(Magda Azab / For The Times)


Column: My journey with the piano as an Asian American

I learned how to compare myself to others in a healthy way that does not destroy my confidence and self-esteem.
<a href="https://highschool.latimes.com/author/jessicasheng05/" target="_self">Jessica Sheng</a>

Jessica Sheng

June 29, 2022
Growing up as an Asian American, I took up the piano at a young age. Yes, it is a very stereotypical part of growing up in a middle-class Asian household, and I just so happen to be part of the population that perpetuates this stereotype. I first started piano because I was fascinated with the ethereal sounds the pianists were able to produce and the harmonious melodies they expressed. I had thought, I wanted to do that too. My parents were very happy to let me attend piano lessons, and just like that, my journey with the piano started.

Playing piano became a hobby — it was a fun pastime that allowed me to express myself however I wanted to. However, as the years passed on, it gradually became more and more of a chore. I found myself constantly comparing myself to other pianists — professionals, rather than people my age — and I became a victim of perfectionism.

At the age of 8, I learned that only perfection should be sought. The teachings of classical piano ingrained in me that if something wasn’t perfect, it was unacceptable. However, to play music is to create art.

So how could something so subjective have such a rigid expectation for perfection? What even is this so-called perfection in such a context? This constant strive for attaining an ill-defined meaning of “perfection” ended up pushing me away from this art that I had once loved. 

I started practicing less frequently, sometimes only once or twice a week, and my parents would occasionally try to coax me into practicing using any means possible. The days passed on with me sitting at the piano bench and begrudgingly practicing.

Eventually, I had gathered the courage to tell them I wanted to quit the piano, but I was expected to continue the instrument I had picked up and actually become skilled at it. They ended up lecturing me. My mom particularly wanted me to continue, and if anything, she wanted me to stick with this one thing. She then decided to become more involved with my playing in hopes of giving me more motivation.

From the next day onward, she started sitting right beside me every time I started practicing — which felt quite scary. At first, I had expected her to act like a 虎妈妈 — tiger mom.

I knew of the horror stories where children’s parents sat right next to them, waiting to catch every mistake they make whenever they practiced their instruments, and I knew of the parents who micromanaged exactly how their children practiced and played. These are the children who will grow up hating the piano, unable to bear the sight of seeing one. 

However, contrary to my expectations, that was not what happened. Instead, my mom approached my playing with an encouraging curiosity, genuinely wanting to learn about the music I was practicing. While she was strict with getting me to practice at least 30 minutes per day, it was never forceful.

Rather, she reasoned with me and helped reignite my interest in the instrument by getting me to teach her the things I have learned. By having someone to talk to and share this experience with, the chore of practicing became much more bearable. Ultimately, my mom’s efforts led me to stick with piano until the grueling disdain for it has passed completely. 

By having her with me whenever I played, I was given a new perspective on my music. My expectations for myself were based on the rigid, textbook guidelines for playing classical melodies. They stemmed from the unyielding, elitist beliefs in the world of music that could find a bone to pick with even the world’s greatest pianist’s playing.

However, my mom did not know much about the classical expectations and was blissfully unaware of the toxic, elitist mindset of classical musicians. Rather than telling me I had to play something a certain way, she enjoyed even the “wrong” ways of my playing.

To her, the music didn’t have to stay true to the composer or the era. Different ways of playing created different interpretations, with none of them being more “correct” than the rest. As long as the music sounded good and expressed what I had intended to express, it was good. That is the essence of not just piano, but all art forms. 

There were still moments when I started doubting my abilities even with this newfound perspective my mom had enlightened me to. In these moments, she took on part of the weight of my expectations and told me it was okay. It was okay to not be as good as the people I hear in recordings, and it was okay to not meet the expectations I have set for myself.

While it is important to strive for excellence and set standards, it is useless and damaging if the bar is set too high. In order to improve and to get to where I want to be, I should instead set a series of small milestones that are attainable in short intervals of time. Her encouragement helped ease the many frustrations of practicing, and her teachings helped me learn how to improve consistently.

Eventually, I learned to love the piano again. Classical piano is all about expressing the story, emotion, and characters of the piece. It took at least six years of me playing to understand and truly appreciate that. If it weren’t for my mother’s efforts to keep me in piano, I would have never reached this stage of enjoying what I do. 

Nowadays, I practice with small milestones set in mind, in order to achieve a greater goal of reaching a certain level of refinement. While I do find that I tend to go back to my old habits of comparing myself to professionals, I am able to recognize it is okay to not meet such extreme standards I have set for myself.

A lot of people tend to say that it is never a competition between you and others, and it is rather a competition between you and yourself. Contrary to this, I believe that you should always be seeking to compete with others. Without constantly referencing these professionals, it would have been difficult for me to grow as significantly and as quickly as a musician.

Once I learned how to compare myself to others in a healthy way that does not destroy my confidence and self-esteem, my high standards allowed me to push myself even further than ever before.

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