They are the prophets of unwanted gaiety, the minstrels of midnight madness—they are the piano players of Frist, and I hereby appoint myself their public defense. Do not assume that I have not heard them. Like you, I have read, written, and cried in Frist in the late hours of the night; I have unwillingly listened to jazz, classical, and whatever else people play on the piano; I have not-so-passive-aggressively thrown pieces of paper at campus pianists.
The piano players of Frist are of a peculiar breed. Everywhere they go, they are loathed and abused, but continue to play proudly and, often, loudly. Whether you are buying airheads in the C-Store, flirting at the Welcome Desk, or tabling for something no one really cares about, you can often hear a faint, if persistent, melody from the southwest corner of Frist. Often, it is one you recognize, if not because you actually know the song, then because you have probably heard the same Frist pianist play it over and over in the last few years. (There is one particular piece that sounds like a cross between rainfall and tripping down the stairs that, for a brief moment, made me wish I, too, could play the piano; if you are the pianist who plays this piece every now and then, Thank You.) Ultimately, there seems to be a fairly popular consensus that the pianists are any or all of the following: Good But Extremely Inconsiderate, Not Cute Enough to Get Away With It, Cute But Still So Fucking Inconsiderate, and so on.
And yet, they continue to regale us, whether we will it or not, with their music. No matter how many dirty, dirty looks, how many loud declarations of “If I Knew How to Play the Piano I Would Certainly Not Play It Here,” they play on. What drives these maniacal musicians, and what drives our passionate hatred? I determined to speak with one of these creatures, that I might know his (or her, but usually his) soul.
The strange thing is, once you begin looking for a Frist pianist, it is exceptionally difficult to find one. If you don’t believe me, try it. I have spent the last two weeks searching desperately for a pianist with whom I could speak, and could never arrive at Frist at the right moment to catch one. Every few days, a friend would text or email or call or Facebook me to let me know that a pianist had struck up his despicable habit again, but by the time I arrived, they had disappeared. I have a confession. For the last three days, I have been spent all of my studying time in Frist waiting for one to appear. (I have not been so diligent since trying to capture a Scyther in Pokemon Blue.) Last night, despairing and bedraggled, I brought myself to Frist for one last attempt. I had homework, I had House of Cards, I had plenty of better things to be doing, but I condemned myself to one last pointless Night’s Watch and suddenly, there—no, it can’t be—it is—in the southwest corner of Frist, a small supernova begins to collapse on itself in splendor and divinity, a king raises his banner atop a hill for a doomed and glorious charge, the ground opens and Gaia herself sings a piercing death knell, and a Frist pianist sits majestically and impossibly upon the soft curve of the piano bench, head bowed as if in prayer and fingers nimble and slender by his sides.
He was about average height, with rusty hair and a trace of a nearsighted squint. I was sweating. Rushing over to him, I realized I hadn’t even prepared questions, but he didn’t care. After I hastily and moistly introduced myself, we began talking. He told me that he had been playing for a dozen years. He didn’t practice much anymore, but loved the chance to play on (what he told me) is the best piano on campus. “I feel more creative on it,” he told me. “I know that might not make any sense, but I feel more creative on this piano where, though there is an element of performance, I’m not performing for anybody. It’s not about showing off.” I have sat through countless pretentious precepts and I have been pretentious plenty of times myself, but I can say with religious certainty that he was being honest. For him, playing the Frist piano wasn’t about doing something he could do by himself and choosing instead in a student center full of people. Rather, there was a different feeling here, of being around people who are present but disinterested, of being good enough to experiment musically while retaining the tiny-but-persistent fear of messing up in front of them.
He did not want to bother people, and told me, “If there are a lot of people working or studying, then I don’t do it.” Moreover, he told me he used the “damper pedal” on the piano to make it sound quieter (this actually makes a difference; if you can hear the piano from more than thirty feet away, the pianist isn’t using the damper). Here was a Frist pianist who was playing without being inconsiderate, who was proud without being exhibitionist, and who knew that by risking a certain amount of social grace, he could become a better pianist and, more importantly, achieve a purer level of self-expression. Our conversation ended abruptly; his friend came over and said he had to go and my face was covered in sweat, so we exchanged awkward goodbyes and I considered what he had shared with me.
I am sure that there are plenty of other Frist pianists who don’t share his motivations. (This is easily proven, since many of them don’t use the damper pedal.) We hate the Frist pianists, above all, for the motivations we ascribe to them: that they are trying to show off, that they are inconsiderate, and that they just want attention. Some do. But some, while attempting to minimize the harm done to those around them, are trying to play and experience their own music in a way that cannot be done anywhere else. Even for those pianists of ill disposition (at least the good ones), why can’t we put aside their motivations and (if we’re not studying too hard) enjoy the music? People sit and study in Café Viv every day and the music there is far louder and more annoying. Is it just because some Frist music is played by attention-seeking pianists while the awful, awful jazz in Viv is played by a long dead trumpeter preserved by a local radio station that we hate the former and accept (or, God forbid, enjoy) the latter? There are so many artists with terrible motivations and pernicious habits whose music, as long as it is good, we let ourselves appreciate. Surely attention-seeking is not the worst of these predilections.
So what do we really hate about the Frist pianists? One friend suggested to me that we are scared of the Frist pianists’ vulnerability. While we sit, whittling away at philosophy readings or clicking Stumble Stumble Stumble on stumbleupon, there is someone who has the nerve to put himself (or herself) out in front of everyone, to declare that This Is My Passion and I Am Going to Express It. It would probably be an annoying world if everyone were to go around expressing all of his or her passions all of the time without regard for anyone else. In this case, though, for us non-musicians, I believe what bothers us is the particular sense of impotence one feels when one cannot make beautiful music but one is listening to someone who can. We shame the Frist pianists, throw little balled up pieces of scrap paper at them, and give them the dirtiest looks to clamp down on the tiny part of ourselves that hears them and wishes we could create something. As Schopenhauer (I told you I could be pretentious) said, music reveals our innermost depths. Let the Frist pianists reveal theirs, and perhaps they might show us our own.