My father bought a grand piano when I was 2 years old and my sister was 5 because he believed that there would be beautiful music that came out of it. He had been given the gift of musical instruments and lessons at various points throughout his childhood and he knew that he wanted the same for us. He took a leap in the dark, and his hope came to fruition.

Piano was one of the main threads of my life from ages 4-21. I took lessons. I practiced. I performed in recitals. I hosted my own recitals twice to honor the work that my teachers and I had done together at the end of high school and of college. I did a music minor in college. I met countless people through it and still consider some of them my closest friends. I spent a total of 31 weeks of my life from ages 8-20 at a sleepaway piano camp called Summer Sonatina as a camper and eventually a junior counselor and junior faculty member. It has been one of the most constant aspects of my life ever since I began understanding time and continuity. It was the highlight of my summers, part of average days, avoided and returned to.

Its constancy has been key to my journey of finding myself ever since then. Practicing the piano was one of the only alone times that I had my freshman year of college as I was figuring out who I was going to be – or identifying who I already was and beginning to build off that. I had space in these small rooms to be lonely, to be inspired, to face the mirror and still somewhat blank canvas of my soul and see how the music would change it.

I played tragically sad pieces.

I played pieces that rock the core and shake the largest pianos there are.

I played pieces that most people recognized.

I played pieces that were less familiar.

I played pieces that have never left my fingers, even years later being able to pick up where I left off.

I just… played. On rainy days and on sunny ones. Multiple days in a row or the slow slinking toward the practice building after a few days away, knowing that my fingers would be stiff. I kept showing up. And it was there that I was able to express what I couldn’t always in words. It was there that I could literally put my finger on something and say, “Yes – that’s what I’ve needed to say. What I’ve wanted to say. What I’ve not known how to say.”

The actual action of playing the piano is no longer part of my daily life because I have chronic pain that can be debilitating. I got diagnosed in part because of the strange posture that I had adopted in order to play challenging pieces with as little struggle as possible. Though my body looked different from other bodies while playing, nobody could understand how I was playing what I was playing despite the pain I was feeling. There were pieces of levels I could never reach because of the dexterity required – and this bothered and grieved me deeply because of the level of competitiveness that I had taken on within my soul at the time – but I look back on the pieces I played with a sense of awe and respect. The competitiveness fades away and what remains is the gratitude of having been able to do this at all, and to still play some of my less virtuosic pieces when I sit at the bench again.

Letting go of the ability to play whenever and wherever has been one of the biggest griefs of my life. I stopped lessons shortly after college ended. My senior recital was a bit of a last hoorah, and I knew this at the time, and yet I played in the moment and joy beamed across my face in ways that nobody can deny. It was an infinite moment wrapped up in the finite. That, to me, is what playing music has left within me – a sense of the infinite while still having both feet on the ground. When I sing, or play the piano, or grab the ukulele that I bought for my quarantine hobby in March 2020, or even just listen to someone else play either a solo or group piece, I am transported somewhere else, a secret place, a place that is both empty and filled, where I am alone and yet connected to the largest group I’ve ever known.

The movement of ten fingers on the keys and two feet on the pedals is threaded into every piece of who I am. I have an electric keyboard in my living room ready for whichever friend sits down at it. I can’t wait to be transported again.

Emmie Arnold

Emmie Arnold (she/her/hers) is a palliative care and intensive care hospital chaplain at a children’s hospital in New York; a candidate for ordination in the PC(USA); avid cook; traveler (on hiatus); friend and family member to many; writer; and musician.

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