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Last Saturday. I moved to Albany, into my own apartment—not one of those shoddy college dorms that pass for “apartments” but an actual, fully-fledged unit—to start my four-year foray into medical school. Biology and medicine have long been my passions (my seventh-grade English teacher recalls my aspiration to become a doctor), and for good reason: life is a quasi-miraculous phenomenon, where the sheer number of things that have to occur simultaneously and sequentially for its existence is unfathomable. When you think about it, the true surprise is that death is not more common in our world, that people all around us are not collapsing from a failure in one of the myriad systems essential to our daily existence.
In the study of medicine, the word “death” often turns into a synonym for failure. Heart failure, renal failure, hepatic failure—all are causes of death, that antithesis of life, that surprisingly rare occurrence. This creates, intentionally or not, a layer of separation between the student and the concept of death. It allows us, as medical students, to treat and see death clinically, to distinguish the act of dying from the person committing it. We put on our veneer of objectivity, and describe the death in terribly complicated words, memorizing why and how it happened and discarding the rest. So, when death occurs outside of a classroom, outside of a textbook, it’s difficult to deal with it. The layer of separation disappears, and we, the medical students, are once more regular human beings struggling to comprehend the bereftness and pain and permanence accompanying it.
Last Saturday, my piano teacher’s life ended. He died in his own house, with his family, in utmost privacy. His death, shockingly sudden, seems irrational to me. After all, I saw him not two months ago. Sure, he had been recovering from a stroke, but his health had been improving, and the authority that had always marked his voice was returning. His vast knowledge of piano, of music, of life, was undamaged, and he, as always, taught me infinitely more than how to play the piano at that final lesson. He told me that he wanted to see my brother, and that he had missed giving his regular lessons in his school.
The French School of Music, founded by Yvonne Combe, student of Marguerite Long, a renowned Parisian pianist who premiered pieces of Debussy, was my musical home from the age of ten. My teacher made sure I knew of its history (his history he never mentioned; he studied at the Geneva Conservatory, which was founded my Franz Liszt, a fact I gleaned by sneaking a peek at his diplomas in his house), the history that became my history when I enrolled as a student at his school. I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that I began to enjoy the piano soon after I switched to my teacher from another lady—a slightly addled Ukrainian lady who spent half the lesson snoring and the other half showing me pictures of her son. With my teacher, the piano became more than just a means for making “correct” sounds—it became a means of release, a means of independence, a means of catharsis. In a house of educated parents, it was good to have something in which I was the expert. Perhaps my parents could tell me that I was solving a math problem incorrectly, but they could not tell me anything about my piano playing—that was mine alone.
For eleven years I studied with my teacher. He raised me from someone who struggled to play C.P.E Bach’s Solfeggio to a competition-winning, recital-performing concert pianist. His attention to detail was immaculate, and he could be very demanding, but he had a way of hiding it. Even when I didn’t practice, I never felt stressed walking into the little room dominated by the Steinway grand piano, but I always felt disappointed upon leaving it, and I always practiced doubly hard the next week. Over time, my teacher’s and my musical tastes almost seemed to unify. During my sophomore year of college, I came up with a list of pieces that I wanted to learn: Beethoven’s 30th sonata, Chopin’s Third Scherzo, and Debussy’s first set of Images. When I told my teacher the list, he smiled incredulously and said, “Those are exactly the pieces I picked out for you.”
He was never showy about the depth of his knowledge, although one could sense it in the considerable weight behind each of his sentences. He would pore over fingerings of tricky passages, a feat which bored me when I was younger and enthralled me as I aged, and would later bring multiple editions of books into class as a point of comparison. If I asked him a question he did not know the answer to—a rarity—he would unfailingly look up the answer by the following week, by which point I had often forgotten the question. In eleven years of teaching, he never missed a single lesson due to health reasons until after his stroke. He was dependable to a fault, and would often apologize for calling a mere three days in advance to reschedule a lesson. He took pride in his work, in his school, and in his students, and the most frustrating thing to me was that few of his students cared as much as he did.
When I saw my teacher last, there was no indication that it would be the last lesson I would ever have. We started two new pieces, and he walked me through some of the basics of them—how to practice a particularly tricky passage, where the pedal was appropriate, how to balance my playing with the other musicians. Unlike any other lesson though, he took fifteen minutes after to talk to me. I don’t remember the specifics of those fifteen minutes, but I do remember feeling like a friend to him, something which he had long been to me. My mind pulled up a memory of his wife calling my mother shortly after I won a competition; his wife told my mother that upon receiving the news that I had won, my teacher cried with happiness.
My teacher never got to see my brother. To an extent, it’s because my family—myself included—didn’t comprehend the depth of his health problems. Even in that last lesson, he was making plans with me for future lessons, things to work on and passages to practice. I was under the illusion that there was time to get things done, that life would go on as it had always had, without the ugly face of death rearing itself. As early as the day of my move, I was considering calling my teacher to set up a lesson for two weeks down the road and telling him that I would probably be unable to take any lessons from him in the future. My teacher, for his part, planned to move to California to be with the rest of his family, to sell his beloved music school and enjoy life in the company of those closest to him. His death, on the day of my move, almost feels symbolic; outside of my family, he was my strongest connection to my home, and a lesson with him was the highlight of a trip back. Now, of course, that highlight is relegated to my memories, warmed by the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia.
The last piece that my teacher finishing teaching me was my favorite piece of music, the Waldstein sonata. Completed by Beethoven in 1804, the piece was a landmark of its time. Technically demanding, harmonically daring and musically profound, the piece is persistently triumphant and celebratory; unlike much of Beethoven’s music, it does not delve deeply into the angry or the tragic, and even its outbursts are controlled and intelligent. Yet, all of this lies under some of the most beautiful and iconic music ever composed, music that does not need to be analyzed to be understood. I have always been fond of imagining pieces turned into people, and I have never really been able to find a person for the Waldstein sonata. Ironic, then, that the person whom it reminds me of is the person who taught it to me. Rest in peace, Mr. Waters. I owe my music to you.
Stuff No One Told Me by Alex Noriega
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Murakami ascertains nearly every idea, philosophy, and paradigm I’ve ever had about life.
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Interpreter of Maladies was one hell of a journey; through sadness and turmoil it took me. Failed relationships, affairs, bad food, eviction, and adjustment were par for the course. However, I ended the book not with feelings of sadness, despair, or even anger, but with happiness—as I put the book down, there was a smile on my face. Jhumpa Lahiri, with conviction and tenderness, wove a series of tales that will resonate incredibly strongly not only with any Indian that has felt any of the impact of the trans-continental upheaval that their ancestors (or, indeed, themselves) underwent, but also with anyone who has ever moved from the comfort of home to a strange, distant land. Highly recommended
And so begins the summer of Southeast Asian/Indian authors. It feels SO GOOD to read fiction again.
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Happiness is temporary and, therefore, overrated. Excellence is permanent (with upkeep), but difficult to achieve; thus it is underrated.
da ba dee da ba die
inspired by (x)
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When I’m listening to music late at night, I can close my eyes and see the sounds take shape inside my head. It’s quite indescribable.
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