When Fingers Remember What The Mind Forgot

“Ryan, the piano is already a percussion instrument….”

My middle school piano teacher, whom I can credit with lots of positive things, was also the queen of passive aggression. What she meant by her statement was, “Ryan, your nails are too long, and I can’t stand the clicking noise they make during your hour-long lesson in my tres chic downtown apartment.”

I know that’s what she meant, because every other piano teacher had been telling me to cut my nails for as long as I’d been playing. But because she never just said it, I let my nails grow as long as I could… until we passed her boiling point and she told my mother. That usually took about a month, and I considered the interim period her penance for the sin of passive aggression, and for the sin of making me repeat my scales until I felt my fingers might fall off. As you can imagine, I didn’t last very long in advanced piano lessons. The payoff just wasn’t worth the heartache, especially for my parents.

Around the same time, I discovered the viola. Our graduating class was the first to participate in a music program pilot at the private school I attended, and as far as I was concerned, there was only one choice. Shocking. First because the then-Head-of-School cared more about sports fields than our quality of education, let alone extraordinary privileges like the arts. And second because most of the other girls ran straight to the violin (don’t get me started on music and social conditioning either). I liked the warmer, deeper sounds of its “big sister,” so the rest was history.

In the end, I was actually quite good. Like, really good. But that wasn’t the point or why I stuck with it for so long. Playing the viola taught me to be the best version of myself – more patient, more humble, less showy, and yet somehow better able to stand out in the crowd. It became life-changing. In my role as “violist,” I became a better “Ryan,” but beyond that, playing the viola taught me about how life should be. As a violist, I not only witnessed, but fully participated in, community. It was a borderline religious experience, knowing that each one of us filled a different and necessary role in the creation of something bigger than ourselves.

I loved playing the viola. I loved it so much that I kept my fingernails short (!!) and made orchestra my ONLY extracurricular activity in high school – a time when, let’s consider, kids across the country become suspiciously passionate about everything they believe will get them accepted to as many colleges as possible (don’t get me started on that either). I played at my high school, and also at the city, regional and state levels. I wrote my college admissions essay – to a liberal arts school, not a conservatory – about The Firebird, and made it my personal mission to increase the visibility of the university’s band and orchestra by the time I graduated.

And guess what? I succeeded.

Then what?

I graduated. I went to grad school. I got bogged down in working and the rest of life. And I stopped playing. Not just with organized groups. But I stopped playing all together. I’m approaching the six year anniversary of not playing this December.

God, has it really been that long? I guess I’ve blocked it from my consciousness. Earlier in this period of absence, I would cry when I went to music performances. I’m talking waterfall-of-tears crying. Embarrassed-because-the-person-next-to-me-isn’t-crying  crying. Thank God, not quite nose-running-and-making-weird-noises crying. But it came pretty close a couple times. It felt like losing a limb, or a loved one, or something else horrible like that. As a result, after a couple of those why am I crying moments, I put distance between me and the music. So here we are, almost six years later.

Last night I was in the neighborhood of Lincoln Center. I got to where I was going about a half hour early (which never happens, because the line I take is almost invariably delayed). I needed something to kill time, so I started walking, and I ended up actually at Lincoln Center.

And then I did something “real” New Yorkers never do, or at least never admit to doing. I stopped right there in the middle of the sidewalk and just stared, in awe.

I stared at the buildings. I stared at the lights. I stared at the new plaza, which I think was renovated in the years since I’ve been away (it looks pretty cool). I laughed to myself at the new, new name above the Phil’s front door (it has had several). And in another very un-New York moment, I took a picture.

I don’t want to think about how many annoyed passers-by passed me by. It’s done now and I can’t take it back. But I enjoyed that moment. Probably too long, because I was *almost* late to the place I needed to be. My mind, as well as my body, got caught  lingering.

Then, today at work I got stuck in the middle of writing something. I know, writer’s block. I’m still recovering. At this point it’s mostly exhaustion, and I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Those of you who know me know that when I get mentally stuck, sometimes I need to physically move to make things better. That moving also tends to be really obnoxious, like foot fidgeting, chair swiveling, hair twirling, or fingernail tapping (apologies, friends!).

Today I was fully in that element. Thankfully, for myself and for the poor souls around me, I realized I was doing this an undetermined amount of minutes (or, God forbid, hours) into an annoying click click clacking against my desk. My nails are long again, and have been for awhile, so the sound was more pronounced than soft fingertips might have otherwise allowed. At least I realized.

And do you know what? What was the VERY FIRST thing I thought of?

“Ryan, the piano is already a percussion instrument….”

Don’t worry, this isn’t about to become a diatribe about how my piano teacher ruined my life. It’s actually something much more constructive (see, I told you I can credit her with good things!).

In that moment, feeling annoyed at the sound of fingernails striking wood, my mind remembered what my fingers apparently never forgot – the completely natural impulse to play, to fly.

Ryan Vale McGonigle

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