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I caressed the keys, anxious for the demands of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude No. 10.” By conjuring my imagination, I could compose colors from the glossy sea of ivory and ebony. But Carnegie Hall’s Concert Grand Steinway amplified the slightest mistake. 

My legs trembled beneath my floor-length dress and my poise disguised frantic monitoring of all technicalities — rhythm, dynamics, articulation. Locking my gaze with the monochrome tiles beneath my fingers, I started recounting Rachmaninoff’s yearning for home after he’d been exiled from Russia. Remembering his struggle to ignore harsh critic reviews, I envisaged him after a bipolar episode, emptying his misery through the 88-keyed instrument that both failed and understood him. 

While playing the prelude, I closed my eyes and saw gradations of gray in foggy morning skies. Maroon reds then splattered the canvas in my mind as I translated the sorrow that eventually crescendos to anguish. I pictured Rachmaninoff bleeding misery whilst leaning over his composing sheets, as if his throbbing B-minor triplets could unwind time and his exile. 

Behind this performance was a rigorous process: hours of drilling, perfecting and interpreting. Playing in a venue like Carnegie Hall is thrilling. But summoning colors to plain black notes is satisfying in a different way. Decoding a Rachmaninoff piece at my teacher’s studio — using both logic and imagination — challenged me. Sometimes my teacher blindfolded me. Then she’d begin the casual interrogation while pacing back and forth: “What colors do you see?” “Why did he use the 3/8 meter?” “Why did he switch to B-minor?” Answering with confidence, even if it meant feigning it, I’d eventually learn to trust my intuition. Playing piano meant losing myself in a musical reverie, forging my patience and appreciating the gratification that accumulates over time with practice. Engrossing myself in these imaginative worlds inspired me to concoct my own through conscious creations like writing. 

When I write, I interrogate myself: Why use this metaphor? Why place a comma there? Why end the stanza with a preposition? I sense when my punctuation slows down the reading experience — just like in piano, when notes carry over to the next measure. Therefore, I deploy my own blindfold-training to my writing by challenging the breadth and depth of my creativity. With just my pen, paper and imagination, I envision tears escaping at regretful moments, cheeks flushing out of embarrassment or smiles widening at blissful serendipities. When I write, I make my own artistic decisions instead of merely interpreting someone else’s like I’ve previously done with Rachmaninoff: Should I address my reader directly with 2nd person (like melodies) or indirectly with 3rd person (like harmonies)? And should I leave the readers hanging (like a caesura) or leave them satisfied (like a fermata)? 

When exerting the final chord of Rachmaninoff’s piano-poem into Carnegie’s cavernous cathedral, I felt my impact reciprocated by the audience’s thunderous applause. Both writing and music have helped me experience this twofold creative freedom, shaping me into the artist that I am today. They are now inseparable components of my creative process: listening to music that captures the essence of my essays and constructing narratives that match music. 

MiC Columnist Rachael Kong can be contacted at rskong@umich.edu