Hands on the Piano

Hands on the Piano

Hands on the Piano 1280 853 Kae Solomon

Sonata form:
a composition in three sections or movements (exposition, development, recapitulation, sometimes a coda) in which two themes or subjects are explored according to set key relationships.

First Movement:
Home key: Sets the tone, then modulates to relative major/ minor or dominant key
Each key may have its own theme
Contrasts, builds up suspense and tension

Allegretto calandro

Up early. 6:00 a.m. Before leaving for high school, I put in one and a half hours practicing for upcoming Royal Conservatory exams. My mom gives lessons after school and in the evening, so the piano isn’t available. The basement room is dark and still, waiting. The small bright light softly bathes the piano. I breathe in the smell of varnish, the ivory of the keys, the sharp metallic brass of the pedals, the sweetness of the wood, the dusty wisps of the sheet music. My mind still foggy from lack of sleep, I launch into scales; majors, harmonic and melodic minors, separated by 3rds, 6ths, 10ths, contrapuntals, chords and arpeggios, My hands are strong, muscled from years of playing hours a day, never missing or the guilt slaps me silly, makes me sick. I spend too long on Bach; the uplifting beauty of the Preludes and Fugues soothing despite the demanding technique.

Allegretto Agitato

I dash home for lunch, eat quickly, then return to the hard bench. Late at night another session, hands poised and ready. I struggle with the sustained emotion needed for the Romantic and modern composers. I try to pay attention to each phrase, the resonance of each note. My hands stretch and stumble, the pace and delivery intense, each mistake jarring. I want to slam my head on the keys, make it hurt.

That’s not the only thing that hurts: The one I now have decided to call Frenemy hasn’t called, after promising we’ll go out to the rock club. We’re underage but look older dressed in tight jeans, high heeled boots, our permed hair poofed up with hairspray. Every week, fingers trembling, I open the newspaper as the smell of fresh ink wafts out, scanning the club ads. It burns that Frenemy now has other pretty girls to go out with. They get attention from the band members who invite them to after-parties, while I am alone at the piano, hands sweating in the cold basement. Even when persuaded to go, my shyness shuns the cute guys who ask me to dance. In my fantasies, I’m the one in the spotlight.


Another piano lesson before I take the grade 10 Royal Conservatory exam: every note must be precise, interpreted just so. There are still spots where the piece is not fluid, phrasing is off, my memory falters. It is only the Bach that allows me to transcend, the muscle memory of my hands moving from one note to the next. I close my eyes, inhabit that space above. My teacher nods approvingly during my rapid fire scales and the skilful Bach, but her brow creases, her lips purse together as I struggle through the Chopin.

The rote of practicing, the discipline and working in a challenging medium will make me the best at the rock music that is my real love, but I’m too afraid to try. I can’t play by ear. I clam up, can’t hear anything except for a loud banging in my brain, like someone screaming “You suck! You suck!” over and over. It’s only later when I put on my records, headphones over my ears, that I can shut out that hateful voice. I am a rich talented rock musician with lots of hit songs, whom everyone admires. I make up questions for journalists, pose in the mirror, practicing the right look. I go to bed, wake up still the same, head downstairs to get in another hour and a half before school.

Development: 2nd movement:
Brings in new material, moves to other keys
Recombines into fresh patterns, dramatic possibilities
Temperature kept at fever pitch, conflicts erupt, worlds collide

Appassionata cantabile

Frenemy is loud and funny, big and bold. She can imitate anyone perfectly, the walk, the talk, exaggerating a quirk until we’re both bent over in stitches. Her family are all classical musicians, but she buys an electric guitar. We bond over love of bands, but Frenemy doesn’t just dream, she answers ads and goes to auditions. Frenemy’s mom gives us voice lessons, but it’s opera. I’m branded a coloratura, the lightest and highest soprano. I want the opposite, all drama and fire, to belt out the burning passion eating me up inside. I believed my mother when she told me only opera technique is proper singing. She ridicules pop singers, who only use chest voice. So I take my head voice down to where it is not supposed to go. It is weak, barely more than a whisper. At at party, Frenemy belts out the latest favorite Pat Benatar tune, our favorite. I sing along but my voice is buried. Frenemy stands proud, everyone praises her for her powerful pipes.

I tell myself I’ll soon have my degree in piano performance. I’ll be good enough to play all the most difficult stuff, and will know enough theory to compose complicated and exciting pieces. I’m not just going to write three chord songs that anyone can play.

When I go to bed each night, it’s like an orchestra starts up. I can hear the melodies, each instrument’s voice. My heart soars and surges, but as soon as I turn on the light to try to get the notes onto paper, it’s like a radio whose volume has been turned down or dialed slightly off the station leaving only static. Instead of notes, words appear like neon signs on the freeway, all lit up, no mistaking, so again I jump out of bed. This time I catch the music but it appears in the form of poems. They have searching and mysterious titles: Looking Glass, Ghost, Lullaby for the Sleepless. I fill a notebook, my dreams taking new directions.

Andante Mesto

Writing poetry and lyrics becomes a lifesaver, and I apply for the creative writing program at our city’s university. I find out I wasn’t accepted the same day that Frenemy’s band plays an outdoor festival there. I drag myself down to the lawn of the commons where the stage has been set up. She’s dressed all in black leather, studs on her wrist, a doggy collar on her neck, emulating her favorite singer from a heavy metal band. She tests her spiky platinum hairdo. She’s used more than enough hairspray, overdoing it, like always. Her black-gloved hand grabs the mike stand. “Check, check, 1,2, check 1….2.” She spaces it out, making sure the sound guy has a good mix of her voice. The audience starts to cheer, thinking the show is about to begin.

