Chapter 2 – Piano


– Piano –

Valkyrie is 7 and is sitting at a huge, upright piano in her bedroom. I am sitting on the window ledge. She has been looking at a pair of absurd pink and white bathers given to her as a recent birthday present, with rows of frilly bits that bring to mind terrace gardens in Indonesia.  Not flattering as a bathing costume design but excellent for holding rain water and growing vegetables.

The piano takes up most of her bedroom – put there because it had nowhere else to go in the house. It is in good condition with tuned keys, nice wood and an especially resonant and responsive sustain pedal. Responsive.

Distracted adults stand in the hallway and an older girl called Dana walks in, sits next to Valkyrie and adeptly plays a classical tune.  Fingers with bulbous tips and savagely chewed nails, bounce on the piano keys like marionette mice at a rave. A strange phenomenon is taking place. A visiting parent ushers in their offspring, Dana, into an unknown space that is otherwise happily occupied by Valkyrie, private and singular. A room of one’s own. As though the parent expects, in an instant, a level of friendship on the basis of category match: child and child. I don’t know Dana, thought Valkyrie.  Dana walks in and shuffles her 11-year-old hips, next to Valkyrie, on the piano bench. They are two sets of bottoms, two sets of uneven bottom sizes.

There is this thing called classical music. It is beautiful. It lives somewhere else. These old and prized tunes have found their way into young minds, music lessons and school curriculums. Embedded in our collective psyche like a coat of arms or family shield that weighs heavy and solid. I feel sorry for all those other unknown classical musicians who were equally as genius and talented, but were left unseen and unpaid. Why did history freeze a handful of composers, as though  the job of classical music was done. To then have these tunes hammered into young heads through their grit and toil, toiling away their childhoods with repetitive hours upon hours of impossible finger gymnastics. More to the point, written by and for half of humanity’s sets of hands. These complicated tunes can traverse an acoustic piano length of at least 88 keys, each key a generous 24 mm wide, with 8 keys making an octave that stretches a magnanimous 16 cm wide. These measurements are relevant – designed for men who generally have bigger hands. Female hands, which are generally smaller, compensate by their winning physical prowess, as shown with a gun and target. A better shot, simply put and statistically proven. Females are more adept at target shooting but unfortunately these skills do not lend themselves to playing the piano. Large hands however, find their way on to stages, within ornate music theatres, flowing with red velvet seats, curtains, sparkling chandeliers and gilded people, who are all sitting and staring silently in a kind of daze. Some facing the stage. There, they see a black tuxedo walk in and a coat tail following and suddenly, like a wave rising from nowhere, the tail is flicked back behind the tuxedo and now the finger gymnastics can begin. Surely, this great frenzied activity of playing lots of notes really fast, back and forth across kilometers of oversized keys, on impossibly long stretches of octaves, cannot define the greatest music? The fringe-flying, the page flicking, the tail flicking and the remembering and rote knowing of someone else’s tune?

Valkyrie did learn a small part of a fringe-flying tune, satisfied in knowing that small part and satisfied in not going back for more.

Dana’s father militarized piano practice. When he was drunk, he beat up his daughters and played classical music on his radio so loudly that their sobs could not be heard. If he could hear Dana and her sister fighting over the sonorous timpani and violins, he would march into the room and smack them about their heads. Fringes flying but no maestros. All this could happen within a soaring orchestral moment, but the violence and screams would not rouse the attention of their mother who remained perfectly still behind a giant newspaper, reading. Not a muscle moved not an eyelid batted. One night Valkyrie heard them talk. They were worried about their daughters’ futures because they thought them plain and vain and burdensome. Pouring himself a fresh beer and taking a long swig – wiping the froth from his moustache he said, “they’ve got a hole so they better know how to use it”. The newspaper remained still.

These things had a bad effect on the much older Dana and made her heartless, selfish and mean so eventually Valkyrie had to brandish the sword and cut the friendship loose. Enough said.

