The youth-written stories in Represent give inspiration and information to teens in foster care while offering staff insight into those teens’ struggles.

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Striking the Right Chord
I want to play for pleasure
Austin Kong
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“I don’t want to go,” I whined.

“I don’t care. It’s your first piano lesson and if you don’t like it you can quit,” my mother scolded.

I sighed. I was only 6, but I knew if I complained, she would scold me again. So I went along.

When we arrived, we entered through a glass door with flowing cursive letters: Florentine Music School. My mother introduced me to my teacher, a Japanese woman with big-framed glasses that hung around her neck.

“Hello! My name is Yuko. Come on in.” She seemed nice but I was still hesitant. Four big black keyboards stood together in a semicircle at one end of the room. Strange instruments littered the rug, producing monster-like shadows. I felt scared.

Yuko handed me a beginner’s music sheet. I played “Hot Cross Buns” and “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” They were easy, and I enjoyed it. I stayed for another lesson and she taught me how to play more songs.

Yuko taught me for the next five years. I improved and learned harder pieces that required more precision. If I made mistakes she would say things like, “It’s alright. Just try again,” and, “Keep practicing, you’ll get better eventually.” I liked her. She was kind and forgiving.

My Chance to Shine

Every year, the Florentine Music School held a student competition. This was my first one and my chance to shine. I spent hours practicing.

On the day of the performance, students, teachers, and parents all dressed formally, and wore roses on their dresses and suit pockets. I was nervous, yet I wanted to prove myself.

The auditorium grew dark and the chatter died down until it was silent except for the clicks of cameras. The main stage light shone bright on a tall black piano.

“Next up, Austin Kong playing ‘The Entertainer’ by Scott Joplin.”

I trotted toward the stage, almost tripping over the steps. My dress shoes clopped loudly on the wooden platform. I sat down in front of the piano.

“Come on Austin, you can do it,” I thought to myself.

I took a deep breath and struck the first C-note, then the chord. With every crescendo, I played the melody as loud as I could, then went back to soft playing. To my surprise, I began to sway back and forth like professional pianists do.

As the song ended, I struck the last chord and held the key for four beats to signify the finale. The audience applauded loudly and whistled as I bowed. Cameras flashed, blinding me on stage.

After my performance, Yuko and other teachers congratulated me. I even won first place.

Yet I was unsatisfied. I was 12 now, and I wanted to play more challenging pieces, especially classical music. Other students were playing pieces by Bach and Mozart, and I was drawn to the beautiful melodies.

But Yuko taught mostly jazz and pop music. I thought I might want to play piano professionally, so as difficult as it was, I decided to move on.

All Wrong

I switched to another teacher named Rimma, a classical pianist who had studied at famous schools like Julliard. Her lessons were more expensive than Yuko’s but my parents agreed to it.

On my first day, I sat on the bench waiting for Rimma, optimistic but nervous. Even though her room was just across from Yuko’s, it felt far away.

The door creaked open and in walked a short, stubby old lady with red heels and a wrinkly dress.

“You, come,” she ordered in a heavy Russian accent. Her room was small and bare, with only a piano and two benches for the student and her. The cracked fluorescent light flickered.

“So, you’re the new student from Yuko’s class, eh?” Her sharp V-shaped glasses stood on the lower bridge of her nose as she read the schedule. She glanced up and I looked away. I felt judged.

“Play me the song you’re working on.”

I took out Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” and played it as I had on the day of the performance. Her eyes flitted across the music sheet as she followed along until I finished with a clear, strong note.

“Your beat was a little off, but your positioning is worse. You should position your hands like this.” She lifted her arms and hands way up and started playing. “You see.”

I tried to follow her directions but it was hard to play since I couldn’t really move my fingers.

“No!” she shouted sternly. She jammed my fingers against the keyboard and pushed my elbows up.

“This is how you play. Stop pressing on the keys like they are buttons and start playing notes! Every time you play like this…” She slouched her arms and fingers in a lazy fashion.

image by YC-Art Dept

“Again.”

