Max Stainton


How To Play the Piano

By Max Stainton

Writing 212: The Art of the Essay

1. Be Inspired

I am nagged by a pecking melody that has been rolling up the stairs for the past several hours. The tune lingers, slow and heavy, then accelerates without warning and drops suddenly into a crashing band of chords and finger struts. The grave pace can hardly keep its footing before being overtaken by an army of notes, high in pride and tempo. My sister’s strong fingers chip away another movement of Beethoven’s sonata, the “Pathétique,” and I hear both her and our mother begin to sing along from different ends of the house. There are no words, so they ad lib graceful hums and other charming vocal tricks. The two of them riff and harmonize and celebrate the infinite glory that proliferates from eighty-eight keys, an appreciation of beauty and a thirst for unity. “Hallelujah!” my mother screams. “Amen!”

2. Just Get Started

This is much harder than it sounds— there’s a big learning curve. I ask for my sister’s assistance, and she is more than willing. Sara wants to guide and assist me in every way she possibly can, unless it involves going out in public—mostly because she hates people in general, but also because old ladies in a small town start to gossip when they see a nineteen-year-old girl with a four-year-old kid. She’s excited to teach me her passion; however, she also reminds me that she won’t put up with any of my shit if I start screwing around during a lesson. “Be warned, Slacker,” she says, “I’m not your mother—I will beat you, and I won’t feel bad about it.”

3. Practice Practice Practice Practice Practice Practice Practice Practice Practice Practice

I had an economics teacher who played guitar. Students would frequently tell him that they really wanted to learn how to play, that they’ve always had this deep desire for musicality.

He’d respond, somewhat rudely, “No you don’t. If you really wanted to learn, you would. But you don’t. Because it’s hard. And you’re not sure that it’s worth it.”

Sara practices every day for hours upon hours.

I practice when I can.

She just tries so much harder than I do because I don’t want it as badly as she does, but I want to want it. At least that’s what I tell myself—I really want to want it.

I have another sister, Heather, who used to play piano too, but she moved away when I was six. She would try to play whenever she came home to visit, but it wasn’t the same. Now she has stopped playing altogether. Mom tells me she’s getting married this year.

4. Find your style

“I like to play sad songs.” “Why?”

“Because they’re pretty,” Sara says. “And they’re real.”

My mother always begs me to play the “Skyfall” song that Adele sings in the newish James Bond movie. It’s quiet, it flows. It’s heavy, it bangs. It is violent and gentle and fun, inexplicably fun.

My father never comments on my music, excluding the occasional hackneyed dad catchphrases: “Good job, son” and “Keep up the hard work, pal.” He read this book once about Beethoven that was filled with details about his life—he was an arrogant snob who was infuriated by the incredible stupidity of anyone who could not match his genius, he was poor, he was abused by his father, he kept a chamber pot under his piano so that he wouldn’t have to stop practicing to defecate, he would count out exactly sixty coffee beans every time he made a cup. My father casually tosses out factoids like this often—partially because he finds them interesting, partially because he likes to engage in hefty intellectual competitions with his favorite son and only non-step-child. I knew none of this trivial trivia, but I have read a few books by Beethoven, so I was not surprised to find out that he was insane or that he was lonely.

5. Singing Along

I wish I knew how. My voice with piano accompaniment is like a chainsaw cutting scrap metal while Celine Dion’s Titanic theme song, “My Heart Will Go On,” plays softly in the background from one speaker of a scratchy boombox that was bought at a church rummage sale for three dollars and a promise to use it only “to glorify the Lord, Our Savior, Jesus Christ.”

Sara can sing.

6. Reading Music

I am discovering more and more with every section of this How-to Guide how horribly unqualified I am to write about piano. I don’t know what half the symbols on the page mean. I’m actually not even sure what the difference is between a 4/4 and a 2/2 time signature. I do know how to do that one thing where you hit every ascending key in a row—thumb, index, middle, thumb, middle, thumb, middle, thumb, index, middle—but I have no idea what it’s called. Also, I can’t really do it with my left hand.

