November 12, 2013

How Being a Lousy Piano Student Saved My Life. ~ Jamie Goldberg

It didn’t matter that she was older than my mother, had a zillion grey hairs, and was an unmarried piano teacher who lived with an odd-looking, wavy haired cat.

Even as an unsophisticated 19 year-old, I knew there was something special about Anna, my college piano teacher. Had she invited me to a séance, I would have been game.

Anna’s studio was decorated with a Persian rug, plants on the window sill, a cozy couch and—the center piece—a black Steinway grand piano with a small picture atop of what appeared to me to be either a young Indian boy or girl.

Walking down the hallway towards Anna’s studio filled me with dread. I wasn’t being forced to study piano, it was my decision, which made it all the worse to show up unprepared. Throughout the years, I had learned to absorb a great deal of time talking about religion, the threat of nuclear holocaust, or anything else that could eat up the majority of my piano lesson time. That strategy had worked beautifully in high school, however, it’s a little harder to pull off when you’re there of your own volition.

I gathered my courage and quickly concocted what I hoped was a plausible excuse as to why I would be wasting the next hour of Anna’s time.

But she provided me with a safe space, eradicating my need to fabricate, which allowed me to be painfully and vulnerably honest and admit that I was struggling to make it through the day due to chronic anxiety and depression, much less practice Beethoven sonatas and Chopin etudes. After my awkward confession, Anna and I sat in silence, allowing the weight of my words to sink in, infusing the room with my despair.

 “Tomorrow night I’m going to a meditation program. You’re more than welcome to come with me. It might help you right now. No pressure, I just want to support you however I can.”

Meditation program?

I would rather go to a synagogue.I had imagined that Anna was Jewish—I had the ability to convince myself that any last name other than Smith or Jones had the potential of belonging to a Jew. Since Anna didn’t fall into the Smith or Jones category, I held out the hope that she was one of God’s Chosen People, (a part of me clung to my dream of one day becoming a member of the tribe).

However, my immediate need was relief from the near constant anxiety and depression.

I was willing to take a chance even if it meant going to a meditation center instead of a synagogue.

The next night, my boyfriend Jason and I met Anna at a small building in Midtown Atlanta where we were greeted at the door by a hit of incense and a stocking footed hostess.

After being introduced to several people who, at least to me, seemed unusually happy, we were lead to the meditation room where everyone, with the exception of Jason and I, bowed in the direction of an empty chair at the front of the room. Above the chair was the same photograph, only much larger, that I had seen in Anna’s studio, of the Indian person of dubious gender. (During orientation, I found out that the person in the picture was a woman, and the guru of the tradition.)

On the side and back walls of the hall were pictures of gurus, one of which had a very large stomach, bald head, and was clad in nothing more than a loin cloth.

The program hadn’t even begun and I already had serious doubts that I was going to find anything remotely helpful in this strange new environment.

I was given a chanting card of transliterated Sanskrit mantras. I didn’t understand what the funny looking assemblage of letters meant, but I had made it through the door that April evening, which took a hell of a lot of courage for a shy 19-year-old girl from Arkansas, so I figured that I might as participate and sing along.

The music started slowly with the lights up, so that newcomers, like me, could read the chanting card. The musicians lead the chant and the rest of us responded. As the chant picked up speed, driven by the rhythm of the drum, the lights were lowered and the energy in the room became charged, pulsating with an ecstatic vibration.

After several repetitions, I had the hang of the chant.

Alternately clapping and waving my hands in the air, I felt as though I had been chanting all my life. My body swayed as I chanted the Sanskrit mantra with a passion and fervor that wiped away any self-consciousness. My long honey-colored hair was pulled back with a black barrette, and I wore a black skirt and a white long- sleeved Peter Pan collared silk shirt with clip-on pearls, looking every bit the classical pianist, even though I couldn’t play like one. Gyrating in my seat as I chanted Govinda Jaya Jaya with the passion and fervor of a wild woman I, a Primitive Baptist minister’s granddaughter, was an incongruous sight.

My depression certainly wasn’t eradicated through the practice of those ancient yogic rituals; however, I received an invaluable gift that saved my life.

The beautiful, profound yet simple message that I received that evening was that my life is valuable and that as part of this divine and magnificent creation I am inherently worthy and valuable; and for that my soul is eternally grateful.


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Assistant Editor:  Terri Tremblett/Editor: Bryonie Wise

{Photo: Susan Drysdale on Pixoto}


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