The Farmboy and The Piano
“Hello all. I am Roy Jackson from Sheridan, Wisconsin. I grew up on a farm far from your city. You probably noticed that already — my clothes are nowhere as fancy as the clothes you wear. Forgive me, but this is my Sunday best, and this is the best my family can afford.
I am sorry too that my family could never afford fancy music lessons. All I learned about music was from Preacher John. He taught me how to play the piano… that is until he died three years back.
Do forgive my ignorance about music. I cannot tell you whether the piece I am going to perform is from the Baroque period or the Renaissance period or the Classical era. Hell, I don’t even know what those words mean. Evidently all of you do.
Back in our town, when we play music, we just play music. And we play it with our full heart. Forgive me if my notes are not perfect. And if you find me smiling to my heart’s content when I play music. None of you smile when you play your music. You play music as if it were your solemn duty to do so. Music is supposed to make you feel happy, isn’t it?
Today, I will play something that makes me happy. I used to play this in my Sunday church, “How Great Thou Art”. So here goes…”
I wish I had said that. I just wish I had said that…
Instead I hemmed and hawed through the entire introduction. And then, when I played the piano, I sat stiff and upright, without as much as a slight hint of a smile on my face. I thought that if I did smile, everyone would surely laugh at me. You see, I was ashamed that I was not as sophisticated as everyone else in the hall. I was ashamed that I did not have a fancy introduction prepared. All in all, I was ashamed that I ever thought I stood a chance.
After I finished, I headed down the stage and joined Father. He seemed to be pleased with my performance, and I remember thinking how naive he really was. Did he not see that we farm-people did not belong here? After a while, I asked Dad if we could leave. I hated every moment in here. I hated that every kid before and after me was doing such a great job of the audition. As if they had been preparing for this audition for every day of their life.
We did leave soon enough. I realized that Father’s idea of my auditioning for the music scholarship at the University of Central Chicago was a dud. As my father revved his old pickup and we jerked out of the Seamus Hall parking lot, I knew that I would not be coming back to Chicago very soon.
But I did come back. You see, three weeks after the audition, we received a letter in the mail saying that I got selected. Mother and Father were proud and happy that I was going to be the first one in the family to attend college. Little Jack and Judy and Lisa were sad to see me go — Lisa, the youngest of them all, cried a lot thinking that I would never come back. Like Grampa had never come back when he died. She was wrong of course, because I did come back for vacations and stuff. But in a way, she was right too, because I was never the same after that day.
You see, everyone here in Chicago says that the city makes you a different person. They say that once you live here for some time, you can never go back to living in peaceful little town like Sheridan. And yet, I kept feeling that I did not belong among the city-folk too.
I was definitely not like the pretentious kids of my music department. I hated them all. I hated them so much that I had started hating music. And you see, that was a very unusual thing to happen. ‘Coz all my life, I had loved music.
Earlier, I used to look forward to Sundays when all the townsfolk headed to church, and I would get a chance to play the piano during service. Sometimes, Preacher John would allow me to play a solo piece that I had learned well, “Fairest Lord Jesus” or “Might to Save”. On those rare occasions, I felt like I was on top of the world. Now, I woke up everyday to a sense of gloom and frustration. As I left my cubbyhole apartment that I shared with three other friends (who were also from outside Chicago), I felt as if I was leaving the only friends I had in the city. When I walked the seventeen-blocks from my apartment to Seamus Hall that housed the music department of University of Central Chicago, I felt each step heavier than the previous. And when I would stand in front of the imposing entrance of Seamus Hall, everyday, I felt like turning away.
Once inside, I would feel like an outsider. All the other kids seemed to belong. They would do well in class. Be it Music History, Introduction to Melody and Rhythm, or Music in The Twentieth Century, everyone had opinions and insights to share. I, on the other hand, relegated myself to the backbenches avoiding the Professor’s glance. The studio sessions were like the auditions all over again. Every other kid would revel in the situation — on certain occasions, two of them who were good friends outside class would perform a duo. All of them spoke and behaved and performed in the same polished and sophisticated way. When my turn came, I felt all alone and different. I would stiffen up during the performance, being conscious of every eye in the room.
But I guess I should have realized that — for all the other kids, I did not really exist. At lunch, I would sidle away to the closest diner to have my fix of burger or chili. The other kids would lounge at the fancier cafes and bistros. Neither could I afford to go to those places, nor would I know what to order if I did go to those places.
The only time I seemed to enjoy myself was when I was hanging out with my apartment-mates and their buddies in the evenings after classes got over. These were my people — they had grown up in ranches and farms, much like I had. Like me, they had come to Chicago to pursue their parents’ dream of getting a college education. But unlike me, they were studying either engineering or commerce or law. I was the only one amongst this group who came from outside the city and yet had tried to enter the exclusive club of liberal arts majors. Clearly, I had made a mistake in thinking that I would ever be welcomed in that circle.
After enduring several months of frustration, I decided to act upon the advice my apartment-mates had been giving me for quite a while. I still remember the exact day I finally made the decision — it was a cold and gloomy Chicago morning, and the wind was biting into my bones. I stood below Seamus Hall — my home for the last six months, a home where I did not seem to belong. I held in my hand a form applying for a change in department from music to commerce. Joe and Rubin, my apartment-mates who were also studying commerce, were excited that I would be going to class with them. I knew that Mother and Father would be a little disappointed. Yet I knew that this had to be my decision. The scholarship would be transferred to my new department, and I would still be able to live up to my parents’ dreams of getting a college education.
I felt weak and fatigued — maybe it was the lack of sleep last night when I had been tossing and turning contemplating my decision. But now, the time to act on my decision had come. My destination was not Seamus Hall — I had to take the form across the street to the Office of Student Affairs. Classes for the Spring semester were starting in a week, and I had made up my mind to never enter Seamus Hall again in my life.
As I turned my back to Seamus Hall and proceeded to cross the street, I realized that there was one thing I would miss inside the music department — the great Steinway grand piano on the third floor. It was the very piano on which I had given my music audition, and which had allowed me to get into this university. It was the same piano where I had felt nervous and tense when playing at every studio session during the last several months. I promised myself that I would become very successful in my new field, and that when I was rich and had money, I would buy myself a piano. I would place the piano in my own house, where I could play it without the care of unfriendly and uncaring onlookers.
After I had submitted the form, I felt a strange feeling of emptiness. I realized that I might not be able to play the piano on a regular basis for the next several years. I stepped out of the Office of Student Affairs, and again faced Seamus Hall. I decided that I would go into that wretched place one last time — just to say my farewells to the wonderful piano. On the third floor, the studio was dark and there was no one else around. I switched on the lights and sat down by the piano.
And that day, for the very first time in my six months in Chicago, I played with all my heart. I played with reckless abandon, and yet I played with total control. No one heard me playing, and yet, I felt that my music was one with the entire world. I played like this was the last day of my life, and yet I felt reborn. I guess I played for quite a long time. And I stopped only when I remembered that I was supposed to meet Joe and Rubin and Gary for lunch. It was well past noon now, and they would have started without me, wondering where I was. I caressed the keyboard and the spine, and then let the fallboard cover up the keys. I switched off the lights and headed out.
The sun had come up now, shining brightly through the clouds and fog that had enveloped Chicago for the last few days. Though winter was far from over, the sunlight was a sign that the cold would ultimately end. I thought to myself, Joe and Rubin and Gary would have to finish their lunch without me. I had something much more important to do.