I sit down at the keyboard my parents bought me — a thoughtful gift meant to let me continue doing something I loved as a kid. But as I squint at my well-worn music binder with its Xeroxed music, the notes have become a foreign language. My fingers feel stiff, my eyes get lost between my hands and the pages. The instrument now feels like little more than a bitter reminder of a gift I have lost.
I used to be really good at the piano. I mean pageant-girl good, with the dramatic banging of chords and the swaying to and fro. When was 18 I even did an hour-long solo recital, where I played Liszt, Ravel, Grieg, and Gershwin, plus a ten-minute Bach concerto alongside my teacher.
Weeks prior, my teacher had suggested we film the recital, but I flatly refused, because I knew by then that I fell apart under pressure. I’d get nervous, my hands would freeze up, then I’d botch a piece I’d played well a million times at home and suddenly the joy of my talent would be tainted. I thought if I was being filmed, I would get too nervous and not be able to play well, and so I refused to let her record it. I invited a few friends and my immediate family, and the memory of myself as the solo-recitalist has all but faded into obsolescence.
My love for the instrument had nothing to do with performing it. My love developed as I sat alone at the piano bench, safe in my parents’ home, in a world that felt like my own. My love grew as I plunked out note after note, enthralled in the puzzle of black dots that, when sorted out, created something beautiful. It was a sort of therapy for me; my mind engaged, and yet free from the woes of teenagerhood. Eventually I got better and the puzzle grew more puzzling, scribbled over in a neon mess of marker that still calls to mind my teacher’s passionate voice saying, USE YOUR WRISTS or DON’T RUSH! I spent hundreds, maybe thousands of hours practicing the piano, and it taught me the joy that is using my mind and body to create.
Three months after my senior recital I went off to BYU, where my talent for the piano was as ordinary as my blonde hair. The most available piano was conspicuously placed in the Cougareat, where hundreds of kids sat eating every day. It shocked me how often the bench was occupied by some over-achieving BYU student playing Jon Schmidt or The Man From Snowy River. I’d sit eating my L&T wrap and think, what a showoff.
My fingertips became otherwise occupied by my new major and minor, typing up stories and poems, headlines and taglines, all at the breakneck WPM that was the undoubted result of so many scales.
I threw my next ten years into developing a talent for writing, and it’s strange, because even though it is an entirely different art, I still find myself paralyzed by the fear of sharing it.
A few months ago, I went to a church activity centered on sharing talents. The flier made references to how we should not hide our lights under a bushel, but place them on a candlestick for all to see!
Before it started, a friend expressed her nerves to me – she’d been asked by the gung-ho activity coordinator to sing the song from Moana.
“Wait – do you sing?” I asked her.
She shrugged, “I mean – in my car.”
She took the stage and sang anyway. She sang the Moana song, complete with strolls across the stage and looks off into the distance. And everyone stood and cheered and sang with her, and it was such a joyous three minutes.
As I watched her and others that night, I saw women reclaiming talents as nothing more complicated than that – a source of joy. I saw them saying to hell with perfection and finding more pleasure in sharing than skill. It struck me as sad that I hadn’t been asked to perform, not because I would have agreed to, but because under the guise of modesty I had done such a good job hiding my talents, no one even knew I had any.
In the days following the activity, I got thinking about my lapsed talents. I remembered my very first piano instructor, with her hairsprayed bouffant and pink frosty lipstick, who would stand before each recital and say, “Now remember, there is nothing tragic about making a mistake. The only tragedy is in playing your piece without expression.”
I remembered her basement music school – how we got to shop for candy twice a year with the Music Bucks we’d earned. I pictured her signature drawing of a curved finger, and how she would exclaim, “hot dog!” when I played with an especial amount of expression. I thought of her coming to my wedding, and how touched I was she’d remembered me after all those years.
From so early on, I was taught there was nothing wrong with making a mistake. Why did I not internalize that message?
I didn’t want to post this piece. I was worried the mere mention of having talents would sound like a humble brag, or even an overt brag. Maybe I just wanted an excuse to not put it out into the world.
But then in yoga today, my instructor Lisa told a story about an ancient sage, who spent his lifetime studying yogic philosophy and became an expert, but died alone having shared his knowledge with no one. The gods grant him another life, which he spends the same way – filling his mind with knowledge but dying alone. Finally in his third life, the man decides to share his knowledge. He becomes a teacher, a guru, and after this death, the gods grant him the exaltation of a sage – having finally found the purpose of life, he can finally move on from it.
I love the way Lisa weaves stories into her classes. She gives them to us in snippets, sharing another chapter each time we come to down dog, theming each class so that your peak pose coincides with the yogic parable that inspired it.
Her theme in yesterday’s class was that true joy lies not simply in having gifts, but in sharing them. I felt an amen in my body, and then it struck me – she calls them gifts, not talents.
There is a difference between those words.
It struck me that perhaps I have acquired so much grief around my talents because I see them as things that win beauty pageants.
I see them as things to be shared only when or if they can be flawlessly performed. I see them as things you put on a resume, things you earn and then turn around and use to earn more praise and adoration.
Lisa sees them as gifts. “Gifts” implies a level of grace and godliness and divinity. Gifts are inherently social – their purpose is to be shared in order to bring joy. Gifts are given, not earned.
I unearth my piano binder again, with its broken spine and sticky plastic cover, and flip it open to my favorite of the pieces from my old repertoire – a sprawling Liszt dazzler I don’t quite remember well enough to play with expression, however imperfectly.
It is torturous, how clumsily my fingers now play it. I am forced to play one hand at a time, slowly, using the cursed metronome.
Playing it with fresh eyes, I now see that the piece is an essay. The first page is its thesis statement, and each section thereafter an iteration on the theme of those original eight notes. It is something my brain would never have noticed had my fingers not spent so many years writing.
I sit at my keyboard, puzzling over the tangled mess of music, re-engulfed in that old familiar world of my own, where I look at the clock to see an hour has passed and wish I had more time to give.
I don’t quite know how to reconcile my talents with the fear that always accompanies sharing them. Maybe it simply takes practice. Maybe they don’t always need to be shared. But I am trying to shift how I view them — from performing to creating, from something earned to something given.
From talents, to gifts that are meant to be shared, with mistakes and much expression.