Piano, Life’s Complexity, & Storytelling

It was last spring that I had the alarming realization.

I was preparing for my senior recital, the capstone of my time as a music major  emphasizing in piano performance. Here’s my problem: I was playing through a lively piece by Debussy when I lost all my confidence in the difference a between playing loud versus soft. Sure, I could hear the difference, but playing it was a totally different story. The longer I sat on my piano bench trying to remind myself of the elementary musical principle, the more disconcerted I became.


My problem was not the loss of ability to strike the keys louder or softer, but rather that my maturing musicianship had increased the complexity with which I could play. I could now orchestrate in my mind the interrelated elements of playing even single note: color, shape, velocity, tone, approach/release of the key, articulation.

Telling myself to play this note loud and that note soft was like looking at a color wheel to find the bright color and the dull color. Which hue? What saturation? Do you see my predicament?

The reason that this was frustrating–other than the fact that I realized it all at once–was that I wanted to just follow the written directives on the page in all their detailed glory. Instead, my mind was forcing me to involve my own interpretation of the written music in the process. Ironically, any playing at all involves interpretation, I was just blind to this at first. When I was just beginning piano, I always wanted to play everything as – pre-cice-ly – as – I – could. I was mechanical in my playing (that’s probably why I so enjoyed Bach). But you see, that too is interpretation. I am a reforming literalist. I like to see things as black and white. If only life would cooperate!

Music has countless dimensions. For a beginning pianist, there are just 3 main dimensions–notes, rhythm, dynamics. In order to holistically progress, a musician needs to develop their sensitivity to an increasing number of these dimensions (several of which I mentioned above). I was aware that I had been growing in these areas for quite some time; the surprise factor that day was the loss of simplicity that I craved.


My point is this: Life is complex. People are complex. Situations are rarely black-and-white.

I read recently that the difference between good and evil seems to be growing increasingly blurry. Hold on–let me clarify. I do believe in an absolute difference between the two. I believe that God is Love Himself. He is Grace, Mercy, the infinite Good One. There are also actions, events, situations which are thick with darkness by nature. No, the boundary between good and evil remains firmly intact. It is how these situations affects our lives when viewed through the lens of time which is difficult to distinguish. As long as we don’t completely surrender to bitterness or anger (or self-pity or despair… but you get the picture), pain eventually prods us toward maturity. The Lord’s grace redeems even my brokenness to purify and strengthen me. I hate pain. But growing requires pain.

For example, I went through a burnout/breakdown from school leadership, music ministry at church, and unhealthy friendships by the end of high school. My life felt unbearable, and my health is still faces repercussions from that chapter. On the other hand, though, the experience taught me the consequences of poor boundaries. Being forced to slow down and say no to opportunities likely prevented me from a life-long pattern of mistakes. It made me more empathetic, confident of my skill set, and passionate about supporting leaders. It is true that I made many unwise choices, but can the situation be fairly assessed as being either good or evil when both have resulted from it?

I’ve been rethinking my Story. How can I best describe my desperation, my successes, my journey to be found by Hope Himself, and my passions, all while doing justice to the complexity of each? Can we present intricacy simply? How do we make sense of our life’s events? This is one of my current endeavors. Just as with playing piano, every narration involves interpretation. I desire to tell an honest, transparent, and edifying interpretation of my life, my subplot in God’s Story. Perhaps put most simply, this is my story:

I have tasted the despair of the world’s emptiness and embraced the grace of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The LORD is my hope, my light, and my salvation; I live for Him.

That’s the simplest version. My difficulty comes when I expound on it. I easily grow frustrated when representing entangled complexity, but I suppose it is appropriate that the process of shaping my story is a journey in and of itself.


Now, back to Debussy. Because I needed to stop philosophizing, get back to earth, and utilize my practice time, I eventually absolved myself from total perfection concerning his dynamics. After all, even his written directives were an interpretation of how he gave his song color and life. That reveals something both beautiful and difficult about stories, musical, verbal, and otherwise. Stories cannot be reduced to objectivity. 

As I set aside my obsessive drive for perfection and allow the beauty of tension, I encourage you to consider the hue and saturation of life’s colors. Life is not black-and-white. Let’s give people the space to surprise us with the complexity of their personalities and experiences. Let’s listen well to those around us and be honest about our journeys. Please, let’s be gracious with one another as we seek truth, grace, peace, relationships.

May you find joy today from the Creator of Beauty.