As I sit in front of my piano in my dimly lit study, my fingers tremble. It’s a gloomy, rainy night and I am alone. There’s nobody around. So why is it that I’m so nervous to start work on my first original composition?
Perhaps I’m afraid the sound of my piano will carry further through the walls of my own house, and I’ll disturb my neighbours. Perhaps I fear it’s late, and I’ll be too tired to compose. Ultimately I know what the issue is. I am afraid of one of the deepest of all human anxieties.
I am afraid that I’ll fail.
Even though nobody else need hear the melodies I attempt to create on this black and white engineer of song. I might fashion some of the worst music in history tonight but nobody will hear it, and nobody will know how truly abysmally I failed.
But I will. I will know I have failed and I will live with that. I will walk into my study and look ashamedly out of the corner of my eye at the piano gathering dust in the corner and know how awfully I was beaten. And it will infect other areas of my life; I will never succeed in my job, I will never have meaningful relationships with other human beings, and I will live my life safely, afraid to step even lightly into the spotlight of ambition, my only desire to live life with my head down and my path set in dark stone ahead of me.
At times like these, it helps me to remember Miriam.
Miriam was my piano teacher at school, many years ago. She was an elderly woman close to retirement. She always had a smile on her face and a kind remark at hand. Her gentle eyes sparkled with familiar welcome each time I entered her small classroom and for the half-hour or so that we had our lesson (our lesson mind you, Miriam would always say, “because I learn just as much from you as you do from I”), I would forget the stresses of due homework for other classes, the social pressures facing most teenagers going though school, and all the turbulent family issues that plagued the day.
Piano lessons were without a doubt the best part of school.
I remember Miriam once asked me to perform at the school’s annual talent show. Beethoven’s Bagatelle in C. I was terrified, and Miriam knew it.
‘It’s okay,’ she’d said with her signature warm smile. ‘It’s completely fine to be nervous. Don’t try not to be, it’ll only make you more nervous. I wouldn’t have put you forward if I didn’t already know that you’ll be fantastic.’
But my anxiety would only deepen over the weeks leading up to the performance. I regretted telling Mum and Dad about it because they were so enthusiastic and excited to come and hear me play. Even my English teacher caught wind of my imminent appearance on stage and promised to be there in the audience, listening to every note.
In my last lesson before the big night, Miriam saw how nervous I was and I received the most helpful piano lesson of my time at school. She told me the story of her own first performance.
Miriam hadn’t been particularly privileged as a child. She’d grown up in a family that wasn’t poor, but certainly couldn’t afford a frivolous and exorbitant activity such as music lessons. If it weren’t for her own music teacher at school, she would never have learned an instrument at all. Miriam’s music teacher had a strong belief that every child should have the opportunity to learn an instrument, and would offer those who couldn’t afford lessons to stay behind after school to learn piano.
Miriam was inspired by her teacher and quickly found confidence in her abilities thanks in part to her own particular talent, but more so to her teacher who showed incredible patience and encouragement. She had progressed quickly and by the time she had left school, she had a Grade 8 qualification in piano, with distinction no less.
The most important thing throughout all of this, Miriam told me, was that nobody thought she could do it. Her friends and her family had all but laughed at her when she’d told them about learning piano. You’re from a working class family, they’d said. You have to be clever to learn piano. Her entire musical journey was fraught with doubt and snobbish pretension. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for her.
The only person who had believed in Miriam had been her teacher. And what an important thing that was for Miriam. If, in a world inhabited by one billion people, all but one of them tell you that they have no faith in you, then that one in one billion becomes the most incredibly motivating, influential and important number in existence. That number was Miriam’s teacher.
Passing her Grade 8 exam had filled Miriam with such confidence and happiness that it became her path in life. She had a profound passion for piano, but even more zeal for passing on to others what her teacher had given her – confidence in herself. When Miriam sat me down in that piano room to explain her story, I felt enormous pride in being one of her students. She told me it was simply the story of how she became a teacher. I thought of it as her superhero origin story, because how different was it to the story of an ordinary person who discovers abilities they have hidden within them and decides to use these abilities for good? Miriam was my hero.
Going into that talent show, I felt much more confident in myself. I was still incredibly nervous, but I remembered what Miriam had said to me:
Don’t try not to be nervous. It’ll only make you more nervous.
So I allowed the nerves to be a part of me on the stage. I didn’t look into the audience to spot my parents, or Miriam, or even my old English teacher who promised she’d be watching. I sat in front of that old school piano, took a deep breath and performed Beethoven’s piece to the best of my ability. When it was done I received all the praise in the world from my peers and my teachers. And the look of pride on Miriam’s face was enough for a single wet tear to run down my cheek and be quickly brushed away before anyone could notice.
That important day led me to where I am right now, here in my study on this rainy night, fingers delicately resting on the keys of my piano and wondering where on earth I can begin. The memories of my old teacher rushing through my head has filled me with both joy and sadness, because I heard that Miriam passed away last year. There was a small obituary in the local newspaper:
Suddenly but peacefully at home, surrounded by family. Beloved mother, grandmother and wife. Cherished music teacher for over fifty years. Piano is all black and white, but life isn’t. It’s up to us to navigate it, and may we do it well.
That last part was something Miriam was known to say often to her students, and was embossed on her grave in the cemetery. I cried when I read it, but I also smiled. I smiled because I knew that so many others would read that and know that it was something she used to say, and that they would hold it close to them throughout their lives. It would help shape the direction they took and perhaps would shine even the smallest glimpse of light on a dark day.
My story is different from Miriam’s. I did not choose to pursue a career in music. My life took another path. But her lessons hold true and dear to me today, and composing a song on piano reminds me that I am capable of achieving great things. And that is an important thing that we must all remind ourselves of from time to time. And sometimes it takes a hero of a person to do that for us.
I will proceed with confidence. I will sit at this piano in front of me, and I will write a composition. I’m not sure exactly how it will go yet but I believe I’ll call it My Hero, and it will be a tribute to one of the most important people in my life.
Thank you, Miriam. The world needs heroes like you.