Did you know that Bach and Handel were both blinded by the same ocular surgeon? That Tchaikovsky held up his head with one hand while conducting because he thought it would literally fall off of his body if he didn’t? That Mozart wrote the overture for Don Giovanni the day of the premiere while hungover? The truly elite composers are so unbelievably talented. It just comes so naturally to those select few. The mortals, like me and to a lesser extent, Sara, have to work much harder to get an aesthetically inferior result.

But sometimes the overall sound isn’t what matters. Sometimes it’s more about the person playing and what his art says about him than what the sound says about itself.

7. Recognize the Difficulty

At some point in your career as a pianist you’ll discover that it is hard. It is really, really hard. Not in the sappy way of trying new things or broadening horizons— it’s hard to keep going, to practice over and over, to constantly know that you are so horribly amateur.

Learning a new song is an attempt to personalize and perfect something that you can’t even understand yet. No two artists will play the same song the exact same way. Edvard Grieg, who would keep a frog figurine on his person at all times and rub it for good luck before concerts, wrote an especially ugly compilation of clashes and anti-harmonies aptly named “The March of the Trolls.” It’s a series of bangs pouncing all around the keyboard that somehow manifests into a flow of elegant chaos. Each identifiable chord has been desecrated and mutilated with a flat or a sharp that doesn’t quite match the spirit of the tune, but the overall product is something of unquantifiable beauty, a grotesque and brutish mixture that somehow morphs together to form an Adonis that would otherwise exist only in fantasy. It is a miraculous sonority that can only be forged through pain and hurt and struggle.

And she has struggled.

Childhood poverty. Abused mother. Divorced parents. Tyrannical step-father. Drop-Out. Debtor. Bastard son. Alcoholic husband. Abusive husband. Suicidal husband. Wretched in-laws. Resuscitation. Dead baby.

Can’t relate.

No matter how many times I try to play this piece I can never get it. I don’t understand it. It is utterly incomprehensible with my limited experience.

Sara gets it. She really gets it.

8. Understand that Some People Won’t Appreciate Your Art

I was about five years old when she lived in a college house, and I’d come to visit whenever Mom could make the drive. She’d stand me up on a stool and I’d whoop the fraternity brothers in foosball for hours. She tells me that occasionally they would burst into a drunken rage because even for a child I cheated a lot. She’d jump in and protect me, instilling a shockingly large amount of fear in them for someone who could comfortably fit inside a tuba case. Her boyfriend at the time asked her, “How can you be so nice to that obnoxious kid and be such a fucking bitch to everyone else?”

She replied with her usual unapologetic quip: “Well, he’s my brother. And I actually like him.” Obviously, her relationship with him did not last nearly as long as ours has.

9. Be Relentlessly Dedicated

She had a lot of problems with authority in her teenage years. She made a deal with our mother that as soon as I turned 15, I was going to come live with her so she could see how terrible children are. Sara then took the stubbornness battle a step further by starting a savings account so she could run away with me as soon as possible. We still have $7.38 steadily accruing interest and paving the way for our grand escape.

10. Be a Lifelong Learner

If I’m lucky, after a few beers around 3 a.m., she’ll teach me a new technique: “Most of the time, you have to play like a girl—be soft and gentle and pretty,” she says. “Other times, you have to play like a man—be loud and aggressive and mean.” She takes another puff of her cigarette then continues. “I’ve had to save Heather’s ass so many times. She’s too nice and pretty. She can’t ever piss anybody off and it’s awful. Like that time when her psycho roommate wouldn’t pay the rent and she couldn’t even tell him to pay her—that sucked! She’s so selfish. She’s all rich and successful but I can’t fucking stand her now.”

I stare at her blankly.

“Have you not heard this story?” I shake my head.

She straightens up in her chair and leans towards me.

