A Duck with One Leg Aviya Kushner I once lived in half a dorm room in the middle of Paris, right across from the École des Mines. Every afternoon, from the speaker of a rickety, cheap tape recorder, the music of Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto stretched its immense arms past the chipped, hundred-year-old bathroom sink that doubled as a kitchen sink, over the cold communal showers, the ancient grease-thickened hot plates, and the toilet in the hallway, operated by a string. The recording was one of a few non-clothing items I had brought from the United States to keep me company on my first-ever trip to Europe. I always listened at the highest possible volume, which was dangerous in a dorm with strict rules and a noise policy. Americans were always first when it came to infractions. I listened with almost religious devotion, a devotion I could not muster now, even if I wanted to. It was the devotion of a particular time, a particular place. The concerto roared at the ridiculous narrowness of my living space, at the power of the foyer’s cleaning lady, and at the ambition going through those hallways, all those 140 girls of modest means from all over the world wanting so much to be someone who mattered. We were all there, splitting tiny dorm rooms and putting up with curfews and ancient bathrooms, because we never could have afforded Paris otherwise. I was twenty years old. Chopin was in the background as I negotiated, in French, with the terribly rude Algerian femme des ménages, who regularly rifled through all my possessions and even threw out all my food in the middle of Passover. But as long as the concerto played, I was not just another girl far from home, stuck appeasing the cleaning lady and figuring out how to pay for matzah, even the overpriced Parisian kind, tinged with delicious orange liqueur; I was a listener. But the person who introduced me to Chopin already knew that.“Listen,” she said, all business. “This is Chopin.” She played something fast, loud, light: lightning and thunder, at once. I was mortified, embarrassed at my not knowing something as essential as this. Then she suddenly stopped. “Now,” she insisted. “You try.” I looked at her, not sure what she was talking about. How could I try? I knew I had no choice. She would sit there and watch as I plodded through. I tried to sight-read and failed. I was slow, wrong, terribly, loudly wrong. But she was undeterred: if I could not play, she would make me feel it. And so she began tapping the entire opening section into my right arm with the eraser tip of her pencil. Then she played something else, very fast. She tapped that too into my right arm using her fingers. I felt the hard edges of her rhinestoned rings, every few measures a stab of faux stone. I also heard “Aach!”—that soft sigh, that disappointment—between taps. I tried hard not to move as she tapped. “Can’t you hear it?” she said, amazed. “This is Chopin! The poet of the piano! That is what he is.”The tiny woman tapping into my arm was Mrs. Ludmilla Berkwic. Vintage stilettos on her feet, and hair styled in thick, white waves, she stood four feet nine, or five feet tall in heels, and she usually wore some sort of long necklace. I remember the day I met her, a few years before she introduced me to Chopin; on that day her long necklace became stuck between the vest buttons of the three-piece floral outfit she was wearing. The necklace seemed too long for someone so tiny. It was Sunday, and I did not have school. I was eight years old. In the waiting room, an enclosed porch with three walls of glass windows where I was told to wait until my lesson could begin, there were several hundred copies of National Geographic dating back to the 1920s. I sat on one of the wicker couches and moved a mink coat aside. Later, I was told that the cats of the house only slept on fur. I opened a magazine and stole glances at the rest of the room. There was a poster from 1928, fuchsia and black, in Cyrillic letters, advertising some concert. There was a framed poster of a luminous woman, from the 1950s, sitting next to a piano, and a bust of a man—I thought it was Beethoven—and several stained-glass lamps of ornate detail that were not to be seen in my house, or in my elementary school, or any other place I had previously known. After waiting for some time, an interminable stretch when some other student played on the piano, I was led into the main room. It was a place I had been imagining for the past fifteen minutes. I was wrong about the looks of the place. There wasn’t one piano. There were three. Later, much later, I would be allowed to see the rest of the house, where at least another half dozen pianos lived. Mrs. Berkwic pulled up a chair next to a small Steinway and motioned to me to sit on the leather bench. It moved up and down with little circular handles. She moved the bench up, since I was shorter than the previous student. I was scared, suddenly elevated, out of my own control. She asked me to position my hand as if I were holding an orange. “Curved fingers!” she screeched. A pencil tapped. I looked over to my right, at her hands. They had the fattest pillow fingers I had ever seen. The edge of each finger was a small belly, the pad soft and wrinkled. The fingers were adorned with huge rings that glittered and scolded, simultaneously. I looked at the pillow fingers and knew I was in a strange land.I was not a natural. I had trouble counting. I had trouble keeping time. Sightreading was not one of my skills, and the lessons seemed to take so long that I could feel myself getting ravenously hungry. But I made it through John Thompson’s books for young players, I completed Teaching Little Fingers to Play, and I remember thinking that my fingers were not little. At the end of the year, we had a recital. I got to play at the large grand piano, opened for the occasion. I made several mistakes, and when I got up from the piano bench to curtsy, I hit my head. For several years after that, the routine was the same: I would make a few mistakes, get upset, and hit my head on the way out. The taller I got, the harder I hit my head. After the recital, the parents and guests would get up from the folding chairs and eat cookies and drink juice. We took photos, and I breathed a sigh of relief. There would be no performance for at least another year. I had no choice, though. I had to continue. I remember only two rules from my childhood—brush your teeth and practice the piano. I played scales, Hanon exercises, little pieces, and eventually, preludes and études. Sometimes it sounded so bad I couldn’t stand to listen. I rarely played a piece perfectly, but I somehow played through many of the classics of music. I plodded through Haydn, Bach, Beethoven, and the easier impromptus of Schumann. I struggled and slowly made it through the rhapsodies of Liszt. And