Yuko hadn’t been stern or critical. She would point out mistakes but she was supportive. In this small cramped room, Rimma called out every little error. It was torture.

“I can’t give up now,” I thought. Becoming a professional pianist was my dream. I’d have to endure her.

Earning Rimma’s Respect

Another year passed and I prepared for another big performance. I was playing even harder pieces, and sometimes I struggled.

“No! You’re not playing it right. It’s ba-ba-bam, not ba-ba-ba-bam. You’re playing an extra beat!” Rimma would yell.

But sometimes she thought I played well. On those days, she showed great enthusiasm and even played along with me. I wanted to earn her respect, so I practiced more. I had some sleepless nights and I felt strained.

The days before my first recital, I practiced constantly. My dad told me not to play late at night but I didn’t listen. This was the most important event of my life. I had to master the piece.

The Big Performance

Everything looked like the last time I’d entered the concert hall. I saw Rimma in the corner. She had on a black dress with dark heels. She wore make-up and lipstick and I could smell her perfume.

“Go inside,” she said, ushering me in as her heels clicked on the white marble floor.

It was pitch black except for the grand piano in the middle of the stage. A younger student finished her performance and the audience stood up and clapped while photographers snapped pictures.

My turn. I walked onto the stage. I was more relaxed than my first performance but I could still feel my limbs shaking. I sat on the bench and stared at the keys. I was ready.

My first five notes slurred perfectly. I drummed the next few notes as loud as I could and then back to the soft style that the piano is made for. For the next bar, I stretched my pinky and thumb and played two keys an octave away from each other. It was like hopscotch where your fingers have to jump back and forth from one key to the other.

I remembered what Rimma taught me: the beats, rhythm, and hand positioning. I felt I had mastered everything. I played the last chord with a strong ending note.

Everybody stood up and applauded with a few cheers and whistles in the back. I stood and bowed.

As I walked out of the concert hall, I bumped into Rimma.

“You played good out there. I’m surprised,” she said.

“Thank you.” I looked at her awkwardly. I was so used to getting scolded that it was weird to hear her compliment me.

“You should think about playing piano professionally.”

Rimma seemed to mean what she’d said. I already aspired to become a professional pianist and her words made me even more determined.

Quitting My Dream

During 8th grade, however, things changed. I had a ton of schoolwork and was under a lot of pressure. I couldn’t find time to practice. Sometimes, I wouldn’t touch the piano for weeks. When I’d return to Rimma’s class, she’d know, and yell at me for making minor mistakes.

Listening to Rimma’s harsh criticisms, I didn’t feel good about myself at all. Music is supposed to be beautiful and expressive, but Rimma’s lessons made me feel like I was terrible. I lost my confidence.

One day, the lesson went so badly that I had to hold back tears and keep playing until it ended. I went running home. I didn’t want to endure this any longer. I told my mom I wanted to quit my lessons because it was too much pressure. She said OK.

Playing for Pleasure?

At first, I felt relieved that I wouldn’t have to hear Rimma’s voice or take her lessons again. But as time passed, I realized that Rimma did care for me in her own way.

My piano is still in my room, collecting dust in the corner.

Looking back, I regret quitting. Even though Rimma was mean, she understood my passion and goals. I realize her criticisms were meant to help me achieve my dream. I miss both of my teachers, but I learned the most from Rimma. I’m disappointed I gave up so easily and let my ambition of becoming a professional musician slip away. Sometimes, I just miss the passion I felt when I played.

I might still go back to piano. Maybe I’ll choose another teacher who’ll be more supportive. Or maybe I’ll practice on my own and teach myself other pieces. But it’ll be different. I’ll have to re-learn a lot. I’m not sure I’ll ever be as good as before.

If I decide to play again, I want to approach it with a new goal: enjoyment. Playing for pleasure never really crossed my mind before. Playing with Rimma didn’t feel fun. But what’s the point of doing something you love if you can’t enjoy it?

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(NYC-2016-05-21)

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