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Davis, California

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Music lessons

There are eight notes in an octave, five fingers on a hand, 86,400 seconds a day that I tend to waste on sleeping, eating or trolling the Internet. Zero seconds a day that I spend tapping out tunes on the keyboard in the living room of my apartment.

I’m a terrible pianist; I’ll admit to that. This is not me being modest – trust me, trust me. I only picked up a musical instrument in elementary school because of my father, who is the kind of person who likes to dabble in every musical instrument possible. At last count, we had four violins, two guitars, a clarinet and a piano. I think there may have been some experimentation with a saxophone at one point as well.

Me? My formal musical training consists of two excruciating years of piano lessons, a year in my elementary school choir and two years in middle school spent pounding out hymns on the piano for church services and Nativity plays.

Point is, I’m not that musically inclined. Sure, I’ll spend time tinkering away a song or two whenever I’m home, but it’s not something that I feel passionately about. It’s more something that comes out when I’m bored, or when my cousin is over and we’re trying to learn a song together.

Do you know the theme to Super Mario Bros.?

No, but I bet we could learn. Let me find the sheet music…

And then we’ll spend a few hours laughing, banging out incorrect notes and sharing bowls of Neapolitan ice cream. That’s the niche that playing music fills in my life.

That is, unless it’s forced upon me. I’m at home for spring break, visiting my grandmother in the nursing home. It is the one year anniversary of my grandfather’s funeral, and I’m trying to keep her spirits high. Small talk in hesitant Vietnamese – the constant reiteration of facts to right her dementia-eaten memory.

Yes, I have a brother. No, he’s not getting married – he’s only 15, remember? Oh God, no I don’t have kids yet. Cue nervous laughter from the relatives in the room. We are sitting in the visiting room and my aunt gestures toward the piano and says, Mai Linh, why don’t you play something for grandma?

I sit down at the bench and I am stumbling over some bars of music, my foot touching the pedal with uncertainty when another resident rolls through the door in a wheelchair. She is dressed in a fuchsia jacket and has red lipstick on, despite the fact that there is nowhere else to go – this one-story structure of white walls and linoleum tiling serves as a waiting room to someplace I’d rather not think about.

Hello, she says when I stop playing. I was just coming by and I wanted to know if I could sit here and listen while you played?

I pause, embarrassed. Do you play? I ask, stalling for time.

Her eyes brighten. Oh yes, I’ve played since I was 10. I’m 98 now, and I still play an hour a day.

Oh, I respond awkwardly. She seems so eager that I cannot refuse, and so I haltingly play through Chopin’s Waltz in A minor before trailing off at the end. I’m sorry, I say. That was awful.

No, no dear, she smiles. I’ve been playing for 88 years. You’ll get there someday.

I shake my head, knowing that she’s wrong. And then I scoot my plastic chair backward, leaving the space in front of the piano open for her wheelchair. Do you want to play something?

Why yes, if you want me to. She releases the footrest and places her swollen foot gingerly on the piano pedal, and I see her face brighten as she cranes her neck forward, resting bent fingers against familiar keys.

And as she leans into the notes, delivering the cadences of long memorized notes, I can almost understand. I can almost feel the all-encompassing role that music plays in every part of her life, in every part of her history.

Eighty-eight years ago, she was a 10-year-old girl named Florence, swinging her legs from a piano bench for the first time. And even now, she can go back to that at any second with the right instrument on hand.

I can only hope to find my own instrument someday.

 

TERESA PHAM wants to know what your favorite body of water is and why. Send your answers to terpham@ucdavis.edu so she can psychoanalyze your response. XXX

 

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