Practice Room 2

THOSE arpeggios, I decide, have to go faster. I reach for the metronome and set it four notches higher. With hands poised over the piano, I shut my eyes and listen to the metronome's driving clicks. The music demands abandon and I can feel it in my mind -- the sweep, the lilt. If I move my hands in large, circular motions I can do it. If I lightly ``scoop up'' clusters of notes with more wrist motion, rather than ``hammer out'' each individual note, I can do it. And relax. Think of the longer line, the melody that rides on top of all those notes -- like a graceful sailboat on a churning sea. Listen just to that. Practice Room 2, at the end of a long dark hallway, was hardly a comfortable, cozy place to play the piano. Its brick walls, dust-covered pipes, and hissing radiator would not to an even slightly sensitive musician complement the opulent airs of Chopin or Schumann.

But somehow the very bleakness of that room inspired me to make it my second home during my senior year at college. As a music major, I seemed unable to practice anywhere else. Of course, the piano itself was in good shape -- that helped -- but I felt a challenge to redeem the room, forgive its ugliness, and console its sagging ceiling. It had witnessed over the years both bland and brilliant piano practicing, and it looked tired but willing to endure yet another student's tedious attempt to hit the right notes.

But anybody who practiced hard enough could hit the right notes. More than that, I wanted to cross, by leaps of faith and fingers, from one world, cold and cluttered, into another full of light and inspiration. And the music, if I was true to it, would be the bridge.

My loyalty to the room grew even stronger because of a difficult piece I had to learn. The music faculty had invited me to play Schumann's Piano Concerto in A minor with a visiting student orchestra from West Germany. The thought of performing with an orchestra energized me -- and Room 2, despite its apparent gloominess, became my sanctuary.

I scrounged an old mattress pad to cushion the hard-edged piano bench; empty and half-gulped cups of water littered the top of the piano; pencils, paper clips, and emery boards collected around the music stand and often fell into the piano and between keys. Sometimes I donned a wool scarf and slippers at night when the heat was shut off, and every 15 minutes I shuffled to the restroom to run my hands under hot water.

The little inconveniences only pressed me to work harder. Finger drills, strengthening and stretching, riffled up and down the keyboard and resounded against the walls. The metronome pounded, and the score, defaced by my teacher's graffiti, grew limp and wrinkled.

But every beat foreshadowed the moment when, dressed in a long black skirt and white-lace blouse, I'd sit at the concert Steinway and look down the lines and lines of strings stretching away from me under the great lid and think, ``Never mind the notes now. Just make music.'' A thousand moments of assimilating, of taking from the music all I could to make it mine, would be exchanged for one moment of complete offering of self and spirit. Stone walls and solitude given up for a hundred faces and their expectant eyes.

Thinking too much about that moment sometimes overwhelmed me. One morning I went to practice, and after getting my cups of water and pencils and mattress pad organized, I just sat there and stared at the keys. Then I gazed at the strange black symbols snaking across the score. The silence, odd and lulling, unnerved me. I had to fill that emptiness. The room waited. A fluorescent light flickered. The place seemed to contradict the very nature of the task before me. It dared me to be more than mediocre, dared me to assault its cold-brick reality with the rich glow of that world on the other side of the bridge. I had to create what it said was not real.

One time I imagined myself practicing in a posh studio with Persian rugs, exotic plants, and a panoramic view of the ocean: On a small table within reach sits a gleaming glass tumbler, the kind with fluted edges filled with ice water; a soft, silky pillow cushions the piano bench, absorbs the shock of acrobatic arm leaps and thundering octaves; the sun warms my back. I play as if the whole world is listening, interpret like Ashkenazy, groan like Gould.

Of course, the fantasy ended, and I looked over the dogeared pages at my cell. A sunbeam peeked between window and shade and threw a patch of gold on the rosewood piano. I thought what a nice thing the sun is, even when I couldn't see much of it. Through the other window, I saw a gym class on the tennis courts, and students, backpack-laden, trudging to classes. I turned the metronome back on and counted ``two, three, four. . . .'' -- 30 --{et

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