Red Light in Adult Piano Lessons

How a Chopin Nocturne Provided Clarity with an Alcoholic Parent

Stephen Wu plays the first section of the Chopin Nocturne in C-Sharp Minor in his studio.
Chopin’s Nocturne in C-sharp Minor is a signature piece of my piano teacher, Stephen Wu. At his wedding reception at the Montclair Art Museum earlier this year, the lights dimmed as Stephen sat down at the mahogany Steinway, where he played a piece of his own composition he had written for his new wife, Meredith. Then came the Nocturne, the music lush and beguiling. When the final C-sharp rang in both the high treble and low bass—a marriage of opposites not unlike Meredith’s effervescence to Stephen’s reserve—the wedding guests went wild, springing to their feet in one coordinated ovation. Later, Stephen confided to me that the hall, lit only by the band’s reddish light, had been so dim that he could not see the keys.

Red light: he had played the Chopin Nocturne in C-sharp minor by motor memory and feel of the keys alone.

At my adult piano lesson a few months later, while I stumbled through the Nocturne, I could not help but remember Stephen’s impressive performance. Eons passed while I fumbled for one of the opening chords. Although I did not look his way, I imagined Stephen, who sat at his desk next to the grand piano, cringing. My fingers stomped through the pianissimo interlude, and I decided my piano teacher must be judging me for having a harsh touch. When I plodded through one of the C-sharp minor scales at the end that should trill like a flute, I saw a motion out of the corner of my eye. I told myself that Stephen must have checked his watch, bemoaning that the calendar would flip into a New Year before I mastered this music.

Red light!

Like many adult children of alcoholic parents—in my case, my father was the alcoholic—I confuse people with one another. I cloak the people of my present with the troubled ghosts of my past. As a result, I struggle to see people for their real selves. This clarity that I receive from my adult piano lessons is one of the many ways in which my return to classical piano music has created for me a new way of being, a welcome change of life.

At my adult piano lesson, while I played the Chopin Nocturne for Stephen, I mistook him for my father, who ridiculed me for being too dramatic when I practiced the piano as a teenager. Often, he seemed ashamed of me, especially at piano recitals. But my father has not heard me play the piano for over 25 years. I ascribed to Stephen attitudes not so much from my present-day father as from the parts of Dad inside me that I have not yet managed to shed. Those thoughts were my own harsh judgments of myself.

The truth of the matter is that I am grateful that my piano teacher knows the music so well. I would like to absorb the Nocturne with his fluidity and keen touch. Perhaps someday I will play the music in a concert hall lit with a reddish light, so dark the keys will not be visible, my playing lit only with inner knowing.

Stephen Wu is a concert pianist, composer, and piano teacher.
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Copyright © 2017 Nancy M. Williams. All Rights Reserved.

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