A. The consideration of it
Fire taunts and air degrades and earth suffuses, but water wants. I try to think of gentleness but instead imagine floods, soaked and rumbling riverine earth. As I learn Frédéric Chopin’s Étude Op. 10, No. 1 for solo piano, I dream of it less as arpeggios or rapid progressions of notes. I never think of it as a series of leaps despite my held breath and tendons stretched like talons, and I forget the threat of mathematical asymmetry.
I consider water falling, melody accompanying a veil of water, song made by the icicles dripping onto the storm cellar door or the boiler’s murmuring undertones. Music built from and half hidden in listening, almost or almost certainly a fantasy.
A-B-A: Idea, diversion, and return to the idea.
The étude as it is intended sounds like stained glass, like shapes that are meant to come together but remain themselves when viewed apart from the whole, and learning it means being satisfied with something beautiful and nearly holy coming apart in your hands, taking it apart because your skill can’t allow it to be itself, realizing the horror of bearing an incompetence that can’t hold something beautiful together, and carrying the étude broken and scattered as you plod toward what it ought to be. My hands love it by creating of it an abomination, temporarily, a love built of disrepair.
Practice is abomination, harmonics scattered in tight belly and ribcage, racketing about, refusing to acknowledge the truth and beauty of the whole. Refusal, no. Inability. I confront that my learning, my practice and harm, my desire to love this étude creates what might be an interminable ugliness.
B. Unrequited love, or love in the hands
I find it easy to love with repetition. Ongoingness and habit are a love I build for and in myself, unrequited and free to travel wherever it wishes, looking for all the world from the outside like devotion.
Even a waterfall gets distracted. I love this étude, I love it with my heart, and I used to think it was a case of unrequited love, unrequited as the love of all wonderful things like dinosaurs and dark beer and perfume from the moth-lovers and the bat-lovers released in a woozy fog only when you walk late at night near the flowering hedges and gardens and trees that find themselves shocked to be alive and waiting in the June darkness, and how extraordinary to accept all of this beauty into my heart and fall in love with anything I choose without the burden of it wanting me back.
But again, no.
I build the knowledge of the étude into my hands with different speeds and changing techniques, and on and on and on, again, and here I feel it, a surprise, a growing wave, a new species of love that desires the return if I can find in myself the yield.
The yield is something like this: It is to hold not only a broken thing but a thing you’ve broken and are breaking in service to what you hope it might become and what you might become, how it might live in its separations as a wholeness in your hand, a wholeness your hand with its turn toward becoming a strange animal of memory can give it.
A. An arpeggio is a chord showing how a body can be together in its separation
Not rippling water, not a surface seiche or minor disturbance, but chords unbound, and if I think of the rapid, repeating progressions as chords, as bodies showing how they are together in their separation, I find myself that much closer, which is to say not close at all, to discovering what the headlong water wants.
There is the étude on sheet: simple, a matter of reaching very quickly.
There is the étude learned and pocketed away in the body, the hands and ears that cycle it in their maddening tidal loops away from the piano.
Shards raining from palms, from valley shadowed between opponens digiti minimi and flexor pollicis brevis. The sound of water, its brightness. Rain without the underdepth of humming harmonics a listener might imagine, the ones that seem almost to speak a low message.
Subtle song a hint you give yourself about surroundings and how they can change, how water can fall from the sky and be accepted into the earth or form a flood, a music born of hallucinatory accumulation, of familiarity and being always on guard.
My neck bows my head to the keyboard, to my hands. I follow my hands and their memory instead of my sight. A bow that banishes sight. Or a yielding to something suddenly gotten on top of.
No longer a crush, but a bowing of bone.
Natalie Vestin is the author of Gomorrah, Baby (Anchor & Plume, 2017) and Shine a light, the light won’t pass (MIEL, 2015). Her essays have appeared in Territory, Prairie Schooner, The Iowa Review, The Normal School, and elsewhere. Natalie works as an infectious disease researcher in Saint Paul, Minnesota.