I didn’t begin piano for pleasure. In fifth grade, math was my nemesis, an unremitting struggle. I felt myself a free spirit, not to be contained by the postulates and rigidity that marked mathematical thinking. My father mentioned studies correlating piano study with improved math skills, suggesting that they work similar parts of the brain. Maybe this was another way; I was intrigued.

Eager and ready to jump-start success in my weak spot, I was naive about the hours of practice, the tedious, methodical skill building to ensue, unaware of what I would discover about myself. I faced the same kinds of frustrations I detested in math: rigid rules, numbers, precision, strange codes. It was: back straight, fingers curved, foot planted on the pedal, eyes fixated on the notes. And if I loved the melody, and began to sway, my strict Russian teacher, Marina, would say, “You not move! – You move when it perfect, no mistakes.”

My fingers hurt bridging “Moonlight Sonata,” tips were sore during Tchaikovsky’s “Reverie Du Soir”; my mind swooned with black and white notes, lines and counts. It was hard. My brain ached.

There was no quitting; I had a goal, and I knew upon whose piano I was playing. This elegant mahogany upright represented the strength of my great-grandmother, my namesake, whose sweatshop-labor supported her family, who saved in pennies to buy this piano, determined to restore and transmit the culture and beauty of the Vienna she had fled yet loved so dearly. Four generations have now sat at its bench: my great-grandmother, my grandmother, my mother, and I. Her perseverance and passion flow through the ivory keys, challenging me to change my destiny.

Slowly I came to appreciate the precision and stiffness that pained me, because they eventually enabled me to sway back and forth with my eyes closed and still know where my fingers go and where to count the beat; to play Pocahontas’s “Colors of the Wind” with my heart and love of the lyrics; to deliver an ode of recognition to my great-grandmother when I play “Edelweiss.” How often have I come from school triumphant or downtrodden, brain throbbing from symbols and rules, only to drop my bags and head straight to the piano? How greatly have my dance routines sharpened as Marina counts in my head: “And vun and two, tree and foor.” I owe much to my mathematical struggle, which pressed me to transform weakness into strength, disability into ability; that opened new realms and enabled me to see a Magister Ludi-like synthesis of knowledge that connected me to the struggles and determination of a world gone by.

As for my mathematical epiphany, perhaps it was a placebo, and I simply needed confidence that hard work will pull you through. But I believe that my breakthrough came because I appreciated and understood my area of weakness, the reason for its strictness and rules; through the keys of my piano, I saw beauty in math. And as it turns out, my free spirit was not chained by preciseness and structure; it was simply enhanced by it. Piano, as much as it is a practice of exactness, is an activity of the soul.

Nightly, as I pour my day’s joys and difficulties into black and white notes, I think of the strength that runs in my blood because of the determined woman who slaved for this piano; I exercise the work ethic and methodology Marina ingrained in me, and I ponder a different application of John Locke’s philosophy of ‘tabula rasa,’ that the mind is what you decide to make it. Tale as old as time: My Achilles heel became my consoler, my triumph, part of the beginning of my life’s conquests and story — but only because I willed it so. Is a talent just a natural endowment, something to which one is predisposed? I beg to differ.




TiferetTiferet Schafler is a senior at Stella K. Abraham High School for Girls.  She resides in Long Beach, New York with her parents and three younger brothers. Tiferet spends her time taking piano lessons, teaching dance part time at Studio Inna, reading and writing.

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