But Not Too Much

by Sally Basmajian

I must place my fingers just so. Curve them, but not too much. My wrists should be lower. For once, my back is straight enough but it is a bit too stiff because I am overcompensating. I tend to sway in time to whatever piece of music I am playing and this is a bad habit I need to correct. Mrs. Branson says I will make the audience seasick with all my swooping. You are a pianist, not a gymnast, she tells me over and over.

I glance at the keyboard of the old Steinway grand. The worn, ebony keys are dull and velvety like the cover of a family bible that has been passed down from generation to generation. The ivory ones are no longer even vaguely white, having long ago faded to a sickly yellow.

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Long before even my grandmother was born, elephants were slaughtered for the ivory that was used to make piano keys. I sometimes obsess about these great beasts. I know that they did not go gently, offering up their tusks willingly in the name of music. No, I imagine that they screamed in a horrifying, atonal agony as they died. I am sure I could never recreate such a noise by pounding away at this ancient keyboard, no matter how hard I might try.

At least the elephants are long-since dead. This ivory is all that remains. Now, the piano tortures only me.

Don’t believe what they say about the perks of being gifted. It is a never-ending burden. I must force myself to be a shining, perfect prodigy, practicing hours a day in order to please my mother and teacher who bask smugly in the glow of my success. All I feel is an immense and unrelenting pressure. It is grey, heavy, and ponderous – the pressure of elephants, perhaps.

From the age of four I have practiced the piano. While the other kids were playing outside after school, I was practicing. During summer vacations, when regular children attended summer camp, I was practicing. Now, while most teenagers my age are rebelling, experimenting, and experiencing life in all its exhilarating dangerousness, I am still practicing.

At first I played the piano with a joyful heart. Mrs. Branson soon cured me of that, with her ongoing micro-corrections and stipulations. Do it this way, not that way. Break everything down phrase by phrase and get the technique right. Respect the printed note and don’t try to overshadow the composer’s intent by showing too much of your own personality. Not too much, never too much.

Today I will practice my newly assigned Beethoven Sonata with resignation, looking forward to when I will stop playing for good. That blessed day is coming soon but for now I labor on like the dutiful student and daughter I am.

Beethoven wrote his Sonata Number 15, Opus 28, in 1801. It is sometimes called the Pastoral Sonata, but for the life of me I can’t see why. I sense Beethoven’s despair. He was aware by this date that he was going deaf, and the music has an underlying feeling of dread.

When I play the first movement I cannot escape the fatalistic repetition of the tonic bass note. The Andante second movement, with its stubborn, constant left-hand staccato makes me imagine a funeral cortege moving inexorably towards the graveyard. The third movement Scherzo is a flippant, scornful trifle, and in my opinion doesn’t belong in this piece at all, unless it is Beethoven’s way of musically giving the finger to fate.

I am beginning to work on the next section, the Rondo. Allegro, ma non troppo. Set in six-eight time, the rocking-horse left-hand part makes it even harder than usual for me to keep my body still. Dum-da-dum-da-dum-da-dum, on and on. It is impossible to rein in this galloping rhythm. For sure, Mrs. Branson is going to scold me for allowing it to become more Con Brio than Ma Non Troppo. I know that her criticism will be valid, but my fingers keep flying, faster and faster.

Not for long, though. Soon, I will quit practicing, forever. I will put Beethoven and his anguished Sonata to rest, along with all the other manuscripts of long-dead composers. I will move out of this dusty parlor with the old, elephant-haunted Steinway and into the realm of rebellious teenage freedom. Either that, or I will join the elephants and move out of this world altogether.

I look at my miniature, much-used metronome, my steady companion during these lonely, lengthy sessions. I pick it up, set it to a moderate Allegro, and attempt to slow down my rollicking Rondo to a more acceptable pace. There, that is more in keeping with Beethoven’s directions. I find it almost painful to adhere to the slower tempo, but I obediently follow the martinet beat.

A few weeks ago, as I was setting the metronome to a certain speed, the tip of its metal arm – the part that goes tick-tock, tick-tock – nicked me. I had never noticed before that it was so sharp. I tried running its cutting edge along my inner forearm, just to see what would happen. Immediately, a line of bloody, perfect beads appeared, passion-red and full of life. A feeling that I can describe only as euphoria raced throughout my entire body. I took the metronome and repeated the action again.

Within a couple of weeks there were at least twenty thrilling incisions scabbing over on an area of skin that I kept well hidden by my long sleeves, just above both of my wrists. I was no longer feeling the same ecstasy from cutting, though, and I knew that the time to move on had arrived. I would slice myself in an even more intimate and meaningful way, using my metronome’s spiky metal arm to carve the tips of my precious pianist’s fingers, one by one.

I started with the little finger on my left hand. I was careful not to damage it too much. The next day I moved to the little finger on the right. From there, I migrated gradually inward to each new digit, day by day. I never cut too deeply – just enough so that the bright red blood would begin to flow. And when it did, I would play the piano with all my heart and soul. Up and down the keyboard my fingers would fly, leaving traces of me behind. Only then did the music have meaning and I feel joy.

Now, I have a daily routine. I practice conscientiously for two or three hours, dutifully trying to follow all of Mrs. Branson’s latest edicts, and occasionally using the metronome in the standard way to mark out the beat. I drill and repeat and try for pinpoint accuracy, all the while keeping my body as motionless as possible.

But then, for about the last quarter hour of the session, I do something quite different. I nick each of my fingers with surgical precision, finding new spots that haven’t been sliced before, and I watch as blood begins to well. Then, I put aside the metronome and the sheet music with all of Mrs. Branson’s pencilled notes, and I play. I perform from my heart, and I sway in time with the music as the blood from my fingers smears the keyboard, coating the old ivory keys. I wipe it up only when my fingers begin to slip. I play on, for me and for the long-dead elephants, until the blood clots. I savor every moment. There is no Ma Non Troppo about this at all.

One day soon I will no longer be able to conceal the situation. My fingertips are by now so sensitive that I will unlikely be able to continue playing for much longer. Mrs. Branson will discover what I have been doing, and she will scream and cry and call my mother, who will go even crazier. They will never understand. ‘Why would such a talented girl harm herself in such a horrible way?’ they will ask. Doctors will be consulted. Drugs and treatment will be discussed and prescribed.

But I will be free. Forever, I hope. And if not, and I am eventually pronounced cured and forced back to the piano, I may just decide to join the elephants. They gave up their lives because of music. If I have no other option, so shall I.

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