Mrs. Allison could always tell when I hadn’t practiced. Before my fingers ever even touched the keys, she knew. In retrospect, it was probably obvious. I’d hand her the twenty dollars from my parents, take a seat on the gaudy bench upholstered with red velvet, and instantly dive into pointless conversation to prolong the inevitable. She would let me stall. She would tell me about her children, her cats, her job at the library, I would tell her about my high school’s upcoming musical or my last cross-country race. We would talk more than she taught some days. But of course, our conversations always had to be cut short at some point. I would line my hands up on her Yamaha, take a deep breath, and then proceed to butcher the assigned song from the week prior. Courteous as ever, Mrs. Allison made my excuses for me. She would always stop my playing to tell me a story about a professional pianist who once refused to perform at a venue because his hands weren’t familiar with the new keys.
“Every piano is different,” she would tell me. “I’m sure you sounded absolutely beautiful on yours back home. You probably just aren’t used to this one.”
In my defense, she was partly right. I’ve come to learn over my years of playing that no two pianos are ever exactly the same. Some keys are smoother than others, some require more weight to fully press down. The bench could be just an inch too high or too low to comfortably hold down the damper pedal. Each sound made by the strike of a string is slightly different, even the same note, perfectly in tune. Sometimes the variation in tone alone would be enough to confuse my hands. Of course, most of my hands’ inability to play the piece was a direct result of barely looking over the music that week; her story about the professional pianist was mostly to make me feel less guilty. But there was also some truth to what she said. I think of her every time my fingers just can’t quite understand the keys.
Before I ever studied with Mrs. Allison, I took piano lessons with my elementary school music teacher. Miss Kite’s piano always sounded somehow metallic, the keys resisting just enough that pressing them down felt like a bite into something soft. They must have been spaced a millimeter further apart than the keys on my own piano; I could never stretch my hand the full octave like I could at home. She would have her students perform at a recital every May to showcase their progress to the dozen parents that attended. I remember practicing a piece called Great Wall so many times before my fourth grade recital that I didn’t need the sheet music. It was the first song I ever memorized. As soon as I sat down at the bench on stage—at a foreign instrument chipping with black paint under a sweltering spotlight—I played the wrong chord. She nodded at me from the first row of seats to take a breath and keep going.
Playing the soft, glossy keyboard that was gifted to me for my fifteenth birthday was quite a challenge after spending so much time at our century-old, weathered upright piano. My fingers would fumble and slip across the keys faster than my eyes or my mind could travel. I eventually got used to the feeling of the plastic instead of ivory, and would practice bits of songs in my bedroom with the keyboard volume almost all the way down. I stopped taking lessons halfway through high school. Instead, I’d print out songs that I could sing along to and spend hours working through the sheet music, making scribbles and notes all over the page like my past teachers did. My new method was tedious. But I still loved to play.
My keyboard felt the most like one of the first pianos I ever encountered, a smooth and sensitive baby grand in the living room of my first babysitter when I was three or four. I don’t remember much about my mornings there, but I do remember her piano. Miss Kristi wasn’t my teacher. She would help my older brother plunk out simple melodies in the morning before he caught the bus while I sat on the rug and listened. After he left for school, she would let me experiment on the piano until my Nana came to pick me up. The keys fell a half-second too quickly, ultra-sensitive to the slightest touch. They were cold and smooth, not as warm as Mrs. Allison’s. I remember that her house smelled like buttered toast and sounded like early morning cartoons. She always let me say hello to her newborn, Gracie, before I was picked up to spend the day with Nana.
The phenomenon that Mrs. Allison described really applies to every instrument, no matter how subtle. It was the same for my time in elementary school as I learned to play the trumpet. My father had gifted me his old instrument to use, the same one that he had played at my age. I remember being so excited to impress my band director with the skills I had picked up practicing over the summer before fifth grade. I had already become so familiar with its frame; the weight of it in my hand, the ridges of each valve adorned with abalone, the exact shape of the mouthpiece that my lips needed to mold to.
Becoming acquainted with an instrument makes it much less a tool to use, but an extension of the player’s body itself. And I loved my new acquaintance. I can remember one instance when my trumpet needed a deep clean and had to soak in our utility sink for a full two days. In the meantime, I was given my band director’s personal trumpet to use during rehearsal. I could barely play it. It was too soft, too malleable. It was silver instead of the honey shade of brass I knew. I made do for that rehearsal, but I was grateful when my own instrument was ready to be played the next day.
In my junior year of high school, I was asked to switch from trumpet to euphonium. It took me most of the autumn and winter to learn to read the sheet music in a different clef than I was used to. There were three valves, like a trumpet, but the fingerings for each note were not the same. A euphonium requires significantly more air pushed through its many slides and its giant bell. Sometimes I would get lightheaded during rehearsal. Eventually I made an acquaintance with the instrument, although my time playing it wasn’t long. By the end of my senior year, my fingers had just begun to melt into the valves. I was just starting to feel the vibrational hum of each note within my lungs. Perhaps with more time, I could have truly understood it. But our time was cut short. I returned the euphonium back to the school the week before graduation.
The summer after seventh grade, my brother decided that he wanted to learn how to play the ukulele. I then promptly needed to learn too. He would sit at the edge of my bed and attempt to strum the chords of our favorite songs while I sang along, until I eventually learned how to pluck with him. We never took lessons. We learned from each other, swapping the names of notes on the living room floor until we had a finished cover to perform for our parents. I got my own ukulele when he moved away to college and took his instruments with him.
Now I’ve also moved away from the living room floor. At the end of the night when my eyes are red from staring at my laptop and I don’t have the willpower to do another calculus problem, I sit on the floor of my dorm room and play. I’ll sit there for hours fighting off sleep, creating new plucking patterns and finding tabs to my favorite songs with my acoustic guitar in my lap and my back against the radiator. My fingers have become more calloused in the past few months than ever before. I sit and I play and I remember how much softer our green living room carpet was than this linoleum tiling. How this new stage of my life has brought a different feel to the keys, one that I’m unfamiliar with. A new room and a new bed in a new place. I pluck the steel strings, as cold as Miss Kristi’s keys. Her infant, Gracie, will graduate high school next spring. The shimmering white tuning knobs shine just like the abalone valves of my father’s trumpet. Passed down to me, and now to my younger brother. I feel the whirring radiator on my back and I remember the feeling of a high school orchestra permeating through my chest. My fingers do not quite know the steel strings yet. They fumble and slip and hesitate over the correct chord and I am reminded of the warm keys and Mrs. Allison, who passed away last February. Of how every piano is different. I sit and I play in the light of my desk lamp, watching as one day turns into the next.