Stress, suffering, and the musical possibilities of not throwing a piano off the top of a tall building

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A piano: I can smell it before I see it—wood and dust and what else I’m not sure. I don’t know what makes piano-smell different from the tang of generic wooden furniture. Maybe all the other parts, the felt and steel and iron, give it that unique character. But I know that smell, even before I can name it.

Then I turn around, and, seeing it, amend my analysis. What I’m looking at was a piano, but now it’s a tangle of splintered wood and coiled strings. I’d heard there’s a tradition here at MIT of annually mixing a piano with precipitous height and adding gravity. I’m a little taken aback by the sight of this shattered instrument, given pride of place in the MIT Museum beside so many examples of the school’s renowned history of engineering, exploration, innovation—creation. While the rest of the museum extols the incredible work that gets done at MIT, this one exhibit seems a quiet acknowledgment of the cost of that famous innovation; it speaks to the pressures students find themselves under, and the lengths to which they might go for a moment’s ease.

Struggling to keep up with work loads and sleep schedules both, yoked to the Sisyphean effort of meeting the expectations of peers, professors, parents, and—especially—ourselves, it’s easy to get wound so tight we either find an outlet to release all that tension, or snap. So I understand the catharsis of breaking things when we’re at the breaking point. But a piano is not a thing to me.

My grandmother’s old piano stands at the center of many of my best childhood memories, in early-morning lessons and half-remembered melodies. I remember standing on tiptoe beside her piano to watch the hammers move as she played, or lying beneath it to feel the ground resonate with the low notes. I was reading music when I was learning to read words; I was playing that piano before I could ride a bike. Several of our ancestors formed the Hamlin half of Mason & Hamlin; my grandmother’s father was a piano-tuner. And she, of course, was a piano teacher. A piano is a link to my family, to my home. It’s part of what defines who I am, and where I come from.

I wonder how difficult it was to scrape the pieces up off the ground, imagining the unfortunate soul tasked with pulling splintery piano-bits out from between blades of grass. I wonder what it sounded like, all eighty-eight keys and however many strings.

My mother says it sounds like a bomb. She has a story she occasionally tells, always prefaced with the admonishment that I never should tell it (so of course I do), about a certain ill-fated piano during her own college days. It wasn’t a tradition at her school; just a group of friends with too much time and not enough supervision, a very tall building with an accessible elevator shaft, and a piano they deemed irreparably out of tune, and therefore of no further musical use.

I expect my grandmother doesn’t know that story about my mom. But none of my grandmother’s children grew up to play the piano, and I realize I don’t know why. Just like preachers’ daughters, it’s said, are almost fated to raise Cain as adults, maybe being a piano-teacher’s daughter all but guaranteed my mother would derive greater satisfaction from smashing a piano than playing it. If I had been my grandmother’s daughter, I might’ve wanted to send a piano to the bottom of an elevator shaft, too.

But as it is, for me a piano is a repository of happy memories, and a crucible of musical alchemy. Sartre said, “Suffering is justified as soon as it becomes the raw material of beauty.” When I bring my pressure and stress to the piano, anger and sadness and frustration and fear are laid down on the keys and transformed. What I give to the piano it gives back, but what comes back to me is better and brighter than what I put in.

When the MIT students make their annual musical sacrifice to the gods of academia, I probably will make the short pilgrimage to go see it. As you can see below, a piano being pushed off a tall building is quite a sight. But, for me, that piano’s potential would be far greater were it safe safe on the ground.

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