“So this guy that she had been splitting rent with turns out to be a drug dealer who sampled and couldn’t keep his bills straight, right?” She straightens up and gives me a look that is a strange mix between educational and sassy. “Mom warned her. Obviously she didn’t listen and eventually gets an eviction notice. So she calls me crying, ‘aawwwwhhhhhllll,’ balling, ‘I dunrft cannnnnnet mmom aaaaahhhhhhh.’ Super obnoxious. Anyway, she tells me to come over and help but ‘don’t tell mom’ because she doesn’t want her to give the ‘I told you so’ spiel. So I start driving over there, I’m 8 months pregnant at the time by the way, and I call Mom and tell her ‘now would be a really good time for you to stop by and see Heather’s apartment. A really good time.’ But I tell her to wait like ten minutes so it doesn’t seem like I told her or whatever. We get there and Heather’s still crying and doesn’t know what to do and is freaking out. Meanwhile, fucktard who can’t pay his bills is still asleep at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. Heather is all scared because she knows that he keeps a gun in the house and she doesn’t want to upset him, so I make her get me the gun and tell her to go wake him up. She taps on the door to his bedroom and whispers, ‘hello, jason, could you get up now, please?’” Sara batts her eyelashes, impersonating Heather’s “pretty” reverence. “And I’m like ‘Heather do you want him up or not?’ So I bang on the door and start screaming, ‘JASON YOU LAZY PIECE OF SHIT YOU OPEN THIS DOOR RIGHT NOW BEFORE I BREAK MY FOOT OFF IN YOUR ASS!!!!

The door opened immediately.” She laughs pure and smiles. “I put the pistol next to my humongo baby belly, and I tell him, ‘Now, Jason, Heather has been nice enough to cover your rent for you for the past several months because she felt sorry that you couldn’t take care of yourself. I am not so nice. So here’s what’s going to happen. You are going to go and get all the money you owe her and the rent money for this month, plus interest, by 6 o’clock. And until you get back, I will be selling everything you own on Craigslist for the lowest price possible until Heather gets back every cent you owe her.’ Two of his buddies were in the room with him. ‘They can stay here and help the pregnant lady move all of your shit to the curb.’ So Jason grabs his keys and stumbles out the door. I make his friends sell all of his crap and move it outside. He comes back a few hours later with all the money. I hide the gun in the dryer and we leave.”

11. Take Pride in Your Progress

She’s turned out okay, so far.

College valedictorian. 60 hour/week employee. Loving wife. Patient mother (sometimes). Pepsi aficionado. Home- school teacher of a genius brat. Evil thief of my favorite pair of sweatpants. Expert pianist.

12. Perform

I begin tapping out the first tones of “All I Ask of You,” from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s famous Broadway blockbuster, Phantom of the Opera. The song is a duet about shy love. It is slow and it is pretty. It’s fast and it’s loud. I chip away another movement, tumbling back and forth from Raoul to Christine, from reassuring to daring, timid to exciting, me to the music. My posture is proper but loose, back straight but relaxed, wrists arched but comfortable. I play without my head—no counting of beats or disciplined form. My thoughts are free to wander, no longer constrained to the shackles of consciousness. As my eyes twitter across the pages, I feel the rush of music coming to life through the frightening power of muscle memory and artistic intuition for crescendos, accents and rests. I make it through the tough transition, and I hear Sara’s ecstatic applause reverberating from the other room, cheering me on. One more grand decibel amplification erupts from the bowels of the wood and wire, and suddenly all ten of my fingers are smashing keys and pounding out chords in an explosion of monstrous, confident pitches that proclaim to all within earshot that this is how to play the piano!

A Word from Max

Picture of Max StaintonMy sophomore year of high school I had an infamously harsh English teacher. He was known to draw a line halfway through an essay, write “I’m bored,” and give the student a zero until he gave him something more interesting. He made us restart our writing process from the ground up— we weren’t even allowed to write introductions until the third essay because he thought we were so bad at them. He told me that my writing was okay but not great which was a real change from my previous feedback from other teachers. I tried so hard to do what he was teaching me, but it just didn’t click. I got self- conscious. I made dumb mistakes. Every time I screwed up, he’d make me stand up in front of the class and say “I’m a dipshit.” Occasionally he’d make me sing a song about how I’m a “poor little lamb, who’s gone astray, baahhh, baahhh, baaaaaahhh.” I know that sounds like a joke, but it really happened. Multiple times. By the end of the year, I was tired of turning in bad work and getting grades that matched. I decided to ditch every rule he ever taught me and just write how I wanted to write. I was nervous. I thought he was actually going to flog me during lunch like he always threatened. When he handed back the essay, he looked down at me intensely and deliberately. He asked, “Why haven’t you been writing like this all year?” I learned that day that English teachers don’t care if you follow any of the rules. They give you rules as an aid, not a requirement. Now that I’m a few years removed, I realize that everything he taught me was right, I just wasn’t using it correctly. He’s now my favorite teacher.
I took the same approach when writing this essay. My professor told me to write a “lyric essay” but couldn’t tell me what that even meant. I was frustrated. In the ultimate form of childish I’m-not-doing-what-you-tell-me rebellion, I decided to write my “lyric” essay about music because music is, by definition, lyric. I started to write about my personal music experience because I don’t know enough to write a credible essay about music in any other way. The more I got into it, the more I realized how much my sister has influence my piano career. I couldn’t ignore it, so I dove in, and suddenly the whole essay became about her. Every tip turned into a metaphor. I think. In my experience, my best essays are always the ones that I really want to write about. I take a big risk and think that my teacher is going to fail me. Forget the prompt. Forget the rules. Write what you want, and don’t be a dipshit.

