After your family says grace, someone asks you what you do for a living and your perfect facade begins to unravel.
You remember how difficult it was to find that clean, unstained shirt with the small white polka dots, the one your second aunt got you after your undergraduate recital, to show up at this Thanksgiving dinner relatively presentable and struggle even harder to find an iron, which you eventually obtain after mustering the strength to confront the cat-man (like a cat-lady, but a man) next door.
Outside of family functions, you can’t remember the last time you even had to dress nicely. It was probably at your last competition, when you spent $900 on renting a tux, $900 which you hoped you’d win back with the bonus package of a heady sense of pride, a night of music, a concert hall all to yourself, and bragging rights for your tut-tutting Asian mother. And even if your net monetary gain of $0 was offset by intangible gains like “experience” and an “enriched life,” nine out of 10 times you walked away with net loss, because only certain pianists who leaned back in a perpetual recline and made faces as they played actually won more than they lost. Cash, prestige and recognition? You realize that all these years later you had neither. Your mouth waters (though whether from the smell of gravy or from the prospect of winning is unclear).
“I’m a pianist,” you say after swallowing a glug of potatoes. The Asian mothers aspiring to make their 3-year-olds into world-famous musicians clap their hands in interest. It sounds better than “I file documents in the backroom of the local hospital and teach piano on the side.”
Somewhere, for better or for worse, life took a hard turn. You ignored the signs that the world was blaring at you, signs like “nobody even listens to classical music anymore” and headlines like “Steinway & Sons going bankrupt.” Remember that post in the Official Class of 2021 Facebook group asking “whoever is playing piano at 9 a.m.” to “please keep it down?!” Piano had always been a nuisance to all but 60-year-old grannies who needed a change of venue for their naps.
Your mind runs rampant. You’ll never be as insultable as the violist, as charismatic as the trombonist, as cutthroat as the violinist that shares a stand with the concertmaster and practices the solos … just in case. You’ll never get as many views as the otamatone or serenade women in the dusk with your guitar. Most times you cannot not even control the state of your instrument until you sit down at the keys and play the first note. F2 sunken and non-functioning in a Bach Sinfonia in F major? (True story). Anything is possible. As long as you perform, no piano can be called your own.
“Where are you currently, in life?” asks an Asian mother, trying to ascertain if the 30-year-old son living in her basement who claims to play the french horn can measure up to you. “I finished my graduate studies last year,” you say. Silently: And now I’m $100,000 in debt with a useless skill.
“Do you love it?” another Asian mother asks. (Why are there only Asian mothers at this table?)
You can remember once in your life when you loved it. It was the thrill of melding your sotto voce, inner voice, to someone else’s cantabile, singing. It was the trading off of a love song, from one hand to the other. The sound! The orchestral intensity captured in the ping of a piano’s timbre. The groaning of the lower keys. The tinkling of the upper register. Five pianos working like a living muscle, stretching here, swelling there. It was that ensemble you played with…what was it called? Pianists Ensemble, Princeton Pianists Ensemble.
You wish you’d spent more time savoring the collaboration of PPE, collaboration you, a soloist, hadn’t encountered before college. (There were no pianos in orchestra. Jazz was unheard of.) You wish you didn’t have to campaign alone and stand on the street handing out pamphlets trying to beckon people to come to your senior recital to offset the costs of renting the hall, like you do now. Then, everyone worked together. Posters in a flurry, profile pictures popping up all over the net.
It might have been the only time where your music was truly appreciated, other than when your parents made you play impromptu concerts in front of all the other Asian parents at church group, so that they would turn green with envy — though that wasn’t really appreciation, was it? Once, you heard a staff member say: “Princeton Pianists Ensemble (PPE) concerts are one of the few concerts I go to even though I don’t know anyone in them, just cause they play such high quality music.”
Your time had come, and gone. You peaked back in college. But you already knew that, didn’t you?
Come to the PPE concert this weekend, December 1st, Friday, at 7:30pm and 9:30pm in Woolworth and December 2nd, Saturday, at 3pm in the new Lewis Music Building. Tickets can be found online at or at the Frist Box Office. Be there or be viola.