You're Going to Hurt Yourself

photo credit: Jordan Whitfield 

 

"Casalmaggiore Festival Summer 2007 

Masterworks Festival Summer 2010," 

so it used to say on my resumé. I had decorated it with every distinguished institution, teacher, and festival I could find in my past, even though I knew labels never show the whole story. 

The summer of Masterworks was far from the experience of education I was expecting. I went thinking I would have a jump start on my junior piano recital repertoire and impress a few graduate school professors. The daily routine was practicing, lessons, masterclasses, and recitals. The goal at these residencies was usually to achieve as much as possible, in hopes that you would be rewarded with more instruction from prestigious experts or opportunities to perform. 

Instead, I was going back and forth with my resident assistant on whether or not I had bed bugs crawling in my mattress, or whether or not my eczema was just out of control without a clue of its trigger. She was sweet, and I could see that she was doing everything in her power to calm my anxieties. I probably should have gone home. But I wasn’t going to waste daddy’s money or my precious access to a wonderful learning environment because my skin was doing what it was so accustomed to doing — crumbling under the weight of stress and new environments. 

“Are you still awake?” my roommate groggily asked. The darkness that surrounded us only heighten the sounds of my fingers grating on my skin. 

“I’m itching, but that’s normal. Don’t worry about me. Sorry if it disturbed your sleep.” I withheld my breath as if that would add less noise. I could smell the blood on my fingers. 

Unable to admit defeat before summer had really started, I gave myself no option to leave. It was either hope or desperation that made me stay. Sophomore year of college was solidly the slump that everyone had predicted, but I wasn’t recovering. Throughout that whole year, tears were streaming down my face as I tried to repeat passages with my fingers. What came from them disgusted my ears. 

 

One thing Masterworks was not was slave-driving. Teachers, mentors, and colleagues were kind, compassionate, humble, yet eager and diligent. There was no cut-throat competition, though neither was it flattering. It was a healthy place for growth — a rare classical music environment to find. While this should have been instantly consoling, kindness only added salt to my wounds. I could only see pity in their eyes. 

Dr. Lori and I worked together on Prokofiev Sonata No. 3: a frantic and percussive 20th-century piece. Its madness began from the very first note and I was winded every time I played it. 

“We’re going to slow you down. If you keep up this tension, you’re going to injure yourself.” Her head dipped as she looked darkly at me through her glasses. Then her smile quickly returned, as we began the first page again at half the speed. 

I sank my fingers until I contacted the wood at the bottom of the keys. The gesture was floppy, but it needed to be to achieve complete relaxation. We stopped almost every phrase to check if my shoulders had scrunched to my ears, my back had hunched over, or my forearms had begun flexing. 

I was no stranger to slow practice, but this was elementary. 

“Don’t forget to breathe when you play,” she prescribed. 

Later that week, I watched my colleague’s fingers dazzle at Chopin’s Butterfly etude for a masterclass with Eastman’s Nelita True, when it came to me: I was never going to be like her. It was then that I decided it was time to seek the festival counselor. I was usually suspect of counselors, but I knew it wouldn’t hurt talking out my pain or my confusion. Clearly another lesson wasn’t going to get me the direction I needed. 

 

 

Maria emanated patience right from our first greeting. Her eyes were in a perpetual squint as if always in contemplation. I started off talking about the scales falling from my leathery outside. She herself was no stranger to physical pain, which put me at ease. I hated describing the nature of my condition to people who lived pain-free lives. Their faces would only become squeamish or awkwardly silent. We discussed how my body was trying to communicate to me. Even knowing this, I couldn’t decipher its code. Whatever its message was, it only ever seemed to scream it. 

Having reached a dead-end on the topic, we moved onto the lack of progress in my studies. I suggested that perhaps I was in the wrong field altogether until she suggested, “What if music hasn’t left you? What if it’s redefining into something else? Have you ever thought about music healing you and others?” 

To think of music as a source for healing had never sincerely crossed my mind. Never ever. 

“Oh yea, I mean people have talked about music therapy and such. Not sure I wanna go into that.” 

“I didn’t mean that. Just simply when you play, it brings healing to those around you. You just mentioned your father was a doctor, so I just wondered if some of that heart had been passed on to you.” 

The thought was missionary-like, hippie, fluffy, maybe laughable, even perplexing. If I’m suffering in my own body, how would I ever be a healer? Or perhaps, I had indeed inherited a noble endeavor. I stared at the flowers around me. 

I just want to make beautiful things. 

Maria and I continued walking until we arrived at a practice room and cozied ourselves inside. An aching sensation pulled at my chest and my hands started tingling as they skimmed over the ivory keys like it was the first time. The instrument had once been an intimate friend, but now it seemed like a stranger. 

“You said that you felt the piano had become an obsession, and thus you needed to emotionally detach. What if you’re ready to have it back now?” 

Through the tears welling in my eyes, I stared doubtfully at my marred fingers. 

 

 

To be continued...

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