From Professor Elisabeth Whitehead


Lyric Essay

“The lyric essay allows for the moments of pause, the gaps, the silence. The fragmentation feels correct to the piece: it allows for the moments of “not knowing,” the unspoken words that seem truer than anything I could ever say aloud.”

–Brenda Miller

For your third project, write a lyric essay. It might be helpful to consider the lyric essay as a hybrid form that doesn’t follow a traditional narrative approach. Though difficult to define, we might think of the lyric essay as a joining of the essay, that perhaps leans more toward argument or story, and the lyric (coming from the word lyre) perhaps concerned more with the music of language, with tone, and with imagery. Or perhaps we can think of the lyric essay as interaction between poetry and prose; a form that is not quite poetry and not quite prose. According to Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola, the lyric essay favors “fragmentation and imagery; they use white space and juxtaposition as structural elements. They are as attuned to silences as they are to utterance.” The lyric essay’s resistance to definition is part of its great beauty and strength.

This project will require your willingness to experiment and to take risks in your writing. Here are some options that might be helpful to consider: 1. Use any of our authors as models for your essay. 2. Write a Collage, Hermit Crab, Braided, or Prose Poem essay.  3. See the end of “The Lyric Essay” by Miller and Paola for exercise ideas. 4. Create your own form. Form or structure will be an important part of your “argument” or rhetorical choice in this essay.

Although the lyric essay may seem to differ significantly from the other forms we have worked with this semester, it has similar considerations: to reach and connect with an audience, to move beyond an intimate telling to connect with others on a more universal level, to explore the uniqueness of your own voice, to use form in an engaging way, to practice skills of observation, analysis, and precision of language. Bernard Cooper says of the lyric essay, “To write short nonfiction requires an alertness to detail, a quickening of the senses, a focusing of the literary lens, so to speak, until one has magnified some small aspect of what it means to be human.” Keep this in mind as you begin your work!

Professor Commentary

I was curious to see what Max would do with this writing project, the lyric essay, since it was something of a departure for him. His previous work in the class was more linear and expansive, working in the line of more sustained narratives. The choice of this particular form, where the whole is made through fragments, creates a sense of continual movement. We are allowed to see, in great precision and clarity, small pieces of the whole. We move in, there is a flash of a scene, then we pivot.  We are turned to look in another direction, from a different angle. There are perhaps many more stories the author could have told us, but still, in the fragments, we feel a cohesion, and we can experience a full picture of this relationship between siblings.

This is a very careful writer, who takes his time in sculpting the language. Not one word is wasted. As such, Max is able to allow his audience to get a clear image of a character or experience immediately. He keeps every sentence interesting and alive, sharp and moving, whether presenting a single image, a story, a strange and engaging fact of a genius composer, and especially in the very rhythm and music of his language: “It’s quiet, it flows. It’s heavy, it bangs. It is violent and gentle and fun, inexplicably fun.” Each decision, though it might seem small, whether to use a period, a comma or an “and,” whether to use the contraction or not (it’s versus it is) affects our reading of the sentences. We hear these sentences, paragraphs, and sections as music. Max is a writer who hears and feels language from an intuitive place.  It is a pleasure to be in the presence of an author with this kind of precision and intelligence.

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