by Eugene Henninger-Voss
On the Global Citizen Year packing list under “other recommended items” is “small musical instrument (if you play one, can carry it, and can tolerate possible damage — music is a great way to connect cross-culturally!)”. I realized that a grand piano was out of the question.
What about the Henninger-Voss family upright? 0/3 was not a passing grade, so that didn’t fly. The old keyboard that no one really touched since we got the upright 14 years ago? It passed all of Global Citizen Year’s requirements, but unfortunately it didn’t fit in a suitcase and I didn’t have room for such an enormous extra carry on. But man, I couldn’t bare the thought of not playing for a year.
After much deliberation, a few visits to local music stores, a little premature heartbreak, I remembered a midi-keyboard that hadn’t seen sunlight since we moved 7 years ago. Again, it seemed too big, but the genius I call my mother found that if you took our largest suitcase, stood the keyboard on its side, stretched the suitcase as far as it could go, pulled back the cloth a bit, then stretched it a bit more, you could wedge the keyboard in diagonally from corner to corner as securely as a brace. Bingo.
Now for those of you who are unsure of what a midi-keyboard is, it is a keyboard with no speakers that is incapable of producing sound, only a certain type of electronic signal that when interpreted through a software like “garage band” can be made into noise.
Maybe not an elegant solution, but I could play a piano wherever I went.
And I’ve played a piano everywhere I’ve gone.
It wasn’t just that keyboard that I’ve played, but pianos everywhere. Being a pianist is great, because whenever someone else has a piano a) you find out pretty quickly and b) in my experience they always let you use it. Pianos are also almost the lingua franca of music: almost every musician, and many other people too, can play at least a little piano. So they show up all over the place. When they do show up it is magic. The piano allows me, far from home in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar faces and incomprehensible languages, to connect both with myself and those around me.
Whatever I am feeling when I sit down at the piano, once I start playing, everything becomes tranquil. It’s hard to explain what it feels like to play. Maybe “get in the zone.” I loose myself in the music and that grounds me. Wherever I go, playing the piano is the same. I just need to sit down and tinkle those ivories and I am home, I am where I belong. I always get up feeling more relaxed and confident than when I sat down. Wherever I can find a piano, I know I can find myself.
It may be trite, cliché, and overused (and as someone who has spent a lot of time with high-school music programs, I can tell you it is definitely overused), but music is an international language. It doesn’t matter who I’m with, if I can communicate “Eu toco piano” and they let me play, then I can share with them a part of myself, I can give them something. Almost literally, where words fail (such as, per say, when English words cease to convey meaning when directed at a Portuguese speaker), music speaks. When I first got to Brazil, all I could do was introduce myself and listen, but if I played the piano then suddenly I could speak for 20, 30, 50 minutes and everybody would listen.
More than being able to play music, being a musician has helped break down the barriers between myself and the people I meet. Solely because I am a musician I have made friends, had long conversations, and gotten numbers from other musicians. From pre-departure training, where during introductions I mentioned I played piano and a minute later a kid I had never met before said that he played the saxophone and that I was in his band, to just yesterday when I talked to my capoeira teacher after class, and on finding out that I too was a musician he handed me one of his band’s CDs, simply being a musician has handed me opportunities I would not have had otherwise.
Just look at the keyboard. Just like my musicianship, after a lot of hard work I was able to bring it with me. Remember that band I was drafted into? If I hadn’t been able to jerry-rig a portal keyboard both my band and another act would have been out of luck when the talent show was held at the ball-field, no where close to the baby-grand we all had practiced on. At my apprenticeship at O Sitio when my mentor/boss found out I was a musician and had my instrument with me he thought that it would be in everybody’s best interest if I played and gave the house some music for two hours every day. So now for my job I get to do what I want to do on weekends and weeknights anyways. That keyboard has allowed me to do things I could not have otherwise.
For me, all of this leads to two main takeaways. First, it further cements in my mind that music is more than just an activity, and is not in the same league as other hobbies but is so much more. Music has done something for me that I do not think model airplanes, sports, or even debate and theater could. Nothing else I have ever heard of centers you, opens doors for you, and speaks for you as easily, quickly and accessibly as music. Secondly, go after what you want to do. I bent over backwards and bent my suitcase wider to get that keyboard to the other side of the equator, and I have been more rewarded for that bit of preparation than I have been for almost any other single action. It seems like we should not just be ready to seize opportunity, but actively put ourselves in a position to seize the opportunities we most desire. I wanted to play the piano, and I put myself in a position to, and as a result I have played, and will play, the piano again and again. Next time you are packing for a trip, maybe an eight month trip to a different country, I recommend you bring whatever you are passionate about. It doesn’t matter how small it is if it is big enough to you.
Except maybe a grand piano.