In Valkyrie’s room that day, the 11-year-old Dana plays the tune over and over. I can almost see the notes tickling up and down Valkyrie’s spine. Dana was on repeat at Valkyrie’s insistence. She wanted to absorb the tune while mimicking the notes with her fingers in mid-air. After a while, adult voices came wafting in to the bedroom from down the hallway and Dana gets up to leave.  Valkyrie is dead keen to play it over and over again until her fingers know when and where to land. Dana looks at Valkyrie but she is staring at the piano and doesn’t look up. Only manages a distracted ‘goodbye’.

I don’t look up either.

As I, Leerie, swing my leg over the window sill, I turn to Valkyrie and the piano. The moment holds and etches itself somewhere safe for a future time. For Valkyrie this is the beginning of that explosion called music. The door is open, an invitation offered, from sound to heart and heart to sound, and then the sensory, synesthetic colours all gush in. The music is a place that is strangely left alone by Valkyrie for years at a time. A place that can be too strong to dwell in and too overwhelming to touch. A place that can be starved and forgotten. A place that brings a sense of focus, freedom and being- immersion with every note, beat and song.

I slip out the window, transiting to place where I look at the sky and breath in the palm trees and ferns – not the place of now and that first piano but a place of later – where Valkyrie eventually arrives. But before we go to that later room of hers in the forest, I must tell you more about my beloved Valkyrie and the early piano days.

If I was to say that the piano was sold 6 months later, and that she would instead imagine playing tunes on her teeth and her teeth were piano keys, I would not be lying. As weird as that sounds. It is not that her teeth were tuned pieces of enamel – bottom central incisor tooth a concert pitch C major and upper central incisor tooth, a C sharp, and lateral incisor as the next lower note – a D major with a corresponding upper D sharp, although… No, she imagined each tooth was a note, it could be higher or lower depending on the direction of her dental scale. The tooth notes were interchangeable, not a proper scale, as some tunes have many notes and several octaves and require more teeth. A set of 88 teeth would have made it easier.

Valkyrie has no traumatic memory of the day her piano left, as her person-status did not warrant an opinion, on any matter.  All decisions, be it major, minor, or mostly off-key, were made without her consultation and consideration; like walking on new cement and leaving no trace. However for that whole 6 months from 7 to 7.5 years of age she was a musician. Her repertoire comprised of ‘Dana’s tune’ and other ‘inspired’ tunes. These tunes were driven by resonance and volume crossing over and through each other like skaters on an ice rink. The piano top lifted, one buttock resting partly on the piano stool with the opposite hip angling down and her foot reaching to the sustain pedal, like a brick on the accelerator. Her wiry little fingers would press down on the keys hard creating powerful reverberations that would boomerang and chorus around in her head. On occasion she would slam down both little splayed hands on too many low and high notes, up and down in perfect drummer’s rhythm, and the sound would cyclone around in her bedroom.

From the front lawn I, Leerie, felt content. I ate my apple and watched her through the open window, curtains flailing in the breeze; little head nodding and fringe flying with each slam of a dissonant chord. She was a maestro, possessed.

One strange day when Valkyrie was 7.4, she found herself sitting at a shiny, black baby grand at her new friend Penelope’s house. Her friend’s mother was a piano teacher and Valkyrie was to showcase her complete repertoire. She ran her wiry, small fingers along the piano’s richly enameled surface feeling its mirrored perfection and caught the mother’s eye in a self conscious moment.

What happened next, is vague.  Valkyrie played the tune but soon found herself wandering back down the hill back to her home. She wipes her face of the memory, not quite digesting the force of the piano teacher’s mocking tone.  She cannot remember the words. Moments like these can mark a young mind forever and dreams disappear like water on sand.  Valkyrie wished she had asked to use the bathroom so she could have peed all over the beautifully tiled floor.  There will be no next time.

The teacher was half-right about the importance of practice and theory. But the beginner’s piano tunes would no doubt become unbearably monotonous and unsustainably boring. This became apparent as she began to steamroller-demonstrate these tunes, with a sweep of her large hips onto the piano stool next to Valkyrie, almost knocking her to the floor.   Hence the desire to pee on the bathroom floor. Also, piano lessons require an interested parent. This was in short supply.