My lifelong ongoing tumultuous love affair with music (specifically the piano).

piano

Our love was prophesied at my birth.

In the delivery room mere moments after I made my entrance into the world, a nurse reached out and splayed apart my long, slender fingers, exclaiming in a southern drawl, “She’s gonna be a piano player!”

For as long as I can remember, I have been aware of music. My mom likes to say that I sang before I could talk. If I heard music as a baby or toddler, I would immediately begin bobbing my head with the rhythm and doing my utmost to imitate the beautiful noise I was hearing.

I remember little things from pre-piano lesson days. Like sitting in church with my parents while we were singing hymns, and thinking about how with some music I’d heard there’d be a choir (or sometimes one person) singing different words and different melody on top of the main song itself. I thought I’d try it, much to my parents’ consternation. Or one time in first grade, standing to sing “The Star-Bangled Banner” and I thought about how sometimes people would sing different notes that weren’t the melody but it was so beautiful, so I tried to do that, much to the consternation of my fellow classmates.

But then one day, my parents bought a piano.

I had tried to resist the prophecy spoken at my birth of being a pianist, out of the sheer spite for which I am sometimes known. But when that real, live piano was brought into my house when I was a tender six or seven years old, my will-power finally crumbled as I fell helplessly and hopelessly in love.

My brother would plink around on the keys, finding the melodies of children’s camp songs and teaching me his findings. I drank it up and memorized what I could, continuing to play around long after he had lost interest. My deeply intuitive mother saw what my child-brain didn’t have the words to express, and before I knew it, I was signed up to take piano lessons.

It was hard work. I was not a natural. Scales, keys, fingerings, timing…it was all so much and so confusing. But I persevered, pushed along by Debbie, my long-suffering and wonderful teacher. I would spend all week practicing my assignments, just simple tunes at first. I could hardly wait until I got into my lesson where she would sit beside me and accompany me. She played so joyfully, soulfully, with her whole heart laid out on the keys beside me, and I drank in her love for the instrument that I so loved as well.

My anemic ability flourished under Debbie’s enthusiastic watch. She never let me skimp on theory or technique (no matter how much I complained), but as I progressed she began to allow me to learn songs of my choosing, incorporating them into my lessons. The more I played, the more I loved it. Classical, contemporary, Christian, hymns, I would absorb it all, learn it all, love it all.

I didn’t have an unhappy childhood per se. But I did not have very many friends. In fact, many of the friends I held most dear were the same people who would belittle me and hurt me. It was always difficult for me to identify with peers, and many of the adults in my life at school and at church didn’t hide that they found me trying at best. I spent most of my childhood buried in books, or hidden away in whatever room happened to have a piano.

As my playing improved, people began noticing. I began playing for competitions at school and as special music in church. Adults who otherwise ignored me or disliked me suddenly took notice of me and encouraged me in my pursuits. Peers who would make fun of everything I did, from how I looked to how I talked to the books I read, could not make fun of my music. Even though I still didn’t have the words for it, my piano became my safe haven, shielding me from the things that hurt me the worst.

The first time I learned harmony was for the hymn, “Grace Greater Than Our Sin.” I don’t remember how old I was, but I know I was still in elementary school. I sat silently through the first verse and chorus, studying the music intently. As the second verse began, I tried to sing the alto…and discovered much to my surprise that it wasn’t hard. Not just that, but it was easy. My faltering voice grew a little stronger, and my heart was taken anew with the intricacies and beauty of music.

In high school, I hit my musical stride. I sang in choirs and small groups at school, even joining the praise team at one point. I was given special parts in choir productions, began arranging songs for small groups to perform, accompanied special music in chapel. To my utter delight, I was able to sit and play any piece of music that I wanted to. Debbie had taught me how to play by chord, and when I realized that I could combine that with my sight-reading, my playing reached heights that it had never known (and frankly, hasn’t known since). I also began writing music of my own, joining three loves of my life into one: writing, singing, and playing piano. I began performing my music at school during chapel, at youth retreats, for groups of friends and anyone who would listen. I even ventured to accompany the congregation at church a couple of times, along with youth retreats and in my travels if I was pressed.

