One of the first decisions I made this year was to finally learn how to play the piano. And not just in the sense that I would learn the major notes and then meticulously practice some of my favourite songs so I can bust them out at parties, but legit classical training. I want to understand what the fuck I’m doing. Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been obsessed with the sounds a piano can make, and how versatile it is. Such a wondrous, beautiful instrument. The first time I laid eyes on sheet music, I thought I would never be able to understand it. Much like math, the notes are like numbers to me, and it never adds up. I’m pretty sure now at almost 26 I’ve realized I do have some weird minor form of dyslexia when it comes to math. I can stare at a receipt for a solid 10 minutes and still not be able to add up my portion of the bill. Something never clicks. In high school, I took up guitar lessons, thinking it would be less daunting than the terrifying sheet music that had kept me away from piano. The first years were fine with learning chords and picking exercises, it wasn’t until I got to my senior year that we began to read off sheet music, and once again my fear came back. Minutes before the test of playing in front of my teacher would start, I would quickly write down the letter of the note I was supposed to be playing and pray my teacher wouldn’t walk by me while I played to see that I was cheating.
The fear of not comprehending how to read sheet music, no matter what tricks were presented before me, shied me away from musical instruments for a long time. My musical ear also wasn’t particularly great. I would listen to a simple key of G and F over and over, and then 5 minutes later forget which one was which. It did not drive my motivation to keep pushing, especially as a teenager when most of my time was filled with work and school…. and sleeping. Eventually my passion to further my guitar playing and evolve to piano fizzled away with starting film school, and after that I barely had the free time to pursue it.
Something in my head changed in January, I suddenly stopped looking at the bigger picture. My whole life has been focused on the bigger picture, and how to get to it. This year, I vowed to focus on things I want to do NOW, and not wait when the RIGHT MOMENT in my BIGGER PICTURE presents itself. The first thing I wanted to do was finally sit my ass down and learn the piano, properly. No fast track, no tricks, the raw deal. No matter how long it took, or how frustrating it was going to be for me. So in February, in a small loft on 6th and Cambie, I sat in front of a gorgeous grand piano with my newly acquired private teacher, Andrea, while her two black cats purred at our feet, and she began to explain to me what I was getting myself into. And as she rattled off technical terms, Italian words, positioned my entire body in a rigid sitting position and placed my fingers on the keys in a manner I didn’t think my fingers could be placed, I could feel the old fear creeping back up. Somewhere during my inner panic attack, I heard the final words of Andrea, “so that’s my teaching style. I’m not here to teach you one song until you play it perfectly, we will be learning everything so you understand what a piano is, and how you can make it play the way you want to play it. This won’t be easy, but with a lot of patience and focus, you’ll do fine”. I turned to her and smiled, and replied “that is exactly what I’m here for”. And it is. There is nowhere I’d rather be on a Wednesday night than meticulously practicing wrist movements and learning simple compositions to help me reach my goal. This is my money, my free time, and it feels damn good. When you finally hunker down and do something for yourself, really only for you, its a great feeling. The first time Andrea started laying out sheet music for me and explaining how to read notes, I almost died. When she could sense how tense me whole body went, she smiled and said “you think you’re one of those people who can’t do this, right?”. I could only sullenly nod. She of course had no tricks to help me, instead we once spent almost 2 hours just doing flash cards of notes, and eventually I started guessing them correctly. And it was clicking. At one point I wasn’t guessing, I knew. I could fucking do this.
My love for classical music is quite enormous. I love it so much. I can’t express how, it might be one of the few times words fail me. There is something so raw about it. Every note has such an important intention. The masterminds behind these compositions only have my deepest admiration. It’s like when I see footage of Christopher Nolan on set directing with 5 monitors attached around his neck so he can still direct his second unit crews. When your vision is so clear in your mind, when you know so deeply what you want your audience to feel, it’s tremendous.
As an extremely early birthday gift, my dear friend Jordan bought tickets for the symphony. I gasped so loudly on the phone when he told me that my two co-workers, who both had headphones on, turned around. I counted down the days until March 17th, put on a new dress, picked up Jordan who looked dapper in a tie, and we strolled into the Orpheum, past the drunken party goers on Granville Street for St. Patrick’s Day. We hastily chugged down glasses of wine, patted down our fancy clothes, and waltzed into the theatre like it was 1850 and this was a common activity. The first few seconds took my breath away. I have been to the gorgeous old Orpheum plenty of times, recently for an unforgettable My Morning Jacket concert, but this was the first time I was in the Orpheum for something so grand, the type of music the building was meant to hold. Seeing the full orchestra on stage, warming up their instruments, a bubble of joy was building up from my stomach into my heart that I could barely contain. So we sat, and held our breaths as the conductor lifted his arm, all eyes on him, one second of pure silence and then, just the low hum of bodies, spirits and minds coming together. For 2 hours I was in another world (where I cried 3 times, I regret nothing). Peter Serkin was the pianist, and the way his hands fluttered across the keys, making the piece of music his own, leaving his mark on it, was breathtaking. I can only be thankful for people like Jordan in my life who know how much something like going to the symphony means to me, and being able to share it with him.
So to those who have never dwelled into Classical, who have never heard the sorrows and joys from Mozart, Bach and my personal favourite, Beethoven, just try it. My mother forced me to listen as a child, and I gained appreciation with every year I grew older. The more I learned about the composers, the more invested I became in their music and why they composed the way they did. Beethoven for me, was always in a rank of his own, just because he was so misunderstood, and only much appreciated in his later years. He was mean and depressed, but only because he suffered by not being able to hear his own music. By becoming deaf in one ear (and eventually completely deaf), it hindered him from doing what he loved most. But somehow, he never stopped, he couldn’t, because it was a part of him, and we can never shut that off. To know that he wrote the 9th Symphony while DEAF is beyond me. The story is that during the premiere of said symphony (he conducted), someone turned him around at the end so he could see the applause, for he could not hear anything, and he wept. Can you imagine that? Can you imagine creating something so beautiful that so many connect to, and never be able to hear it? His life, his work, his heart, his passion, seep through every note he ever wrote.
Gary Oldman played Beethoven in the movie Immortal Beloved, a gorgeous biopic that Oldman was fantastic in. I would highly suggest watching it, it’s what turned me onto exploring classical music on my own without my mother’s hand. One scene in particular gripped something in my heart that has never let go. Below is the scene in which one of Beethoven’s students tries to convince her father he hadn’t lost his touch (this was the time he was almost deaf and gave up playing music for a while), so she invites Beethoven to play a newly acquired state of the art piano, and assures him he will be alone with no one watching. Of course they spy on him, and it is here he plays Moonlight Sonata, his ear pressed to the piano to hear the vibrations of his own composition. Utterly stunning.
And just because, everyone should get acquainted with the masterpiece that is the ninth symphony, here is another scene from said movie describing the experience I mentioned above during Ode To Joy (where we also get a glimpse into Beethoven’s childhood).
If those peaked your interest, than please, enjoy some of my favourites:
Sonata for Piano No. 2 in F Major, K.280 by Mozart
The Nutcracker Pas de Deux by Tchaikovsky
First off, the genius Tchaikovsky has written the music for classic ballets, from the Nutcracker to Swan Lake, but this one always makes my heart flutter. How romantic and whimsical. And the live pas de deux of this is magical. No matter how many times I see it, I grip the arms of my chair and try not to cry.
Piano Trio No. 4 in D Major, Op. 70 “Ghost” by Beethoven
So heartbreaking I can’t even handle it.
Clair de Lune by Claude Debussy (piano version)
Probably one of the most recognizable songs on earth, and for good reason. Timeless.