Expression and Emotion in Piano Playing


September 27, 2012

A few weeks ago, a student expressed her difficulty in expressing emotion in her playing. I promised her that I would share with her what I did to express mine. Here is the story:

I had this dear loving Grandma of mine (my Dad’s mom) when I was little, for around ten precious years. I remember she was the one who loved me best, or the only one who ever loved me (as what I always thought). There are a few incidents that I still recall quite vividly these days-

My family would visit my Grandparents regularly when I was young. One time when I was at my Grandparents’ place (I think I was about six or seven), my Grandpa went out to the balcony, and I followed him. He closed the door on my hand, without knowing I was behind him. Although my hand was squeezed tightly at the doorjamb, all purply and bruised, I did not make a sound, let alone cried. Fortunately after a brief while my Grandma saw me standing there all quiet and quickly pulled my hand out of the closed door, scolded my Grandpa who was ignorant of what had happened to me, the little one whom he suspected was mute (I did not cry or make much sound when young).

I went to a dinner gathering with my family and my Grandparents. In the middle of the gathering, my Grandma took me to a toy store and bought me this little tiny pink bear with a green bow tie on (I know, as now I think about it, the combination of colors must be horrendous, but I loved it to bits and pieces). I kept it for the longest time as I possibly could.

My Grandparents would come to our place too for visits. One time I played Chinese snookers with my brother, and after that my Dad asked me to clean up and pack the things back. For some reason I thought it was unfair that I was the one responsible for that chore, and I refused to do so. My Dad beat me hard on my legs with the snooker cue. Thanks to my Grandma’s presence, I was beaten up much less as I would be otherwise. I believed my legs were broken and cried full-heartedly with much pain (yes this time I did cry). My Grandma soothed me gently in her embrace and told me not to cry… I thought I did not have to go to school next day due to my “broken” legs. Unfortunately, I was in school as usual the day after.

When I was nine, my Grandparents left us and moved to the States for good. One usual summer day when I was ten, I got the most terrible news of my life (at that time). My Grandma died of a heart attack, alone on the street in a foreign country, just in the middle of a leisure walk. No one was quick enough to save her…

Since the death of my Grandma, I almost cried every day, or every single time I thought of her (which was very frequent). And remember the little pink bear stuff animal with a green bow tie she gave me? One random day my dear Dad decided to just throw it away, believing that it, with other stuff animals that I had, were “completely useless” and took up “too much space” in my room. I could not begin to tell you how much I wanted it back since then, if I could ever find one similar to that my Grandma gave me…

Like every other youngster, I did not know how to express emotions in my playing, which was just about precise execution. I tried so hard to show any emotions but to no avail. What was I lacking? One day I was playing a piece full of sadness and melancholy. Then, I decided to use my own experience and the sad emotion I ever felt in my brief life. So every time before I tried to play this piece, I thought about my Grandma. The memory of and feeling about her brought me to tears and much sorrow. I expressed this emotion I felt into my playing. Although it hurt me every time I thought of her, this practice technique worked for me every time as well that I could apply this emotion well into my playing.

I cannot not recall when was the last time I saw my Grandma, or about the details of our times together. But I always remember her as a strong-willed and gentle woman, who brought my Dad up in those days of gloomy economy and difficult situation. There is nothing left behind my Grandma for me, except a ring she left to my Mom. I take it as my remembrance of this beautiful woman, who is always my guidance to keep strong when I am lost. Whenever I go for some important events or play in big concerts, I would put in on my left index finger. I would look at it from time to time, and it just gives me this sense of consolation and comfort. I would look at it, kiss it – or rather, my Grandma – and say – “you see this, Grandma, I am doing this now, aren’t you proud of me?”

When you put your genuine emotion in your playing, your audience would feel it too.

Can you see the ring on my index finger?

Teresa Wong

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