I blame Mozart and Bach. I don’t remember first learning how to play the piano; my mom used to say my two older sisters were taking lessons, and I wanted to be like them. She also claimed I could play by ear at the age of three — an awesome exaggeration that I’m happy to go along with. As a kid, I was assigned a lot of Mozart and Bach by my piano teacher. I can see now what my teacher was doing: My left hand was less facile than my right, and she was helping me improve with music everyone loves because who doesn’t love Bach and Mozart?
Somewhere around the age of 10, major dissonances with the way I played began to emerge. First, I began to find all of this piano “lessoning” — practicing assigned passages each week, practicing scales, completing theory workbook assignments, waiting to play more difficult pieces until I was “ready” — positively insufferable. Second, I was an advanced player for my age. I loved playing because I was good at it, and I loved to show everyone I was good at it, which made me insufferable. Third, I was bored. Don’t get me wrong, I loved playing, except I didn’t love playing any music.
I only wanted to play music that was super fast and super loud, or super slow with moments drenched in super-loud sadness. I had already decided both Mozart and Bach were “dainty,” which might have been informed by overhearing someone somewhere say at some point that “Brahms and Chopin are for boys.” And of course, from that moment on, I only wanted to play Brahms and Chopin.
At about age six, I got in trouble while practicing Mozart. I remember thinking “enough already with the patterns, the reliable cadences, the bouncy, happy, leapy lines woven and spun in annoying perfection.” When she heard me get up from the bench, Mom said from upstairs, “K! The timer hasn’t dinged yet! Keep going?” I told her I was going to the bathroom and headed for dad’s study. I grabbed the scissors, and I cut up my Mozart pages.
Toward the end of high school, I told my mom I wanted to take a break from piano lessons. She had the same look on her face as the day I cut up Mozart: half curious, half delighted, half concerned. She said, “We can talk about that.” About a week later she said, “Hey K? I’d love to hear your boxes again.” I had saved them for years in our piano bench: Mozart’s measures cut into little boxes, re-ordered, some put upside-down, all taped together with only the measures I loved, in my perfect, new, sequential order.
Mom knew before I did: At age six, these boxes were my first attempt at putting notes on a page. Over time she watched my love of music tangling with the doubts in my head that I wasn’t cut out to be a concert pianist. It was a dissonance she helped resolve. Every now and again Mom asked to hear my Mozart boxes, and she figured I’d figure out I could write my own.
My son, now seven, had a stroke at birth. He has perfect pitch, listens with unique awareness and is drawn to and absorbs music magically. For the first four years of his life, he fell asleep every night to Bach’s cello suites ringing beautifully, perfectly, through his room. Today, I play him a lot of Mozart on my piano. And that half-curious, half-delighted, half-concerned look ekes onto my face when I play a piece by Brahms or Chopin and he leaves the room.
I now enjoy playing for my boy. I’m a composer who can still play the piano pretty well; yet my love is for writing music, and for that, I thank Mozart, Bach and my mom.
— Kuster is an Assistant Professor of Composition in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance.