for perfect marks escaped my mind. Instead, I was teleported to a regal dance floor. Dressed in a floor-length ball gown, I waltzed in front of crowds of adoring spectators. Crescendos, rubato, pauses, even, decorated the finale of my program. That uncontrollable, carefree sensation I once felt whilst performing encompassed me. My fingers fluttered effortlessly up and down the keyboard. I swayed to the beat, singing the melody up until the last whispered note. I had finished. I retracted my hands from the aging, grand piano I had performed on for years, knowing this was my last time caressing its keys.

Hot tears flooded my eyes. I stood up, faked a smile and bowed, acknowledging the judges one last time. As I walked off that brightly-lit stage, I left a piece of me behind; a piece I would never get back. All those opportunities I had to make my playing personal, to convey meaning to my audience, had been wasted. Instead, I was too busy delivering what others wanted to hear, proving to those around me I could receive perfect scores. I was too busy collecting plastic trophies, only to box them up in the attic for years to come. I had lost what I love most about playing the piano. I had lost my passion. The raw, vulnerable piece of myself I left on that stage is one I wish I recognized earlier. From the plastic, toy keyboard that I received when I was a toddler to the grand, aging Steinway I played in front of hundreds of professors, each one of those 88 keys holds a special place in my heart.

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