Courtesy of Zhemin Shao

“Zhemin, will you find middle C for us on the piano?”

My kindergarten class was gathered on the rug for afternoon circle time. Our teacher, Mrs. Murphy, was a lover of music, and I had informed her that I’d recently started taking piano lessons. Though I don’t recall the exact context for this particular request, I clearly remember the sense of purpose that rose within me: Mrs. Murphy had entrusted me with the very important mission of finding this particular note. I was determined not to let her down.

I sat down at the wooden upright piano in the back of the room, the 88 white and black keys laid out before me. I had only had a few lessons, but my piano teacher had told me all about middle C. I knew it was a white key directly to the left of a group of two black keys. But which one? I was used to practicing on my electric keyboard at home, which did not have a complete set of keys. I figured middle C was probably the C closest to the middle of the keyboard, but even then there were two possibilities. I couldn’t quite eyeball it and figure out which one was closer to the center.

“Alright, while he’s working on that…”

I heard Mrs. Murphy’s voice in the background, expertly moving the class forward while I continued to work on a task that had undoubtedly taken longer than she had expected. Meanwhile, I placed my index fingers on either end of the keyboard and moved them towards each other, one key at a time. At the end of this grueling maneuver, when my fingers touched at the middle of the keyboard — with my left index finger on E and my right index finger on the adjacent F — I was finally able to determine which C was most central. Barely containing the excitement bubbling up inside me, I jabbed my right thumb into the key, releasing a harsh tone that pierced through the sounds of my teacher’s voice. Everyone turned their heads to look at me.

“Well done, Zhemin!”

I felt very accomplished.

For the uninitiated, middle C is a young pianist’s best friend: It’s usually the first note that we learn, and, with most of our earliest pieces being in C major, it’s often the tonic — the home note, if you will. And as the years passed, middle C became one of my closest friends: From Twinkle Twinkle Little Star to Mozart’s K. 545 sonata in C major, from Bach’s C minor partita to Beethoven’s Waldstein sonata, this note, which had once been so elusive, was now a reliable constant in my life.

But three months ago, I lost middle C.

When I moved into my suite in Silliman College in late August, I was far more worried about climbing the stairs to my fifth floor dorm than finding a piano to practice on. After all, my residential college had two practice rooms with pianos, and I figured that even if those weren’t accessible, there were plenty of other pianos elsewhere on campus that I could use. But after a couple of emails, each one less hopeful than the last, it finally dawned upon me that I would not be tickling the ivories for the foreseeable future. The practice rooms were locked because of COVID. The piano in the common room was off limits. And the School of Music pianos were only accessible to grad students. I felt as if I had lost a close friend.

And so, for 88 days, from Aug. 25 to Nov. 20 — exactly one day for each key on the piano — I was in search of middle C. Three times each day, I stared longingly at the concert grand in the dining hall as I passed by with my brown paper bag. I looked through the practice room window into the deep, dark void, barely making out the contours of the piano locked inside. Meanwhile, my Beethoven sonatas and Chopin etudes collected dust in the topmost drawer of my bedside dresser.

Of course, I never did find middle C. And on most days, college kept me busy enough that I was able to relegate this absence to the back of my mind. But on those days when I found myself itching to hear the magical tones of the piano, I resorted to the next best option: YouTube.

You know the videos of classical pieces with the sheet music turning in the background? I’ve never been much of a binge watcher, but I binge watched those. One day, it was Brahms’ piano concertos. Another time, it was Schumann’s last compositions. Yet another day, lesser-known works of chamber music. And while I had listened to plenty of classical music during my playing days, my forays into unfamiliar musical territory proved more rewarding than I could have imagined. They allowed me to enjoy music in a whole new way.

In a sense, I took a gap semester from playing the piano. But my struggles weren’t unique: In some way or another, we have all taken gap semesters, or ongoing gap periods, from the things we love most. My suitemate has not seen a squash court in months. My friends in orchestra miss the intimacy of playing in the same room. And we all long for the day when we can finally see our friends normally again.

These times are a constant reminder of how thankful we ought to be for the things we take for granted. But if we see these gaps in our lives as opportunities for reflection — chances to engage in personal growth, and maybe even discover a silver lining along the way — our struggles can become much more manageable. After all, the end can’t be too far away.

As for me, the end to my piano gap semester came last week. After travelling 3,000 miles across the country, I sat down at a piano for the first time in months. I took a deep breath. Then, I played a single note, relishing in the moment.

I would tell you which note it was, but I think you already know.

Zhemin Shao | zhemin.shao@yale.edu