On the Hook to Play at My Brother’s Wedding

by | Nov 12, 2012

Photo by Phil Settels.

My 12 straight years of weekly piano lessons and twice-yearly recitals stopped abruptly when I graduated high school.

Years went by without my taking lessons, performing, learning a new piece, or playing on any kind of regular basis. I would play occasionally—in the student lounge at college, at my parents’ house during a visit, in a rehearsal space that I received a gift certificate for—but each time I was only reacquainting myself with the keyboard and pieces I used to play under my teacher’s guidance.

Playing the piano depressed me a little: What is the point of this if I’m never going to be a concert pianist? Why can’t I motivate myself to learn a challenging new piece? Who is even listening? My playing felt less like practicing piano and more like an aimless hobby or temporary distraction.

After over a decade elapsed, my older brother, Dan, asked me to play in his wedding ceremony. It was just the (easier) Secondo part of a duet, a custom three-minute arrangement of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, and it was going to be an informal backyard wedding. For my wedding earlier in the year, he had expertly arranged and played two Bach pieces, making it look easy, as usual.

I still looked up to Dan, who had always been the more dedicated and masterful pianist of the two of us. He would practice at all hours, crashing and grazing the keys with abandon. In high school, he and I used to play Schubert’s Fantasia in F Minor duet together. We both learned both parts, and getting through the entire thing felt, at the time, like the ultimate classical piano music experience. Now the idea of playing for his special day made me nervous, since my skills were rusty and I didn’t have easy access to a piano.

But as I practiced my part of the duet for the wedding, even though I was on an electronic keyboard at my friend’s apartment, listening to a robotic MIDI file of the Primo part on my phone through uncomfortable earbuds, I felt propelled with purpose. I remembered old practicing techniques, like playing a difficult section over and over at varying tempos and with made-up rhythms.

When the wedding day arrived, I experienced a little flutter (only a fraction of the nervousness I used to feel during recitals, especially since we were hidden from the wedding guests’ view) and the magical concentration that brings the piece together when there’s only one chance to succeed. After a few wrong-sounding notes at the beginning—I forgot the key signature, after doing so much wedding-related rushing around and not getting a chance to warm up or run through it that day—the friend of the bride and I pulled off the rest of the duet nicely.

Even though it was a simple piece, and an informal setting, it was still a performance. And a performance, I realized, is more than a self-imposed goal. A performance is signing up for a 5K race rather than just relying on myself to keep up a solo running routine and increase my speed and distance when no one is watching. A performance is inviting people to a dinner party or authoring a food blog rather than just trying to get myself, through sheer will, to cook more meals from scratch.

Now Dan and I live our busy adult lives on opposite coasts and don’t get to play duets. But, in a grown-up version of performing together, we each had our hands on the piano keys as the other walked down the aisle during our wedding ceremonies this year.

In the video below, Paul Badura-Skoda and Jörg Demus perform Schubert’s Fantasia in F Minor for four hands. Two elderly gentlemen rather than Joanna as a teenager with her brother, but the video shows some good close-ups of the hands.

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