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Posts Tagged ‘greatness’

Whiplash, replayed through 10 piano teachers.

In Becoming, life, reflections on January 26, 2015 at 10:11 am


I saw Whiplash in the theater yesterday. A FULL theater, mind you. When was the last time that had happened? Opening night of Pirates of the Caribbean when I was in high school? Go see it if you haven’t yet. It’s number one on my list, for reasons obvious, and for reasons very close to home.

Too close to home.

Growing up, I’ve had a piano teacher for every place that I’ve lived for more than 6 months. 10 in total, thus far. My second teacher at the Tianjin Conservatory orchestrated most of my childhood formation, and had serious plans of sending me to Germany or the US when my fingers were ready. But my Chinese parents weren’t. My mother and I moved to Canada when I was 12, and without a piano, I was forced a break, until I wanted it again. I wanted it, but didn’t commit to it enough, which left my fourth teacher in a constant state of frustration and helplessness, “…my girl, if you just practice more, you can become a great pianist, not just a piano student…” That plea every week for years until I was 17, and forced a break, again. Like #2, #4 saw something special in me, but no amount of nagging was whipping me into shape. All those years, I’d been interested, frustrated, annoyed, wanted it, but ultimately, I didn’t get it. I was good, but I wasn’t great. I was told by many of my potential, but I never aspired to that greatness they alluded to. I hadn’t been inspired. Nor was I pushed. Perhaps a Fletcher in my life would have done me good. But someone better came along…

My fifth piano teacher changed my life. I was labelled his “protégée”, and after thirteen years of being on the keys, something finally cracked. I finally got it. There was love, inspiration, aspiration… all of everything. Something cracked… I put in the hours, three, four, five, every day. If in the waking moments, the tips of my fingers didn’t hurt, something was wrong. I practised on the piano the way Andrew practised on the drums. I frequently slept over in the studio. There wasn’t a bed, but three chairs sufficed. My needs were simple. My drive was ignited. For the very first time.

At 18, that’s all I wanted. A dangerous age for a desire that intense; nothing else mattered. The dinner table scene in Whiplash? I get that. I’ve had that. At 18, I was called a “musician” for the very first time. When that’s all you want… the words of your piano teacher, piano master, becomes the only voice in your life that matters. It’s a dangerous thing. I put my scholarship on hold, removed myself from institutionalized education, family, friends, most circles in life, and piano became the only focus. It’s difficult to explain, but the music was all I had. That amount of isolation eventually drove me deep into depression. The first time in my life.

Greatness, whatever the cost, I paid my dues.

Years later, a Trans-Atlantic move matched me to piano teacher #6, who only lasted for a single lesson, which had a lot to do with piano teacher #7, the Fletcher in my life.

#7 was the Head of the Music School where I had studied, and partially lived. Inside my locker, along with all my music books, there was a blanket. I would continue my habits of staying the night in the music studio, because that remained all I had wanted. I’d start my practice at 22h, work through the night, nap a few hours on the piano bench, then leave the building at 6h30 the next morning, for an hour of hot yoga at 7h. That was my routine for most days. That was not really allowed. But “it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission“, a line from piano teacher #5 that continues to serve as my modus operandi. I never made time for friends, except for my best, and I stopped dating guys who had suggested that I take a night off practice. That coffee shop break-up scene? I’ve done it on repeat, only worse. I didn’t have the decency to meet in person. Piano was most worthy of my time. The guys who took away piano time was a text away from good-bye.

Greatness, at what cost?

#7 didn’t inspire, but he whipped, pushed, shouted, and did most things Fletcher did. He was the closest to have broken me. I left most lessons feeling like shit, and although I never let my tears roll down in front of him, I cried after every lesson – all but my very first. Then I continued to practice. Harder, longer. Three, four, five, six hours a day. I don’t know whether this is of any relevance, but you could smell him (the cologne) and hear him (footsteps, keys, and whistling) before you could see him. He ruled by fear, intimidation, and a sharp degree of arrogance that was somehow justified because he took on only the “very best“, and such a reputation made room for ways and methods of unreasonable abuse.

Greatness, how does it trade?

I gave it my all, and for all that’s worth, time under #7 was a one-way ticket to deeper depression; it had been the most destructive part of my artistic formation. From the Dean’s office, to counselling, I was advised to flight rather than fight. Another change of scenery. I was first linked to piano teacher #8 at the Juilliard School, who was a legend in many ways, but it was more so a “treat” than a routine, as I was commuting from Canada… When #7 still reigned as the head, there was little I could do. My ultimate escape was to Paris, their top political institute, and piano teacher #9, a retired professor from the Paris Conservatory.

Sometimes, I still imagine what life would be like, if I had stayed in Paris, but New York had other plans for me.

#10 was bat-shit crazy.

Greatness, at what cost?

Some define “insanity” as doing the same things repeatedly, but expecting different results. I’m a composer now.

Ten piano teachers later, piano remains my deepest love, but I work differently now. Acting school has had a lot to do with that. Jungle life has had a lot to do with that. Personal loss, among others, have humanized me. I still aspire to greatness, to be one of the greats, but the calculus have changed.

I have never subscribed to mediocrity, which in Whiplash terms, is frankly, “not my tempo“. Yet, excellence, innovation, perfection, or whatever drives the world forward… at what cost? at what tempo? and to what end? How many Sean Casey’s for a Charlie Parker? If we’re truly born equal, then greatness must be a miscalculation.

If Greatness is a miscalculation, then is it rushing? or is it dragging? Greatness, at what tempo? Timing, when it’s not magic, it’s a bad word. I have an expensive metronome; we’ve never quite been friends.