Dr. Brown, a musical virtuoso from whom I took piano lessons as a girl, had just announced that I was going to be performing in an April recital. He was a keenly-intelligent man, with tortoise shell glasses and fine dark hair that flopped down on his forehead when lost in the passionate performance of a Liszt sonata.
That afternoon we were going to find something “fun” for me to play in front of 20 other students and all their friends and relatives. As a third grader, the very idea of this kind of public exposure was like swallowing ice.
I never crossed paths with Dr. Brown’s other students, so I had no idea of what to expect. My mother just dropped me for lessons at the Brown’s split-level behind the mall and left me for 30 minutes every Friday afternoon. I wanted to please Dr. Brown, but not enough to practice. All week I’d pound out pieces I already knew and then, sick with fear, go to my lesson and stumble through the piece I hadn’t attempted since it was assigned.
Dr. Brown always said, “I can see that you’ve practiced,” which made me wonder if Dr. Brown was testing me, being sarcastic, or was perhaps, terribly poor and in need of the $6.75 he was paid each time I showed up clutching my Bach Inventions.
On the day of the recital, I was nauseous with anxiety. We gathered in the very utilitarian educational hall of a church on Route 2, with its linoleum floor and high windows—much like a gym. Or a prison. The piano had been angled so that the audience could see your fingers. It was blond—which seemed wrong.
Dr. Brown’s other students sat on the aisles, scattered throughout the rows of metal chairs. I checked them out as if I’d just discovered siblings when I had hoped I was an only child.
The girl performing just ahead of me sported a silky ponytail, wore nylons and clearly practiced. She was playing “Rhapsody in Blue” with an orange. Fun! In her left hand, she grasped the leathery fruit and every time she crossed her left hand over her right to hit a note, she did it with the orange. The applause was spectacular.
I heard my name called from very far way, having pretty much left my body by then. I walked to the front of the room in my short white socks knowing I should adjust the bench but to prolong the attention would have been unbearable.
My mother thought this experience was good for me because 1) girls should know how to play the piano and 2) she believed suffering makes you a better person. Suffering gives you substance. Depth. Wisdom. She also believed that if there are two ways of doing something, you should choose the hardest way. That too, would make you a better person. It is a philosophy a lot of us were raised to believe. That life is a school, adversity builds character; loss makes you real.
I’ve been unlearning this of late and it was not Dr. Brown who made me reassess this theory but my friend Ed who happens to be a minister. I was flopped on an easy chair in his office going on about how hard I was working to improve, when Ed said meditatively, “Hmmmmm, I’m pretty sure the universe doesn’t require perfection.” Ed actually said “God,” but “universe” seems more inclusive.
I walked to my car a bit stunned at the ramifications of that thought. If perfection isn’t required, maybe life isn’t a school with tests for advancement. Maybe school is an overly simplistic, very human paradigm, placed over something too great to comprehend—a perfection that has always been there, can’t be earned, that doesn’t recognize hierarchies. It just is.
Last summer I was in my office listening to a webinar on intuition. The instructor put us through a guided meditation, and out of nowhere Dr. Brown popped into my head. I had not heard his name, nor thought of him in 45 years, but a wave of energy moved through me like music, and his name stayed with me like a refrain.
Later that night I went online to see if I could find him. Brown is a common name, I added, “composer, performer, piano,” before I found the right man. He had died leaving behind an adopted son I remembered as an adorable little blond who played quietly in another room during my lessons.
In May, NASA released the sonification of the black hole at the center of the Perseus Galaxy. It is spinning through space in the key of b-flat, 57 octaves below middle C.
I read years ago that Earth itself rotates through the solar system in the key of b-flat. I wish I could ask Dr. Brown if this is true.
What I suspect is true, is that life is not a performance up for unforgiving review.
It’s a symphony, it’s a ballad.
It’s a love song.
Laura J. Oliver is an award-winning developmental book editor and writing coach, who has taught writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College. She is the author of The Story Within (Penguin Random House). Co-creator of The Writing Intensive at St. John’s College, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, an Anne Arundel County Arts Council Literary Arts Award winner, a two-time Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website can be found here.