Of music and memory: How the lockdown made me pursue the piano and my relationship with an old tutor
From our series 'How I became a boss at', an account of learning to play the piano after years of neglecting the presence of the instrument at home, and revisiting old memories of a music tutor
In part 4, learning to play the piano.
I first started learning to play the keyboard when I was about 9. A sweet elder cousin left her electronic keyboard with us on her return from the US; partly because I expressed great wonder at the instrument, and partly because she didn’t have the space to accommodate the large Yamaha at her own home. My indulgent parents thought me a musical child (a singer, actually) and engaged a tutor for me.
My tutor was primarily a ghazal singer who performed with the harmonium. He played with his right hand; predictably, I only learnt to play the sargam and a few songs with my right hand. I don’t remember why those lessons stopped — perhaps, it was a summer vacation thing. The keyboard was returned, and a decade passed. Although I learnt on electronic keys, I comfortably adjusted to maneuvering the bellows of my Nana’s harmonium when I visited him and played a tune or two to his amusement. I also continued to sing in the school choir, and occasionally, albeit grudgingly on my parents’ insistence, for guests at dinner parties.
On my father’s 50th birthday, we got him an electronic synthesiser. But what with the work and life of a cop, he never really picked it up. Another decade passed. We moved cities and plenty of houses, with the keyboard standing neglected in corners of rooms, if not packed up. My mother installed the keyboard, whenever she found space in the house, hoping that I might plug in and play a tune, or possibly that I might choose to learn again. Sometimes, I’d draw up a popular song with my right hand, never good enough to perform for people other than my generous folks and girlfriends.
Then the lockdown arrived, with hours that felt like more than twenty-four. Very early on in this period, I was conscious of the apparent productivity contest that people found themselves pressured into. For my mental wellbeing, I decided that I was not going to give in to this new rat race. But I also did not want to go down the video streaming rabbit hole. I played around with new tunes on the keyboard, and by chance drew the first few notes of Beethoven’s Für Elise in the grand piano mode.
I decided to teach myself to play the piano properly, including my left hand this time. While I first saw being locked in with an accessible keyboard as a coincidence, my mother might have seen it delightfully, as careful parental manipulation, even if with delayed success. It took me a few sweaty late nights to learn the first half of Für Elise, but plenty to smooth it out. It also helped to receive validation and encouragement from my dear sister and friends, who I spammed with clips of the songs I played. I was grateful, for my lockdown was going swell.
I hadn’t heard of or from my old tutor ever since those lessons ended in my childhood. After about a month in lockdown-time and my third song in piano-lesson-time, as I walked into my father’s study one day, I found myself curious about his responses on a phone call. He told me it was my old tutor having trouble making ends meet. I felt terrible. He taught me how to place my scrawny nine-year-old fingers on the piano. What a strange coincidence that after two decades, right when I am revisiting the piano, I hear that he is suffering. I sent him money. When he found out it was me who sent it, he asked to speak to me.
The thing about our memories is that a large part of them lie buried inaccessible under other mind debris. When I spoke to my tutor again, I was transported two decades into the past, to memories I had forgotten. The way he spoke to me now was exactly as he had spoke to me when I was 9. The conversation drew out connections my young brain had buried away as inconsequential.
We wished each other well, and disconnected the call. I sat on my piano stool and wept quietly as I played this third song.
I'm learning many songs at once now: two soundtracks by Yann Tiersen, and on popular demand, Hedwig’s Theme and a piece by Yiruma. Every time I embark upon a new song, it feels like I might never master it. The lack of coordination between my hands seems unsurmountable. But with some practice the night before, I wake up with my hands having memorised some of the choreography. It’s magical.
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