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Posts Tagged ‘worth’

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.




In life, Restart on November 23, 2014 at 1:06 pm

worthThis isn’t a pity-blog. I write, with sub-zero intention to ask for sympathy, which in my books is the poorest form of begging. I write, because what I’m about to say, is clearly not something we hear enough. The power to be, the freedom to be, are the branches of the same tree, that’s rooted deeply in responsibility.

21h30, Upper East Side, Park Avenue, a night where it was too cold to sit at a concrete street corner. I was walking home, briskly, in my own zone, as usual, because my jungle education has trained me that a prolonged, or even an establishment of eye-contact with a stranger could mean trouble. On the streets, I oscillate between the observer and the oblivious, depending on mood, distractions, immediate environment, company… Most of the time, I’m focused on my audiobook. Most of the time, I don’t give a second glance to street-dwellers; I don’t give to encourage begging. Perhaps that makes me heartless, but I believe any fully able-bodied being can, and therefore should, contribute to their society by taking care of themselves, so to reduce the amount of #firstworldproblems, which by definition and existence, is somewhat of a privileged thing.

I walked past such a street-dweller last night. Caught my eye because she was too beautiful; she didn’t belong. If this had been a scene in a movie, the casting director must have been high. But it’s real life. Whether she belonged or not, she was there. In real life, as we do in movies, we all look for that one thing we identify with – the parallel; the relevance; the relate-able elements. As I walked past her, my shadows merged with her existence. My bones felt a familiar chill. The echos of my footsteps became increasingly uncomfortable for the next block, until I turned around, and there I was, at her end of the street corner.

How life imitates art.

What unfolded was almost a modern rendition of Bernard-Marie Koltès’ “The Night Just Before the Forests.” A long monologue I had studied tirelessly, rehearsed endlessly, and performed in no less than a dozen ways. The ways of being had long been adapted to heart; my acting coach hit this one on the bullseye. Every character I play stays with me, in some form or fragment. She said I was strong enough to play the part written for a man. She saw more in me than I cared to believe.

I reached out to her, the beautiful, crying, woman partially out of instinct, and partially conditioned by training. As I do with most tasks in life, being an artist, after all. It’s unbelievable how much you feel safe to reveal to a stranger, who are never so unforgiving as those who claim to love you. I listened to her as she shared her stories, told her that at least she had the spine and dignity to remain sitting up, while sunk below my lowest points, I was completely horizontal on concrete…only about a year ago. She had just run away from an abusive husband. Her second marriage.

S: “I don’t know if I just attract abusive men, or if all men are the same.”

X: “I would say it’s both.”

I shared a lot of my past that I don’t care to relive. I don’t have the answers to all the questions she posed me. But I know with concrete certainty, that under no circumstance, should we bleed our own worth in the name of someone else’s pain. Not even in hell, would our worth be traded below battered spirits and marked bodies.

S: “It’s happened before… we just had dinner, and we both made a list – a list to work on…but when we got home…”

X: “Have you reported it to anyone?”

S: “No. Everybody loves him. No one believes me.”

Why did I even ask? Have I reported to anyone? I did, that first time, when I was 9. No one believed me. I stayed at home, pretending to be sick for the whole week… 16 years and 28 countries later, the matrix of danger have only grown richer. Rich enough to see patterns; rich enough to see that life, is a battlefield; rich enough to know that my acting coach was right, that to survive, you have to be no less than a warrior.

I gave her a number of support lines, resources, therapy-related things I had gathered during my darker times. I told her that help is there… counseling is there… but perhaps the most direct way of help, is simply sheltering her for the night.

We stayed at that corner until she ran out of the crumbled (but clean) Starbucks napkins I had (out of slight embarrassment) offered her; until I could no longer feel my legs.

S: “I don’t know what to do. I want to just run away, to leave, from everything. Or should I go back and deal with it?

X: “You have to deal with it… Nothing resolves itself. But you don’t have to deal with it right away, or right now. Do it when you’re ready…”

There are different ways to go about healing. For a while, I spent 5 hours of my Tuesday evenings deep in BK, with a group I didn’t feel the slightest sense of belonging. I choose to spend my life differently now. But I remember the scars as I do with the burns. I use it to fuel my art now. I use it to light up inside.

Worth begins with self-care. Love and light are the two essentials, without which life would be a path of decay. Those who dare diminish your worth is criminal. If you allow it, you are the accomplice. Never too late to walk away. Never too late to start a new journey. Never too late to start loving yourself.