One of my senior pictures.

One of my senior pictures. This was not my piano.

When I began homeschooling in my junior year of high school, I stopped taking piano lessons. I felt that anything further I wanted to learn I could teach myself. My parents and I began looking into recording my music, with the thought of perhaps sending EPs out to record companies. Unfortunately, I also began to have severe respiratory problems that prevented me from being able to record the vocals that I wanted to record. We recorded a handful of songs, but never sent anything to anyone. I was later to be diagnosed with asthma.

One of my favourite activities at this time in my life was to open all of the windows in our house, pull up a dining room chair beside my piano bench where my dog Peanut could lay down and listen to me play, and I would play for hours. Every song I knew. Songs I didn’t know. Songs I wrote. I would play and sing and cough and laugh and absolutely lose myself in this instrument of beauty and compassion and safety and love. Those were some of my happiest, most fulfilling hours in all of my life.

I have always had a deeply emotional link to music. You can always tell what shape I’m in emotionally by what music I am listening to. Musicals, pop rock, and indie pop are my happy listening tunes. Folk and softer contemporary are my picks when I am calm. And when I’m hurt, afraid, or angry, I tend to turn to rock, emo, and metal. This is quite important.

When I started college, I was taken with acoustic guitar, easy melodies, haunting harmonies, and soothing ballads. I spent a lot of time in my car, traveling to school and church and Bible studies and friends’ houses, and I always had music playing that I was always singing along with. I enjoyed finding harmonies that weren’t explicitly in the song, arranging songs in my head and imagining that I was performing with the artists. This sort of thing carried me through my first semester.

Early in my second semester, I was sexually assaulted.

That time of my life is very much a blur. But so many things changed. I became much more reserved, uncertain of myself, hating myself even. I was convinced by many well-meaning mentors and peers that what happened was not a big deal and that I needed to just move on. And once again, I didn’t have words to describe what was going on inside. I felt betrayed on so many levels – by my attacker for taking advantage of me, by myself for being unable to fight back and for having constant nightmares and regular panic attacks, by the friends and mentors who silenced me. I stopped reading recreationally. I stopped going to my campus Bible study for several months. I stopped playing piano. I stopped listening to ballads, opting instead for screamo and hard rock. I stopped singing.

I lost my song.

Don’t get me wrong. These things didn’t stop altogether. In the summers at my church camp, I would still sit and play. The familiar relief would begin, but the moment I stood up from the bench it was gone. I still sang with the congregation in church, but I stopped taking part in any special music, only making exceptions for friends’ weddings in which I was asked to play or sing. I was in full-fledged self-preservation mode, struggling with many things (from dealing with the aftermath of the assault, to various crises of faith, to college and career anxieties). And the joy of music had left me.

During my sophomore year of college, I applied to Bob Jones University (another story for another time, perhaps). My college had been paid for me up to this point, but any future financial burdens for education were to fall on my shoulders (with the supervising and helpful watch of my parents). When I got accepted, there was a fee that I had to pay for them to hold my place at the university for the following year. I began to look around for things I could sell to cover the fee…and my eyes landed sadly on my beloved piano.

Many things happened after that. I went to BJU, unable to play since I neither majored nor minored in music (nor did I take lessons while there), unable to sing because I was sick with cold after bronchitis after asthma attack after flu my entire duration at the school. I came home a mere five months later, still unable to play because I no longer had a piano, and unable to sing because my song had not yet returned. In fact, when I returned home from school, already deeply grieving so many things, I was absolutely shocked. I had forgotten that we had sold my piano. My beloved piano, my safe haven, there for me even when I was unable to find solace anywhere. It was gone. And I hadn’t remembered.

Piano HandsThe following fall, I made one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life. I married Michael. We spent the following couple of years moving around northern Virginia, learning how to love each other better and how to be adults together. In those couple of years, we experienced the deaths of grandparents, the cancer of parents, the abandonment of friends, the making of new friends, unexpected fertility roadblocks, the re-emergence of my PTSD and depression. When we finally moved back to Hagerstown to be close to my parents (my dad in particular), we were finally able to breathe a little bit.

