Music in the dark

The cover of my Grade 8 piano book was scarlet and shiny. It looked intimidating.

‘You sit here’, said my beloved, red-headed teacher, ‘and I’ll play through them so you can choose three’.

Over half an hour we whittled them down. A Bach prelude and fugue. A crashing Schubert allegro. Then –

‘Stop’, I said. ‘This one’.

It was a Chopin nocturne in E, and it was beautiful. Soaring and wistful. I never had to try hard to hear Chopin in my head: he came as naturally as breathing. But pushing it out of my fingers was harder. I spent hours going over it that autumn, playing a single passage twelve times just to get the right rise and fall. The middle two pages were a dense thicket of impenetrable notes. Played slowly, they all sounded like discords. Evening after evening, I tugged at it. Took it slow. Pulled the tangles free. Until it started to come out smoothly and the sweetness came back.

When I played the last notes of the nocturne in my exam that November, I turned around to see the examiner with his face cupped in his hands. He just smiled, sighed, and made a note (and thank goodness, because I totally bombed my aural test and Schubert, damn his eyebrows, was a disaster).


That’s the last normal memory I have of that year. Soon after, things at home blew apart and everything became messy and distressing. I don’t think I have ever, before or since, been so eager to escape my own head. I felt poisoned, down to the root of me. Like I was crawling around in the dark, and everything I had held sacred turned hollow, and nothing would ever, ever be alright again.

In the depths of all of that, I came back to the nocturne in E. There was safety in letting my fingers do the thinking. I couldn’t do much, but I could take a flying leap at that middle two pages and the discords would resolve themselves into sweetness every time. My muscles remembered it, and brought it out for me to hear.

Nocturnes are night music. As I shut the door on whatever was outside and placed my fingers carefully, I sent the music out into the night and a small part of my ferocity was soothed.


This afternoon I found an old hardback book of Chopin nocturnes on our bookshelf. Lovely. After I’d made a pig’s ear of a few and removed Henry’s sticky fingers from a few more, I found the nocturne in E.  It is ten years this autumn since I took my exam, ten years since those endless evenings at the piano. This afternoon I removed all the baby wipes and sat down on my old battered seat to play, and I could hear it again like new.

Oh, I would tell that broken angry girl some things if I could. My fingers are stiff and the middle pages are back in a tangle, but the remedies now are the same. I can keep tugging at it. Take it slow. Pull the tangles free. And sooner or later, my dear little self, I will see past the discords and all that glorious soaring sweetness will come flooding back to me, to be held like a bright thing to my heart, to be mine, this time, to keep.


4 thoughts on “Music in the dark

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