Eighty-Eight Keys

Abby Siegel  |  5 min read


I sit down on the piano bench. It stands in front of the black and white beast, polished lacquer, ebony and ivory keys standing at attention, almost smiling, waiting patiently for me to touch them.  I have probably sat here a thousand times before.  But this time is different.  It is my last practice session before the biggest audition I will ever play.  In just two hours I will sit in the empty concert hall, at the Steinway grand in front of a panel of judges. I know they will be pleasant and cordial, but the competition will be stiff and they will be all business. They will wait patiently for me to settle in and then one of them will say, “Whenever you’re ready, Abby.”  I will play and they will listen.  Some will smile, some will be stone-faced, and some will write notes, scoring my performance on their adjudication sheets as I perform.  When I have finished they will thank me politely and I will be escorted from the hall.  My mother will be waiting for me right outside,—she’ll pretend she wasn’t, but I will know that she was listening at the door—trying to appear casual, but in fact breathing a huge sigh of relief that another performance is over.  She plays too, and so she understands.  

I take a deep breath and get set to run through the piece.  It is long and fast and complicated and I must play from memory.  My teacher once said it’s a little like jumping off the high board. You can’t hold back. You can’t think too much about what you are about to do.  You just have to have a ridiculous amount of confidence in yourself. Throw caution to the wind and plunge in with both feet.  “You must play with your ears.  Your ears are very good.  They are your greatest gift, Abby.  Hear the music.  Feel it.  You have played this song hundreds of times.  Just let your muscle memory take over.”  The voice of my teacher echoes in my mind.  I am on edge, but it settles me.  I play.  I run through the song three times – about 20 minutes of my hour-long practice session.

I stop to catch my breath and I look around the living room – the room I have practiced in hundreds of hours over the past nine years.  My eye settles on the portrait of my sister and me hanging over the mantle.  I was five, she was seven.  We are all dressed up in fancy party dresses and pearls, our hair in ballerina buns, our feet bare, posed on a velvet couch against a stately background.  My mother says we look like angels and I guess she’s right.  Was I really that young when I started my lessons?  I remember that my feet didn’t even reach the pedals of the piano.  But I loved to play.  I loved everything about it, right from the start.  And, I have to say that if it’s possible I love it even more today than I did back then.  Not that it’s been all “rainbows and smiles”…

There have been a lot of struggles along the way.  Sure, I have always practiced. (I don’t think I’ve missed a day in nine years.) But, I haven’t always practiced the correct way – the way I was told to.  And, for this I have paid the price of being on the receiving end of some very harsh scolding when lesson time came around.  I’m talking about the kind of talking-to that makes you barely able to wait until you can get out of the room, because you know you’re on the verge of tears.  But, it’s a funny thing; those low points always seem to be followed by better times.  For I have come to realize that my teacher knows what is best for me, and I have come to trust her – to understand that if I do exactly what she tells me to do, I will have great success. I have learned first hand about the good things that can come from self-discipline. That, boring as it can be to play a short passage 50 or 100 times in a row, if you are willing to put in the work, after playing those measures 100 times, you will see the results you are looking for. That, when you are itching to play the song fast (I have been called a speed demon, and I guess it’s a fair label) you must resist and play it s-l-o-w-l-y … v-e-r-y                 s-l-o-w-l-y  – over and over and over again.  And then, a funny thing will happen:  The next day you will play it faster than you ever have before, with your fingers literally flying over the keyboard as if possessed by demons.

My eyes turn back to the keys.  There are eighty-eight.  Eighty-eight of them, against a player’s ten fingers, fingers which my teacher has told me time and time again I need to control.  “They work for you, not the other way around,” she says.  I look at my fingers, place them in position and play again.  As I play, I hear it and I feel it.  And, I play with confidence.  “Playing is visual, Abby.  Your sound is beautiful, but your look needs to be too.”  I have learned to follow the advice my teacher has given me time and time again:  “Take control.  Take control of the piece, the instrument, and the audience.  You are in charge.”  I have learned to carry myself with greater poise, to “play through” little glitches without grimacing or dropping my shoulders in defeat.  And so, I play on, running the piece five more times.      

The hour is up.  It’s time to go.  It would be a lie to say I’m not nervous, but there’s another feeling inside me too:  satisfaction.  I have worked very hard on this song – devoted a year of my life to it, to be exact – and I have taken a great step forward in my playing.  A palpable sense of calm sets in, quite enough to take the edge off my nerves; it’s the feeling you get when you can take a brutally honest look inside and know you’ve given your best.  I think I’m ready for the judges.