At 12:30 a.m. one night last semester, while I wailed on my clarinet in Berkeley’s spacious, wood-paneled music room, someone knocked on the door. It was a girl from one floor up, bleary-eyed, pajama-clad and obviously not thrilled to be having a chat. For all those musicians who are deceived by the freedom of being able to pace through the vast space between two grand pianos, here’s a warning: The walls are not sound-proof. Perhaps you noticed when people walking down Wall Street peered at you through the window, or when the common room population dwindled as soon as you started pounding those piano keys, but I, alas, did not. If I accomplish little in life, I will at least be able to say that I singlehandedly caused the Berkeley Master’s Office to impose practice hours, so that the poor souls upstairs can sleep a little.
There’s a reason that incident was particularly shame-worthy: The stream of sounds from an amateur classical musician’s practice room are often not, by any definition of mine, music. Part of my training is to hit high pitches that, even now, make me want to plug my own ears. I plod through the same passages over and over again, stretching them out of rhythm to teach my fingers how to move. There’s a certain futility to it all, for I’m never going to have absolute flow. To all the girls next door who had to listen to me struggle through my scales: I’m sorry. I, too, wish there were another way.
I must have enjoyed practicing at some point in my musical life. When I was five, at the beginning of my five-year stint with the plastic soprano recorder, I tooted out “Carmen” and “America,” from West Side Story, with gusto. My one-year fling with the flute left me perpetually light-headed. At least the piano work — scales in “The Virtuoso Pianist,” two-part inventions from Bach and the rest — was decent; the keys were reliable, even if my own movements were clunky. I kept a diligent record of clarinet practice hours when I started elementary-school band, and though I sometimes cheated a bit, I was fairly diligent. It was in the later years that the work got harder, the hours got longer and I ran circles in my head to justify skipping another few days for the sake of school assignments. I still feel guilty about it, yet when there’s a stack of reading in my room and winter’s ugly remains are visible through the window, the four-minute trek to the practice room does not happen often enough.
I should clarify that I’m not one of those virtuoso YSO musicians. I played in a couple residential college orchestras last year and in a strange experimental music group ominously named “Black Is the Color.” But college asks us to categorize ourselves: Whereas in high school I could point to my principal clarinetist position in the massive symphonic band, or the many hours of Saturday orchestra rehearsal, chamber music sessions and lessons, here “musician” has fallen dangerously close to the wayside. After a particularly severe bout of non-practicing over the course of winter break, my suitemate asked why I didn’t just quit. I tried to explain that this would be abandonment: abandoning the wooden, silver-keyed beauty that I spent months searching for on eBay; abandoning the label that I have proudly wrapped around myself since I was small; abandoning all the pieces I have yet to play.
I tell people that I’ve just temporarily lost my momentum. After attending a chamber music performance in India over winter break, I was suddenly ready to ask my friends to rehearse. I listened to New York’s classical music radio station on a recent snow day, when the office where I work was almost entirely empty, and I thought of when I would next get to practice my Bach Partita. But still I relegate classical music to pockets of my life: car rides with my parents, paper-writing stress sessions in the library and the like. I struggle to slip from listening back into playing, but I remember what my teacher said last week: The most important sorts of musicians are not the professionals, but those who practice even when there are no paychecks. I can’t say that I play only because I love it — no lifelong relationship is that simple — but I keep at it. If this article meanders too much, I do apologize; I was in the practice room just now, trying to make music that someone, on the other side of that non-sound-proof door, would listen to without wondering when I would be done.