On stage she looks down on them, striking poses.. She’s dancing, a natural at entertaining and performing, while I cry on my knees, hands flat against the earth. I’m in love with the drummer, even though he’s in love with another of my friends. I will him to come comfort me, to see if he even cares, and he does, then has to rush back as everyone is frantic because of an electrical failure. I want to lose myself in the songs we learned together at rehearsals. I was their most loyal fan. When they go on tour I learn loneliness has still deeper pits to fall into.

When their tour brings them back to play the rock club in our city, Frenemy acts thrilled to see me. Then ignores me, forgets to call. I wait down in the basement my hands pouring out my heartache on the keys.

Con dolore

The inevitable collapse. My piano teacher tells me to take beta blockers before the big exam to keep my hands from shaking. Still feel shaky after the two prescribed, so take two more, then two more, then lose track. I sit outside on the curb in front of her house. It’s the hottest day in years, over 100 degrees, a strong wind rattling leaves and blowing omens through the trees. I feel sick, weak, muscles aching. I dread going to the exam, but cancelling would mean continuing with the same pieces till the next exam period, a long six months away.

I’m alone with the adjudicator behind a screen so I can’t see him, but hear him judging, commanding, condemning. My breath is shaky but my hands don’t shake at all. He asks me to play A major scale, one of the easiest. I can do this in my sleep but my hands freeze. I hold them in front of me, stare at them, try again, but they refuse to move. The pieces I’ve prepared go even worse. I can’t get past the first bar, stop, start again, humiliation burning through me. I will myself to remember. The countless hours, days, weeks and months spent learning gone from my brain. I have to pull out the sheet music but it doesn’t make much difference. Even the Bach, the Prelude and Fugue, which has been like my best friend through all the torment of the past year, even this deserts me.

3rd movement:
Tonic key, journey home, no more modulations
Psychological climax, continuity over change
Restating exposition themes but with additional meaning taken on in the course of wanderings
Opposing elements are reconciled. Home key triumphant, remains

Calando rallentando

I resume practicing for the Associate degree in performance. In the middle of an intricate section, I can’t go on. My hands move but my heart stops. The notes become a jumble of ink blots, their meaning lost as they break apart, disintegrate, the blackness and whiteness of the paper merging into dull grey. The pain moves up from my feet, no longer rooted to the pedal. There is nothing left in me for Beethoven, for any of the others. My hands ache like dread, straight from the bones, fingertips turned to stone.

The final blow is when my piano teacher suggests I start preparing to take the teaching degree, rather than than performance degree. That confirms the nagging fear that has coursed through me for years. I am not good enough. I sob uncontrollably for hours trembling and shaking in front of the piano, now my silent tormentor.


I move to Vancouver and instantly feel at home. Frenemy moved here a few months before, asking me to rent an apartment with her, but then we have a falling out. My real life finally begins. I work at a health food restaurant, taking classes in voice, performance, recording engineering. I make a whole new circle of friends. We go to clubs, play jams, no one notices if I make a mistake. Lying on my mattress in the old character house near Commercial drive, I hear the music in my head getting stronger, until I have to jump up, turn on my keyboard, the melodies bursting out like birds flying from their cages. To some I add words, and sing and sing. My hands reach out in front of me and I play until the sun is up. When I fall back into bed, the passion and force of the notes echo into my dreams.

CODA: (Italian for “tail”)
4th movement: a passage that brings a piece to an end
Concluding musical section formally distinct from the main structure

Ad libitum

Truth is stranger than fiction, so they say. Frenemy chases a much older man to Montreal. Before she leaves her words “You could never compete with me” and “there isn’t room for both of us to be singers” tear at me like claws, so I swat back with “the next time you see me I’ll be on stage with my band.”

Nearly five years later, I’m walking around Club Soda before the show starts, checking the sound and other technical details. Dressed to perform in tight tie-dyed jeans, a low cut black top and high black leather boots I hear someone call my name. It’s Patti Foster, from high school. The person beside her says “don’t you even recognize me?”

Frenemy. She has always been a chameleon, looking and dressing for whatever phase she is going through, her hair now bobbed to her chin, dyed stripes of black and white. No, I hadn’t recognized her. The last time I’d seen her she had long blonde permed hair and was 30 pounds lighter.

I watch her face go through rapid fire emotions when she learns we’re opening for the popular band they’ve bought tickets for but she quickly gains control. I know her still and have seen the envy, anger, and in her narrowed eyes, a very fleeting bit of love.

“Remember what I said the last time we saw each other?”

She nods, the wheels turning, deciding how she is going to react. “Good for you, I always knew you could do it!”

The nice frenemy, whose smile seems genuine, but then I remember how her envy manifests: lies, deceit, intent to harm.

“You remember Steve, our drummer? He always said you would do it because you were so determined.”

The one I had been in love with, said that about me? Another frenemy technique, build me up, make me feel special, so it will hurt all the more when she tears me down.

A Piacere

All these things riff through my mind but then I hear the opening chords of the guitar, last minute sound check. I need to be on stage, so cut Frenemy short. During the show she cocks her head to the right, listening intently. I gaze up at red, blue, green lights and smile at Derk, the lighting guy, making sure he knows where to aim the spotlight.

The guitar player crashes into the first chords of the next song and I lean confidently over the mike, my voice soaring into the room. Fear and doubt fade, the years of passion and longing rewarded. I launch into a complicated musical section on the keys. Breathing deeply, my fingers move to the notes engrained in muscle memory. My voice cries out as the song reaches its ending. All the other instruments stop while I finish the song, strong and steady, my hands on the piano.

Header photo © Ricky Garni.

Share This:
Back to top