Monthly Archives: January 2014

Why I wish I could play the piano (when words get in the way)

Image source:

Image source:

I have always loved words. As a student, I used to save months of pocket money so I could buy dictionaries and thesauruses. I was such a word nerd, I’d even take dictionaries to bed so I could browse through the entries and learn new exotic words to express myself with.

When I read a novel, it was more for the pleasure of learning interesting words and expressions than for the entertainment provided by the plot.

I was a deep-thinking child, a mature head on young shoulders, but I was also extremely shy and introverted. What I was unable to express verbally I committed to paper.  Sometimes my thoughts were so complex I needed more words than what was in the remit of my vocabulary to describe them, and that’s where the dictionaries came in handy.

As I get older, however, I find that communication becomes more and more of a challenge. Even though I know more words now than when I was a child, words often miscommunicate. Could that be because feelings in adults are not always straightforward? Could it have to do with the fact that we lack the spontaneity and natural honesty we possess as children? That as adults we have more at stake, more to lose, faces to save, appearances to maintain?

Word blunders
Have you ever tried to say sorry to someone you’ve upset, yet, at the last minute, the words deserted you and you ended up mumbling something else that made the situation worse? Have you ever tried, and spectacularly failed, to let someone know you loved them, or that you didn’t love them any more?

The other day I tried to tell someone I missed them, and I wanted to see them for two minutes even though my schedule was crazy-busy. But, in my awkwardness, I used words that did not even remotely convey those sentiments, resulting in complete misinterpretation (“missed interpretation”?), hurt feelings and communication breakdown.

With animals, who don’t use words, messages are always clear and unambiguous. Our dog used to come and lie by our side or rest his head on my knee to convey he wanted love and attention; but when we had been away for a few days and came back, he would give us the cold shoulder to indicate he was in a huff about being left at home.

Why can’t we be like that?! Why can’t we just go sit by someone and say, “Hey, haven’t seen you in a long time; I miss you.” Sometimes we can. Other times, we pretend we do not care and we do not feel…anything…because admitting we care leaves us vulnerable, like an unprotected wound anyone can poke a finger into.

Whenever I get disgruntled with words, I remember I once wanted to become a pianist. My parents nearly bought me a piano when I was a child. Their friends had offered to sell us theirs because they were moving back to their country. But my student schedule was already filled to the brim with language classes and private tutoring, on top of regular school.

“Where on earth are you going to find the time to play?” Mother said, and declined the offer.

But I wanted it, I wanted the piano badly. Not that I was musically gifted at all, but the idea of mastering a new form of expression that did not require the complexities of grammar, sentence structure and vocabulary building was highly appealing to me.

Also, I listened to a lot of classical music as a child; I particularly liked piano pieces by Chopin and Liszt but my favourite was probably Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. I liked to close my eyes and imagine how wonderful it must feel to be able to play it.

Last autumn, when one my closest friend was dying of motor neurone disease, I suddenly felt frustrated again that I could not play the piano. There were no words I could possibly think of to comfort a man who had been told he would die. But, if only I could play beautiful, healing music for him, if only I had taken those piano lessons… I thought maybe then I could convey to him how much I wanted him not to die, how much his friendship meant to me, how lost I would be when he went. Things I could not say in words because words would have been too hurtful.

That was when I came across a recording of Alfred Brendel playing Moonlight Sonata, which moved me to tears.

I had listened to Moonlight Sonata hundreds of times in my childhood but there was a certain sentiment in Brendel‘s interpretation that resonated with how I feel when I see the moon in the sky. Brendel’s notes felt like a gentle caress, as when warm moonlight streams into a room through a window, in absolute silence, and quietens all your troubled thoughts.

I was in awe: one man, and a piano, managed to convey all that as well as so many other subtle sentiments I could never find the adequate words to describe – not even with 100 dictionaries at hand.

In an excerpt from Brendel’s book, A Pianist A-Z: a piano lover’s reader, published in the Guardian last year, he makes a commentary about music under each letter of the alphabet. This is what he says under “S”:

“Silence is the basis of music. We find it before, after, in, underneath and behind the sound. Some pieces emerge out of silence or lead back into it. But silence ought also to be the core of each concert. Remember the anagram: listen = silent.”

Sometimes we need to shut the words down and listen to the sound of silence, the absence of semantics, the absence of noise and chatter. Because words can be just that: noise. We make too much meaningless noise, while the words that really matter remain hidden in our hearts.

It is amazing what you start to see and hear when you surrender to inner silence. It makes me feel rather ridiculous too. All those years learning so many clever words in so many languages, only to find all my answers in the absence of them. Only to make a fool of myself using words that didn’t mean what I meant to say.

If only I could play the piano…The computer keyboard I type on now would be the piano keys where my fingers would glide. My music, and my silence, would have spoken, wordlessly, of love and longing, fear and loneliness, the joy of knowing you [all of you who are dear to me], the sadness of not seeing you [all of you whom I miss].

There would be no more blogs, only music. What could I play you? What would you play me?