Reprinted from Timbrel Magazine, Summer 2013
After more than 35 years of playing the piano I still experience moments of amazement at what my hands can do. I feel the same sense of wonder watching my friend weave an intricate pattern on cloth, my spouse maneuver small parts inside the engine of a classic automobile, or my colleague take the computer mouse and keyboard on an elegant dance to design a gorgeous website. Our hands, informed by our intellect and trained by experience, can do remarkable things.
My own story with my hands began with piano lessons at the age of seven in southeastern Pennsylvania. When I was nine, my family moved to Kingston, Jamaica for a two-year term of service with Mennonite Central Committee. I was ambivalent about my piano studies when we arrived in Jamaica but I soon landed in the studio of the highly regarded and nearly blind Mrs. Foster-Davis. Once I was past her foreboding gated entrance and two large guard dogs, I settled at one of her two grand pianos and she pulled out a magnifying glass to inspect my hands. I was assigned new music that seemed far too difficult for me, but also had more time to practice in the slower culture we found in Kingston. School ended before lunch at home and the afternoons loomed large, pulling me towards the piano to play. The convergence of time, strong teaching, and parental support took me to a very different level of facility and sight reading ability by the time we returned to Pennsylvania. I was no longer ambivalent; my hands were good at playing the piano.
During a teenage period in which I questioned my future direction in life there was a critical moment of recognizing piano in my identity. A community group was preparing a production of the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. A piano accompanist was unavailable at an early rehearsal and I received a desperate call to fill in at the last minute. The sight-reading and technical tasks of the evening’s rehearsal were daunting for a sixteen-year old, but to my surprise I was able to meet the demands. I felt alive with awareness as my hands followed the music and during a break the director approached me with enthusiastic affirmation. Her kind words led me to a quiet corner in the church building where I could succumb to tears of gratitude. I thanked God for a gift to call my own and more fully embraced the possibility that the movement of my hands at the keyboard would in some way shape my future.
Over time my naïve ideas of a gift bestowed upon my hands evolved into a mature understanding of what the gift actually was. In college I learned how to practice more strategically and as I was educated to be a piano teacher my appreciation for the concept of training took hold. It was tempting to fall into habits of envy and comparison when observing what seemed to be superior hands in a classmate or colleague. But every practice session brought me back to the role of training in talent development. It was those hours invested at the piano, all the better if my mind was focused and engaged, that empowered my hands. God’s gift to me was time and opportunity. Every child and adult deserves this same gift of time and opportunity for talent to emerge in his or her hands, whatever the craft may be.
My hands have been through dormant stages in recent years and I worry they will lose their abilities at the keyboard. I am reassured as a slow and steady return to the instrument wakes up my hands to find the sublime in a simple melody and the playfulness of a sprinting scale passage. Some of the strength and agility of my teenage and young adult years is lost but I have gained more of the same with a technique that better integrates my hands, wrists, arms, shoulders, and whole body. Some of the brash confidence of my youthful sight-reading and memorization forays is gone, but I now study and investigate the music I am playing with a more informed curiosity. I am learning that new gifts come with age.
When someone asks, “But how do their hands do that?” about the violin virtuoso or the pottery maestro, I join in their admiration and then say, “It is amazing what training and time enable in our hands.” Keeping my own hands moving as I grow older will be both a responsibility and a joy.