I had begun singing again as we moved into our new house. Mostly to myself or along with music. But it was something. Michael noticed, as he always does. As we started unpacking, we set up my electronic keyboard in the music room and began searching for the power cord. It was nowhere to be found.

As happens occasionally, my depression went from bearable to unbearable. I was weepy, lethargic, barely able to finish a day of work before collapsing in the evenings. It was everything I could do to keep going on. Dare I admit this here in so public a place? I struggled deeply, desperately, almost daily with suicidal thoughts. (Though I would like to differentiate between suicidal thoughts and suicidal intentions. I never intended to kill myself or harm myself, but boy did I wish I would just conveniently stop living through no effort of my own.)

I began to long for music. My fingers would twitch and tremor whenever a keyboard of any kind was near. Having my keyboard in my house without the ability to play was nothing short of torturous, and most certainly did not aid in easing my despair.

Completely unbeknownst to me, Michael began looking at pianos on Craigslist.

To his utter shock and slightly incredulity, he found a listing for a piano for fifty dollars. He sent me the link, and I could do nothing but stare, tears filling my eyes, then drying as I systematically tried to shut down my emotions. Fifty dollars. It had to be in bad shape. It had to have something wrong with it. It couldn’t happen. He set up an appointment to meet with the couple selling the piano, and I hesitantly agreed to join him. After all, if there was any possibility of it being my piano, I had to be there. I had to see if there was a connection.

Walking into the room where the piano was kept, I fought tears once again. I was bidden to sit and play. The action of the keys was a little unpredictable. My soft, hesitant touch was sometimes lost. But my heart. Oh, my heart.

We paid for it that day, and with the help of family and friends moved it into our house the following weekend.

It’s been six or seven years since I’ve played regularly. I have certainly lost much of my proficiency, which can be extremely frustrating at times. But much remains. If I close my eyes, take a deep breath, allow my heart to move my fingers, it’s almost like I’m 17 again, sitting with Peanut and open windows and content heart.

It’s not coming quite so easy as it once did. In some ways, I’m back at the beginning, where everything is hard and I am not a natural.

But the joy. The solace. The peace. It’s there.

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8 thoughts on “My lifelong ongoing tumultuous love affair with music (specifically the piano).

  1. I can relate to that. The expectations around my violin were suffocating to me. After really bad experiences with music teachers at BJU, I quit playing my violin for close to a year. Even my teacher back home was shocked by my regression while I was still taking lessons. I played like I was broken, so I stopped playing. Then my partner bought me an electric acoustic violin and I started again. When I can let go, I’m pretty damn good. But if anything brings up insecurities, my ability flies out the window. I am still trying to learn how to let my heart have its music.

    • I’ve heard a few stories about BJU music lessons sucking the joy out of music. I’m kind of glad I didn’t go that route (though I got to play the piano in the Riley Room a couple of times — ahhh, heaven). Letting go with my music is difficult, too. I think more for singing than piano. If ever we end up in the same room together with a piano and violin, we should try to jam. :)

  2. Dani… how beautiful. Your piece reminded me of my own musical journey. As I look back over my life, I can hear the tunes of each “era”. Sometimes classical, sometimes techno-dance….. sometimes silent.

    Thank you for your story. You are a gorgeous woman. Let that gorgeousness out. Play! Sing! Write! NEVER let anyone take that away from you.

  3. Dani, it’s always so moving to read what you’ve written. Your courage to express in such a profound and public manner the struggles you experience is admirable and inspiring. I find it difficult, almost impossible at times, to tell some of my closest friends some of the things you have written here.

    • Thank you, Eva. I tried to keep a lot this inside for years, and it just…ate me up inside. (I said before, I’ve compartmentalized my life for so long that I often feel shattered.) I started reading the writing of other people who had similar experiences to mine, and started to find healing…so I thought maybe it was time to start talking, in case there was any chance I could help other people. Though I freely admit it’s a bit of free therapy for me, too.

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