By Kurt Joshua O. Comendador
It was the summer at the end of fifth grade. My brother, after seeing a violin ensemble perform at our church, managed to convince my parents to enroll him in music lessons. He wanted to play the violin, but my parents believed that he should start with the piano in order to establish a solid musical foundation.
“Ubani lang imong manghod, Kuy. Pa-lesson lang sad ka’g apil.”
I agreed to go. After all, what was I to lose? Never did I know that it would be one of the most important decisions in my life.
Learning the piano is roughly the same as going to school: you start in Kindergarten (Kinder A and B), and then Grade 1 until Grade 8. I finished the Kinder B book in a month, skipping the entire Kinder A book. Maybe because of my age, I quickly understood what was being taught to me. I was promoted to Grade 1 right after. The pieces got more complex, so I needed to practice more often to keep up. As I learned and mastered one piece after another, I got this satisfaction I couldn’t describe. The joy of playing the pieces was very pleasurable sensation. The gliding of the fingers through the black and white keys of the keyboard had a very intimate feeling to it. Playing the right keys, hearing the right notes, magnified these feelings a hundred times over. I played the piano with vigor. I was young then, very passionate.
An obstacle appeared when I was in Grade 6: I got busier and lost my time for piano lessons. I spent my time practicing and learning alone. By this time, I had improved a bit and started playing church hymns, most of which were arranged with four voices. Meaning, I had to read and play multiple notes at a time. It was a hard and taxing effort, one which required multitasking: identify the notes, find the right keys, position the fingers, to name a few. It also required patience and dedication.
“Pag makahuman ka og isa ka piyesa, Kuy, hatagan tika’g dyis,” my father would tell me.
I got more motivated than ever. Getting 10 pesos was a good reward for me back then, coupled with the happiness of playing a piece. Whenever I mastered a piece, I couldn’t wait to play it during our evening family worships, always gleaming with pride and pleasure.
The piano, for me, was a way of life. I needed to practice every single day. A day without practice was a wasted day. There was one time when my little 54-key electric keyboard, bought from a surplus store, got broken and was not repaired for three months. Missing three months of practice was a very big deal for me, especially that I’d already claimed to be a pianist. So, like a good musician, I practiced without sounds. It was boring and dull, but I needed to keep my senses sharp and keep myself from, so to speak, accumulating rusts.
The year 2013 was one of the best years of my life. I started following the Boston Red Sox and watched them become the world champions in October, in that year. I also bought the very first book in my collection. It was also in that year that my parents finally managed to buy a real piano: a Trebel Vertigrand. I was also starting to play at our church as a substitute pianist. I’d always give the song leader, however, a list of the songs I could play.
It was all the same throughout the year: lessons, practice, play. I was always craving for more. I had the thirst for learning and playing the most difficult pieces. I wanted to be a concert pianist. I wanted people to see me at my best in a concert hall, just me and my piano up the stage. When I was in high school, if anyone asked me what I wanted to be, I would almost always answer, “Concert pianist.” Although I also wanted to be a pilot, I thought that it was too ambitious.
At the end of high school, like almost everyone, I had to pick a course for college. That was the moment my dream took a huge detour. My song changed from a major key to a minor key.
“Gusto nako mag-music school, My,” I opened up to my mom.
“Dili man na puwede kay dapat mag-professional jud ka,” my mom replied.
I couldn’t understand. Why couldn’t I follow my dream? Was it about the money? The nature of work? I couldn’t understand. Wasn’t music a profession?
My parents and I fought over it for some time. These fights were sometimes so bitter it could leave my mother crying.
“Gusto ko ninyo mag-abogado kay gusto ninyo modato. Tanan wala ninyo nabuhat, ipabuhat ninyo sa ako,” I would blurt out sometimes.
My parents are both professionals. My mom is a registered pharmacist, and my dad is an engineer. I couldn’t understand them at all. Why didn’t they want me to become a professional pianist? Why couldn’t they let me chase after my dream?
Bitter and rejected, I followed them. I enrolled in the English program of Mindanao State University in our city. But still I continued my piano-playing. When I reached college, it all became too much. I knew I was running out of time.
I’d gone through many music teachers, but the last teachers I had were by far the most influential, as they were the ones I ran to when I was already mature enough to understand things.
The words of Ma’am Malou seemed like a distant echo: “Talented kaayo ka, Kurt, ba. Pag-apas sa akoa sa Cavite ha? Didto ka mag-school sa CUP.”
Ma’am Marian introduced me to technical playing, improving my touch to the keys. She always emphasized that I should play with emotions, to harness them to enhance my performance. Our lessons were always filled with her friendly, albeit sometimes fierce, reminder to “keep it soft, don’t band the keyboard.” She pledged to help me enter a music school, even offering to give lessons for free.
Then came Ma’am Dianne, my last teacher, but the first one who encouraged me to finish my current degree first. “Tapusin mo na lang muna ‘yung degree mo. Tapos tutulungan kitang makarating sa Maynila.” She refined my skills and helped me in interpreting pieces according to the period they were composed and who composed them. She would help me with a condition: I must return to GenSan to help other aspiring musicians.
To each of them, I only had the same reply: “Sige, ma’am, apas ra ko sa inyo puhon.” I always said that with a reassuring smile.
I’ve always believed that I can do it and catch up with my former music teachers. But deep inside, downcast feelings engulf me. My mentors always support me, confident that I will follow their words. But at this rate, I know I’m already letting them down. I’m losing hope. I no longer have the fire that fueled me before. I remember my friends: Ate Jasmin and Kuya Sid. They want me to be music majors like them. I always thought that I could be like them. But that was before.
I can only hope that I could meet them someday, not as their student, but as their equal. I believe that no matter how skilled he/she is, an amateur pianist can never equal a professional one, except perhaps the gifted ones. But what a truly great day that would be: when my dream finally becomes a reality, when it’s time that my life transposed into a major key.
Sitting by the piano tonight, I remember the musical pieces I used to play. The night is young and quiet, a good time to play music. A sonatina by Clementi is a good piece to start. The first few notes are heavenly. Full of emotions, I close my eyes and play it by memory. Years of practice has imprinted that piece into my mind and body. It all feels like a blur, a glitch, a painful memory. I’ve lost my tempo, I’ve lost my tension. But still, with my eyes closed, fingers bumping each other every once in a while, I tap away on the piano keys.