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A Commitment to Play with the Debussy Clair de Lune

Joanna_Eng_Sing_for_Hope
Joanna at a Sing for Hope public piano she came across at Jamaica Station in Queens, New York.
At 30 years old, I’m officially back to practicing piano. I decided not to let the simple fact of not having a piano at home stop me. A music studio within walking distance of my apartment has two rehearsal rooms with upright pianos, only one of which has a ledge to rest sheet music on. So Room 12 at Astoria Soundworks is my new biweekly living room, and before my first session I printed out the score of the Debussy Clair de Lune—something I had never tried to play as a kid.

That simple progress meant just as much to me as the entire box of participation trophies in my childhood bedroom.

On first pass, Clair de Lune seemed too challenging: the forest of tall chords, the baffling 9/8 time signature, the five flats in the key signature, and the lack of friendly reminders penciled in by my old piano teacher. But after 30 minutes or so of working through it, I had the theme on the first page somewhat under control and was starting to make sense of page two’s chords. That simple progress meant just as much to me as the entire box of participation trophies from my childhood bedroom that I had just dropped off at Goodwill.

After an admittedly privileged upbringing where achievement in academics, music, and sports was my top priority, I floundered upon leaving my programmed, structured, oft-rewarded life and hitting adulthood. I didn’t become a professional musician, academic, or athlete. I became someone who works behind a computer most days and then goes back to visit my childhood home to determine the proper method of disposing of all my old trophies and award plaques.

I became someone who wasn’t sure what the point of piano practice was anymore; sure, it helped develop intelligence and creativity as a child taking lessons, but now what I could I do with it? In my very occasional playing in the past decade (since I have tended to move between New York City apartments too often to make owning a piano a realistic option), I would always rehash the same pieces my brother and I used to study, unsure of what direction to take next, how to propel this thing—this hobby or interest or part of me—forward and make it my own again.

Recently, a combination of things—being involved in GRAND PIANO PASSION™, playing for my brother’s wedding, visiting the Steinway piano factory, coming across Sing for Hope pianos in June—pulled me back into the world of classical piano music.

My brain is tunneling deep into those chords, my fingers are ringing out the melody.

After my first practice session at Astoria Soundworks, I floated home on the giddy energy of those off-kilter eighth notes. And the next day, when Google’s homepage featured an animation of the Debussy Clair de Lune for the composer’s 151st birthday, I felt a satisfaction. I am an active participant in this world, I thought. Not only do I recognize that song, not only have I read about it and heard other people play it; but my brain is tunneling deep into those chords, my fingers are ringing out the melody.

And that, I realize, is the point of playing piano, the point of being a participant in classical music, or any music, really. Even if millions of people are learning the same song, and even if they can all play it better than I can—this active role, this being and doing inside the music, is only something I can commit to myself.

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6 Comments

  1. Loved this essay Joanna, really spoke to the essence of why we do what we do. Not because our parents or any one else forced us, because we are choosing to. What a life lesson! Looking forward to hearing you play sometime.

  2. During the roaring twenties in New York City, my great grandmother owned a large concert Steinway piano, studied under Paderewski, and played Carnegie Hall and Town Hall. She was practicing and keeping up her skills when I came along in 1944. As a little boy, I was transfixed by those deep base notes, and the power of her music. I wanted so badly to play but my dad was a colonel in the soon-to-be created Air Force and we moved all over the world in accord with his military orders. As time went by, I would get my hands on any piano I could. I needed to practice, to learn, and to practice everything I learned. Sadly that wasn’t really possible. My favorite music of all was Clair De Lune. I made a vow (not just a promise), but a VOW that before I die, I will play that music with all the tears, beauty and love that Debussy must have felt when he wrote it.
    Four years ago my wife, knowing my love for the piano, got me a full sized Yamaha key board for Christmas. From that day forward, I devoured the sheet music, and have worked ever since to fulfill my Vow. That last sentence sounded facile, but between the lines the hours were long, often unrewarding, and fraught with feelings of hopelessness and failure. However my raw passion and hard work slowly turned the tide. Today, I am an obsessed but happy eccentric piano man: I play Clair De Lune on any piano I can get my hands on, anywhere, any time. It took me 4 years of study, sweat, effort and time, and failures and successes and neck pains and back aches. My wife put up with hearing me say things like “just one last page to go!” Needless to say, this piano journey of mine is the single most beautiful, exotic, frustrating and damnably difficult thing I’ve ever done in my entire life. Naturally along the way I’ve worked through Moonlight Sonata, and a (growing) number of other classical works. I dearly adore them all. However, in my view, Debussy underwent an “out of body experience,” communed with Angels, and was empowered by God to return to his mundane body and transcribe some of the most sublime, ethereal, attenuated and sensuously gorgeous music ever bequeathed to the human race. My eyes still water when I play this music and I’m not afraid to cry openly.
    My dear wife teases me and asks me to play some country music or boogie woogie. I do these things because they make her smile, and because the killer rhythms are tons of fun. But she knows that Clair De Lune must be played at my funeral (hopefully very far away as yet!) And she congratulates me for achieving my most important item on my “bucket list.”

    • Indeed, your comment was beautiful. I have yet to meet another in this life that can describe the odd relationship I have with music. The last 8 months marks my third re entry into music. I’ve been emotionally drained, I’ve quivered in happiness and fear from my short experience with music thus far. At this point, I never want turn away from music; despite all the emotions it comes with.

  3. Hi Joanna, I came across your website because like you, I have just gone back to the piano after 20 years! And my first piece is none other than the haunting Claire de Lune. I see it’s almost been a year since this post of yours, I hope you have successfully put all your fingers on Debussy’s masterpiece. I have to say it’s such a different world now learning the piano as compared to when I was a child. The amount of online resources and youtube videos sure help put me back on course, but one thing remains…PRACTICE! 🙂

    • Debbie, thanks for your comment. I’m so glad you’ve found your way back as well. It may take me years to master such a difficult piece, but it has been a wonderful experience at least getting through the basics of learning it.

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