Aaron Tan's Blog

28 Mar 2018

12 years of piano

“You should take some music lessons,” my Jewish first-grade teacher Ms. Ramsay says. We’re celebrating Hanukkah in class, and I had just sung an English adaptation of a song in exchange for a penny. I exchange it for a sour gummy worm. Those were my favourite.

I don’t yet own a piano, but I do have a green notebook. It has a hard cardboard cover and blanched white sheets, but not spirals, because I hate spirals. I choose it out at the Dollarama. It’s a rare treat, because my parents never let me buy much from Dollarama.

The teacher is scary, but she has a son named Daniel who is the same age as me. We become friends.

March 27 2006 is scribbled hastily on top of the first page.

I sit at the dinner table, playing middle C whole notes. The digital keyboard is loaned from a family friend and it sits on top of the aged floral tablecloth. This is below me, I think. A great mind, wasted.

I am seven years old.

Our family goes on a trip to Montréal. There’s a musty piano store where my parents buy my upright. It’s a Kawai K-21, because they hear from our piano teacher that Yamahas are too easy to press, and I need to get used to playing on a less responsive surface.

I don’t really care, because I have a Bugs Bunny plush toy I play with as they drone on about details. We buy the black one and have it shipped back to Ottawa.

Some time has passed. The piano sits against the only wall in our house that doesn’t connect with the outside, because the parents say that the humidity and changing temperature will warp the piano’s back.

The immense dining table that once seemed implacable, part of our living room as far back as I can remember, is relegated to the basement. We downsize to one that sits only four. The house feels almost alien.

The red at the top of the cover fades to a dirty white, beneath a crude drawing of piano keys that vaguely approximate stairs. Step by Step Piano, Book One.

The last piece in the book is The Highway Song.

C, B, A, G. C, E, G, F. C/E, G, C/E, G, B/D.

It covers an entire page. I’ve never played a song that covers an entire page before.

We move. I leave all my friends behind, except Daniel, because we see each other when I take piano lessons. The new house is unfamiliar except for the piano. Now there are five walls that don’t connect with the outside, and we choose one to put the piano in. It feels wrong.

Daniel and I go to the same school now. Sometimes on Tuesdays Su-jen (that’s my piano teacher’s name) picks us both up from school in the old Honda Odyssey. Sometimes she makes chicken and couscous, mostly as an in-joke, because there was a weird coincidence where every time I went there for a piano lesson they would be making chicken and couscous. We play outside and venture to the nearby park. It’s liberating. My parents would never let me do that.

She teaches me how to use a knife and a fork correctly, and her husband Wayne is appalled at how I eat steak well-done.

Clementi. A lot of alberti bass in that one.

Czerny. Su-jen lends me her book of Czerny exercises that she used. It’s green and blue. I learn to hate those pastel shades.

Für Elise. A classic that everybody knows. And I can play it.

Sometimes I bring some basic compositions and Su-jen listen to them. They’re derivatives of Czerny, but I don’t think she minds. Or at least she tells me she likes them.

Su-jen invites me to her church to play piano. The basement has a rickety old piano that’s missing some keys. Playing in front of an audience scary, but at least I sit with my back to the audience.

Some old ladies give me cookies and tell me that they enjoyed listening.

His younger brother Matthew sometimes joins us as we play. Daniel seems to really dislike his younger brother, but I don’t mind. Matthew lights up when he sees me. He tells me he hates being called Matt.

Sometimes I complain about her piano. It’s mushy, it’s hard to play, it doesn’t feel like my piano at home. She tells me I’m wrong.

“I bought this piano from my piano teacher, and it’s older than either of us are. Look at the keys; they’re ivory. That’s illegal now,” she whispers conspiratorially.

It takes me years to realize that she’s right about the quality. And also that the Mason and Gamlin is actually Mason and Hamlin. But I never tell her that.

A severe-looking lady sits behind the desk at the Baptist Church and watches me as I play. I’ve never taken an exam before, other than EQAO. I think it goes well though.

My sister starts taking piano lessons, and I start taking art lessons. She does her lesson before mine, and I take my art lessons at the same time as her.

She realizes she can never be as good at music as I am, and I recognize that my pencils will never create any beauty comparable to the magic she conjures in an instant.

I hate my art teacher and refuse to take another art lesson ever again.

Su-jen upgrades the sound system that sits next to her piano, and also moves the discs to the bookshelf underneath the plants. We listen to some of the CDs that the RCM gives us so I can prepare for my examinations.

We were never able to figure out how exactly to switch between the three-disc loader. Poking the knobs seems to help somewhat.


The last year of elementary school, and I’m getting ready for the music history examination. I get my friends to quiz me about some of my notes at recess. It’s springtime, the snow is melting, and it’s sunny outside.

I tell them about Maria in West Side Story. What a nerd.

Daniel and I begin to grow apart. We have different interests, in the end. He’s always been more athletic, but reads a lot too. I join cadets and that takes a lot of my time.

We end up going to different high schools. I use my RCM Grade 8 exam as fodder for the creative writing exercise entrance, showcasing a “unique grasp of the English language”.

Bach. Beethoven. Chopin. Debussy. Even a bit of Liszt.

(I don’t like Liszt.)

My parents decide that I won’t take any more lessons after my Grade 10 examination. I’m not surprised by this. My dad never really liked my piano playing anyway.

There’s a profound feeling of loss that comes with ending something that lasts eight years. I think I cried.

I don’t play piano for a year because it makes me sad and reminds me of past times. The plastic keyboard bears the marks of fingernail-driven love; it’s dinging and denting that comes with age. The F4 key sticks slightly as you press it down, grinding against its wooden constraints. The D3 key is noticeably louder than the other keys, because it’s the start of the next bridge. The pedals are worn, but particularly the damper pedal, because it’s been used too much.

The piano starts falling into disrepair. The sponge for the F key falls off. Dad breaks the high G# key. The extremes of the keyboard ring discordant, betraying the lack of tuning.

It’s cadets that actually gets me back playing. There’s a wooden piano moved temporarily into the main hall, and it becomes an attraction for the cadets in the summer camp.

We’re entertainment-starved and nobody prevents us from playing, so we play. Rujing sings. I accompany. The first one we play is All of Me. Then we do Adele, and Sia…

Edward thinks there’s something there. I don’t. Besides, she ends up with Gabriel.

Then comes the video game music. Chrono Trigger. Final Fantasy. I sink my teeth back into some more challenging classical pieces. Mostly Chopin, because I like his chords.

University gives me a new chance to play. At home, everybody could hear, and I could hear everybody.

I couldn’t play when my mom used her wok, because the sizzling and the steam was so loud.

I couldn’t play when my dad watched his Chinese war dramas, because nationalistic Chinese war cries are not conducive to the creation of art.

Soundproof rooms are an innovation that has not been surpassed in my books.

Sometimes I borrow Andrew’s keys. Mostly I borrow Kash’s. Then it’s off to the races.

Ellen joins me now too. She brings her violin, and we play music together. We did some Beethoven last week. I think it’s a good way to escape the stress, and has the side benefit of kicking me out of the house.

Wrong notes happen from time to time. We laugh, brush it off, and try again.

In the end, isn’t that what it’s all about?

aaron at 03:47