Cynthia Zhang

Half an hour prior to the grand opening of my recital, my mind raced through the toughest parts in my repertoire that troubled me the most. In my previous performances, I used this strategy to alleviate the burden in my head every time since it brought me a feeling of familiarity and solace. I tried to recall what was after my cadenza in the third movement of my Mozart Concerto No.21 K.467, yet perhaps because of my churning stomach, striking heartbeats, and cold sweat on my hands, I just couldn’t. So, I whispered to my piano teacher, “Hey, do you remember what goes on after my cadenza?” She smiled reassuringly, then hummed the melody line to me. It helped me slowly visualize the notes on the score. I regained my confidence and imagined music flowing all the way from my foot on the pedal to my hands on the keyboard.

As soon as I felt my fingertips make contact with the smooth, lustrous, and delicate ivory keys of the Steinway, I knew there wasn’t stopping. Nor could I foresee what my agitated fingers would do on the keys. Would they dance? Would they perform from muscle memory? Or would they struggle to find the keys that they meant to play, then collapse? And would six months of hard work simply break down into ashes? I shook my mind out of these black and white thoughts because there became no use in contemplating what was about to happen anymore. Good or bad, I reminded myself that today I was a pianist. That meant I had to hold my obligations up to a pianist’s standards and have faith in myself. So, I told myself to smile and enjoy the process because being a pianist was a fondly cherished, once-in-a-lifetime, scarce experience.


The first half of my performance went well because I was able to successfully navigate my way through my uneasy sensation that rose from the moment I placed my fingers on the keys all the way to the moment I lifted them up. I wanted to fist-pump but knew today wasn’t the right occasion to, so instead, I did it in my head. However, maybe because I felt too good and suspected the goodness to keep guiding me after intermission, the portent began to emerge. 

Before I could stop them, my fingers carelessly manifested the latter half of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No.11. I took perfect control of them during the mellow segment, but all of a sudden, everything went wrong. My mind signaled my fingers that the ending, the most difficult bars to articulate, came. The enormous jumps played at Presto haunted me like a demon throughout these six months. I thought back to my hours and hours of vigorous practice in agony and spending full lessons working on the grand finale. But right there, I felt like skipping that part and concluding the piece right before. Soon, I gave up attempting to manage my flying yet trembling fingers. I let them keep on doing their task. 

When I finally came face to face with the demon, it manipulated the black and white keys so that they slowly dissolved into a bewildering band of colors, muddling my eyes. My fingers no longer knew which key was which. Black and white all turned gray. Flats and sharps all became naturals. I could feel my heart pounding fiercely yet vindictively, almost overriding the melody that I was barely hearing. On the verge of bursting into tears, I thought of stopping right there and apologizing to my supportive audience. But realizing that I had already gotten this far, I decided to not combat the demon. I looked away from the chaotic keyboard and sought ahead. 

Focusing on the brilliant golden strings in the interior of the piano made my ears pick up beautiful vibrations. The sounds were heavenly even when I awkwardly discerned the mistakes I made.

I realized my mistakes were as nothing compared to the aural carnival I was producing. Even though I still wasn’t sure what was awaiting me at the end, one thing I did know was that the spite and vengeance faded away. It was that very moment when my mind flashed back to another old Chinese proverb my piano teacher used to always remark — the boat will naturally dock when it comes to the port — before each performance. So, I put aside all my frets and believed that things would mend in the end. Fortunately, I was able to reclaim the smile that I had with me at the start. Applause broke in before I grasped how to panic. 


A piano has only black and white keys. But the inner journey a pianist has to go through in every single performance is so much more convoluted. And life, too, offers so much more than just two monotonous options. Don’t categorize an outcome based on good or bad, easy or tough, and happy or sad. Often, the end product develops into a mixture of countless colors jumbled up altogether. Sometimes, the colors don’t match very well, but in rare times they do. And the fortunate ones are awarded a flawless rainbow. Be attentive and observant at all times to seize these opportunities. Conjectures about the result will not lead you to anything new. Breathe instead. Let yourself be as to what you are rather than what you may be when you are apprehensive of the unfathomable depths the world surprises you with. 

Don’t judge, embrace.