Brain, music, memory

When I was a kid I played the piano a lot and for a long time. I was good. I got good.

Then I grew up and I stopped. In New York City no one I knew I had a piano. Some people had keyboards but a keyboard could never do Chopin justice. It just won’t and I’m not sorry.

But one day I was ready to play again. Inspired by an NYC program that makes pianos available in public spaces all summer (Sing for Hope) and an unassuageable angst I bought a copy of Beethoven’s Pathetique at the Julliard store. It was the piece I played in my senior year recital and professionally recorded and sent to colleges as an addendum to my applications. Returning to it ten years later I assumed I would have to pluck it out, note by note. And some parts I did. But mostly, as I worked my way through the many layers and pages, I was surprised and then awed. My hands knew the piece by heart–like they belonged to someone else. I ignored the logical part of my brain that cowered at its inability to explain or control what was happening and let my hands play. When I was done I laughed.

There’s a part of the brain that tells stories, makes memories, rationalizes behavior and makes decisions. It’s the part of the brain that talks us through life. And then there’s this other part of the brain–deeper, more primal. It’s the part that our stories can’t get to, that carries Beethoven’s Pathetique in exquisite perfection for ten years without questioning why. This is why people with dementia or Alzheimer’s can’t remember events or people, but can remember songs, poems, how to play a musical instrument. This is why coming back to the piano after so long felt strange and magical. I discovered this part of the brain that connects directly and intimately with the body–surpassing all barriers of logic, memory, ritual or rule.


Someone asked me recently, what makes you lovable to yourself? And I liked the question. And the first thing that I thought before I thought at all was–the piano. And I’m not totally sure why. I worry a little that it’s ego–that I am accomplished at the piano and accomplishments make me lovable. And I think that’s okay. Sometimes you need a little bit of ego to keep you afloat.

But if it were all about ego I probably would have answered something else–maybe writing or biking or my buff shoulders. There’s something about the piano that’s different. This thing that I snubbed for ten years and denied any audience. This thing that will never bring me fame or money. This thing that’s not just my experience but a human experience passed down over time. Yes it feels good to be good at something. But I think what I really love about the piano is that it makes me feel like magic.


  1. Anne: Have loved reading your recent essays….this one most of all. You can feel that you are beginning to let the inspiration inside of you flow through to both your prose and the piano. Truly miraculous the way music is permanently and wonderfully kept in our brains…like a treasure, like magic indeed.

    Fond Regards, Mike

    PS: The ghost sounds like a spook. Good riddance. You are a smart, one of a kind woman who deserves the best life has to offer.

    MaryMichael Sterchi Retired from Law, Not Life (C) 816-519-7568


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