The misanthropic pianist (1)

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As a pianist of sixteen years, there are many things that I struggle with due to the nature of my trade. For example, every day is a soul-crushing battle against my acutely honed sense of ineptitude. Music, perhaps a little like art in a broad sense and yet unlike, is a playground for prodigies and geniuses that, with the proper opportunities to develop their talents, easily leave the rest of us behind. I’ve tasted the wine of this exclusive club, but was forcibly dragged out of it, spent quite a few years milling about determining what the trajectory of my life was meant to be, then tried to secure my re-admittance by saying “I’ll come back if you want me to.” Unless you’re good enough, you’re not good enough. I don’t really understand how people are terrible at music have the gall to try to market themselves. I’d feel quite dirty, so I generally avoid telling others that I’m fairly proficient at what I do, because I’m really not good enough. By now, however, music has become a lifelong companion to me, and I simply cannot leave it behind. Nor can I half-assedly perform something when I have breathed deeply the aromas of success. Long have I been crushed between my stifling ineptitude and burning desire to drop out and practice every waking moment of my life.

The technical challenges that I face are many as well. During my senior year of high school, I selected Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin as the piece I would work on. I first heard the Toccata through a collection of CD’s that my father purchased for me countless years ago, and was instantly mesmerized by the ethereal beauty of the piece. How many hands were involved in the creation of this masterpiece, I wondered, and would I ever be able to play it? Yes and no. Four years later, I still feel that I get worse with each run-through of the piece. Nevertheless, I added Gaspard de la Nuit after a marathon of practice, and three years later, I still can’t get through the entire Scarbo, let alone the other two pieces. In other words, it’s hard enough for me to do what I do without wanting to curl up into a ball and cry myself to sleep.

On the other hand, I traditionally have not had problems dealing with people in my musical endeavors, until I came to Duke. I feel like as musicians, our encounters with people should mostly be fairly pleasant, because one fairly important component of music is to bring enjoyment to the listener. Barring the occasional horror story from the accompanist, we’re usually fighting the cruel social structure of excessive-supply-insufficient-demand rather than individual people. For me, this battlefield unfolds at the piano in the third floor area of McClendon tower, usually late at night but sometimes much earlier depending on how entitled people are feeling.

See, before I even go into my feelings as a human being, I want to get a few facts out there. Pianists are aware that their instrument makes sound, and possibly quite a lot of sound. Unlike the human voice, and most other instruments, pianos tend to be large, unwieldy, capable of creating a multitude of flat miners when dropped down a mine shaft, and generally hard to pick up and move. Furthermore, piano, like sports, is skill based and demands ample practice. To practice is akin to both working out and to studying, and worthy of respect as a means of professional advancement.

How about the pianist in question? I think I am slightly different from some of my peers. First, I am a double major who, in addition to a fairly demanding curriculum, has a variety of intra- and inter-disciplinary interests not limited to blogging. Within my musical endeavors, I also have to balance my standard classical repertoire with my arrangements, my composition, and the obligatory improvisation I must do on a daily basis to keep my mind from shattering. I simply do not have the ability to spend half an hour to an hour in transit every time I want to practice. Nor do I have the freedom to allocate an hour every day solely to practice. My ability to even practice my incredibly grueling repertoire depends on a combination of my psychological and physical state at any given time. If the conditions are not met in the slightest, I cannot practice fruitfully at all – and if I try to do so, I will invariably break any muscular innervations I have formed. Each year I have had access to a commons area instrument that served me fairly well in giving my the proper outlets when I desired them, with the limitations that I could not disturb people who were trying to sleep for obvious reasons.

The instrument in McClendon was chosen over Keohane 4E for the reason that it would not be in a commons area, where people had legitimate rights in making sure that quiet hours were observed. (More on my long battle to secure better practice conditions on West in a later post). Now, I understand that I have some different habits that may be problematic – for example, unlike Clara, who to my knowledge does not practice in front of people, I have no problems practicing and generally sounding like shit before a roomful of people. Let’s face it: classical music, when practiced slowly, is fairly controlled and nonintrusive even if it is practice. Despite my oddities, I do not feel like I am exerting any undue inconvenience towards others as a result of my needs as a student and as a musician. Obviously, people disagree. What really makes me an angry kitten is the universal justification for that disagreement: people are trying to study. This is accompanied with various degrees of indignation, rudeness, and then projection.

For years, I’ve been pretty chill about just getting up and leaving. But the frequency at which this has been occurring, coupled with how snide people are getting, just makes me so sad. I’ve been through a lot and sometimes want to be treated as the strange senpai people just overlook, so that I can do my stuff in peace. So, why the argument that “people are studying” holds no weight in my eyes: First, who exactly is studying? Is everyone studying? Is there a unanimous consensus that my presence is undesirable, and is that enough? In wide-open commons areas, socializing is the norm, as much as studying is. Even when people are trying to get work done, the background level of noise frequently gets pretty loud and distracting – even for me when I am sitting at the piano. Especially now that most of the complaints I get are from people chilling upstairs, I really have to wonder what kind of selective stimuli ignorance they have to be able to disregard the television, the amount of socializing that occurs, and the daily operations of a coffee-and-snacks shop. Let’s not forget the constant influx of people going back and forth from the 24/7 restaurant on the ground level. This argument is crucial because I need to know who is filing the complain against me. Is it the individual in question, or the collection of ten or more people present within earshot? Because everyone tries to make me feel like a shitty person because I’m apparently stamping all over the rights of all these people and saying that my time is more important than all of theirs.

Guess what? That’s exactly the assertion I’m making. My status as a pianist usefully and productively practicing absolutely gives me precedence over any number of individuals who may be using the location. People need to understand that there are very strict access restrictions placed upon pianists, perhaps moreso than performers of any other instrument. There is no portable substitute for the grand piano, and for the concert pianist, a keyboard is more destructive than helpful. Especially at Duke, which has long struggled with dismal practice conditions for pianists, there simply are not enough accessible spaces especially at night. That there is a piano in a non-residential area is a rare occurrence that should be utilized wisely. While asking a handful of people to pack up and leave seems a bit unreasonable, keep in mind that such an option is actually available to them. For example, the second floor media room is usually unoccupied, and there is ample room on the first floor that is unoccupied. Keohane 4E is also offers great study areas that are probably closer for most residents. But no, these people understand that I have to practice, but… No, you don’t understand. If you’re saying “but” at all, you don’t understand. One person’s ability to carry out their work is directly tied to the equipment in a given facility. The other group can carry out their work anywhere – in their room, in the adjacent room, in the library, etc. The number of places to study on Duke are nearly infinite. The number of places I can practice at night, when the typical student chooses to study or get their work done? I can count that on the number of inches on my dick.

That goes to my next point. These individuals somehow feel like the work they are doing is more than the work that I (or others like me) am doing. It’s really not. We “have to” practice in a way that is just as urgent and demanding, if not more so, than whatever curriculum or project you’re working on. Honestly, I would gladly pack up my bags if some dude came up to me and said, “look here, I really don’t want you to play here because I think you suck and I can’t think as a result.” Instead, I get all this passive-aggressive bullshit about how “it’s common courtesy as a human being because there are a bunch of other people here.” No, it’s not. It really isn’t.

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