October 24, 2022

SOKOL | In a Brand New Key

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Around this time last fall, a meeting with my advising dean turned into an inadvertent life coaching session. As I staged a last-minute debate with myself about whether to drop a class, my advisor paused me and said, “I think… you need a hobby.”

At the time, all I felt I needed was an extension on the Add/Drop deadline. Still, I listened as my advisor told me about how she’d picked up gardening recently and knew someone who helped raise butterflies in his free time. These activities they did “just for fun” — a phrase, she must have sensed, that rarely entered my vocabulary.

Predictably, I procrastinated on hobby-finding for nearly a year, until a friend told me this summer about her experience taking piano lessons at Cornell. In the throes of yet another chaotic Add/Drop period, I entered Lincoln Hall — a building I only half-knew existed — and added Music 3513: Individual Instruction to my schedule. (In full transparency, I also learned that lessons at Cornell require an audition, an unfortunate deterrent in my opinion — but that’s a topic for another column.)

My newfound hobby isn’t really new: the piano and I go way back. I played seriously for 12 years, briefly considered attending college for music, realized that meant five hours of practice per day and questionable job prospects and decided to acquire questionable job prospects by being a government major instead. (Kidding. Mostly.) I graduated high school, promising myself and my instructors that I would continue to play, and then barely touched a keyboard for three years.

The thing is, growing up, piano was never a hobby. Music was framed to me as something that required passion and devotion, soul-searching and respect: half an hour per day could never do Haydn justice, and Beethoven would roll in his grave at my half-baked scales. 

At the end of every semester in high school, with a pounding heart and leaden legs, I would walk up the steps of Ford-Crawford Concert Hall ready for judgment day — less melodramatically known as the day of my piano recital. I felt pride in performing, but the love I had for piano was undermined by a foundation of fear. 

I don’t think my teachers — whom I deeply admire to this day — ever intended it to be that way. Yet, somewhere between perceived expectations, my own perfectionism and classic stage fright, the joy I got out of playing was counteracted by a faint sense of dread. 

In the twelve years that I played piano, not once did I play it fully for myself. Though I may not have realized it, I practiced the instrument at least in part out of obligation: to my teachers, my parents and the part of myself that felt I had been playing too long to quit. 

Restarting piano lessons was a watershed moment for me because for the first time, I’m taking them for myself. I get excited to walk into Lincoln Hall’s basement practice rooms — even if the practice room pianos take the concept of ‘well-loved’ to a new dimension — and find myself curious to learn new pieces, even if the progress is slow. Some days, I play for only half an hour; some days, I don’t play at all. High school me would scorn at the fact that I dare to even call this ‘practice,’ but it feels more genuine and peaceful than practice ever did before.

It strikes me that modern life isn’t built for hobbies — Cornell certainly can feel like it’s not. When my advisor initially asked if I had one, I instinctually started to rattle off my extra-curricular activities, only to realize that many of them had come to feel like obligations, just as piano playing once did.

Indeed, as students, many parts of our lives might feel obligatory. It’s hard to pass through college without a striking awareness of just how much everyone else is doing, hard not to glance at class schedules, LinkedIn pages or resumes and wonder if your own is full enough. 

Yet, life’s obligations won’t end when you graduate. So, I encourage you to examine your life now and take time to do at least one activity for yourself if you don’t already — one that doesn’t require competitions, performances, deadlines or grades. Something as simple as reading for fun will do the trick.

The Chopin Fantasie-Impromptu I recently started working on may never see the light of day. It certainly won’t be performed in Ford Hall in front of sixty-some fidgeting children and marginally-less-fidgeting parents. I’m more than okay with that. Maybe, I’ll play it for friends if we’re near a keyboard, and maybe I won’t. The key to my newfound enjoyment of playing, I’ve found, is that the only applause I care about now is my own.

Lia Sokol (she/her) is a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. My So-kolled Life runs every other Sunday this semester.