then, when I was a high-school student, Mrs. Berkwic introduced me to a composer I could finally play. For a while, I thought I was in love with Chopin. I related to his tempers, his swing of mood, the way a mazurka would leap from slow and stately to racing and furious. It was the way I felt then, crying one minute and laughing the other. Mrs. Berkwic was crazy about Chopin. She would play a snippet when I went to the bathroom, and she would play the grand Fantaisie Impromptu before the Thanksgiving meal, which we invited her and her husband to, and after recitals. The massive piece made her fingers zoom up and down the piano, kicking up a dust storm of unbelievable sound. At some point, Mrs. Berkwic must have realized that I had started to love Chopin. She never said she was pleased, but she gave me a record of some old Polish pianist, playing the mazurkas. Those mazurkas were, technically, the mazurkas I had been playing, but I barely recognized them. The pieces roared; they banged and wept. The woman on the record cover looked fierce, determined, her black hair in a bun that could careen on a kid at any moment. She played like no one could tell her where to go, or what to do. I assumed the message was “Make these mazurkas your own.” At last, I felt free to experiment, to do damage to the piece, to make some parts faster and others slower. I thought my way through the mazurkas; I got angry with them. Often, I stopped worrying about counting. I just played.He is not easy, Chopin. A botched grace note can ruin the piece, and I learned that I needed to sit and think through every phrase of that mazurka, understand how I heard it, that little part and all of it, together, if I would ever have any hope of playing it as it deserves to be played: gloriously and with utter confidence, with the sense that it was and is mine. The same is true for something like the Revolutionary Étude, which shudders and rolls at high speed. First I thought I needed to know all the notes, had to count right, but eventually I realized that stuff was only basic, the first level, of the barest importance. Even if I knew all the notes, I still needed to sit back and think, what would it feel like if my country, my home, were overturned? I needed to wonder, to ask, “What is revolution?” Only then could I begin to play. And it must be you playing, the real you, all of you, or you might as well not play Chopin at all. I have never heard any of Chopin’s mazurkas sound exactly the same when played by two different pianists. The same is true for something like the Revolutionary Étude. Once, in Florence, Italy, I was reading guidebooks in a bookstore—as it so happened, I was reading a guidebook in French—when a young man began playing the Revolutionary Étude, the last piece I had poured my life into. I looked up; there was a shiny grand piano in the center of the store. I realized, in that moment, the tremendous and still-standing difference between Europe and the United States, even contemporary Europe and contemporary America. Chopin, played live, would probably not be used to make shoppers in suburban malls spend. I stopped, tried to imagine a grand piano in the chain bookstore closest to my current home in Chicago: it was difficult to figure out where, exactly, the bookstore would place such an instrument. Every available corner was packed with notebooks, magazines, items for sale. Meanwhile the young man played flawlessly, every note right, but, what is flawless? Perhaps getting all the notes right is not the most important thing. I thought this as I stood and listened and remembered, feeling each note before it happened. I heard a voice. “Chopin,” Mrs. Berkwic had insisted, “is the poet of the piano, can’t you hear it?” But to hear it you need to know poetry, to hear poetry again and again. The sound of Chopin, played right, is like certain great poems—Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” for instance, or Auden’s magnificent, sound-driven elegy to Yeats, to his insanity and his genius and his music—which change with the voice of the speaker. The pianist is part of the poem, including his mood at that very moment. The mood in great poems often changes from line to line; they have, I now understand, what Mrs. Berkwic called capriciousness. In my entire life, I have only heard one person say that word. Capriciousness. I am used to listening to discussions of the unexplained by people who believe, so not knowing what that word meant did not bother me. I was raised in a deeply religious community, a place where much was explained as mi’shamaiim, “from the heavens.” Perhaps the ability to interpret a piece of music in an original way, or with made-up words, really does come in a direct line from heaven. It is tempting to think it is all God; it lets you do less work. But most of the time, that is not what I believe. Instead, I believe what we call “talent” is actually hard work and the right teacher at the right time. The right teacher isn’t always obvious, and she doesn’t always look the part. Mrs. Berkwic watched detective shows at 3:00 a.m. She shopped only vintage, before it was popular. She had a far younger husband, who drove her everywhere, and no children. And she didn’t care about what didn’t matter: for years, she let one of my brothers take his lessons entirely nude. She yelled, “Curved fingers!” as he sat there, five years old and totally naked, learning to play. Pants did not matter, but being able to play the piano: that was essential, that was a must, clothed or not.Mrs. Berkwic had her own morality. Deep inside her, there was a hot core: Right. Wrong. Good. Bad. Important. Ridiculous. It was applied with force to both music and life. “Generally speaking,” she would sigh, “it’s all right.” I used to be so let down, so disappointed with that, her highest compliment on my playing, but it was probably the most honest assessment available for a fifteen-year-old, trying hard. It could always be worse: the whole first movement tapped into my shoulder so I would get it, actually feel the rhythm—“You can’t count!” she would mutter, as my mathematician father drank some orange juice, not far away. “You just don’t know how to count!” But she would try to beat the melody into me, into my shoulder, my body, my heart. It was good news that she was trying. Bad news was the dreaded, “If you want to play like a lame duck, that is, a duck with one leg, keep doing what you are doing.” It could be worse. Sometimes an expression of horror crossed her face as she listened, adjusted her large, costume rings, and then very definitively said, “This is a funeral march.”Once, she told me that she had been forced to play for the Nazis at gunpoint. With rifle muzzles everywhere, she played for Nazi radio, the waves of music the only thing protecting her life. That was late in the war. Early on, she said, when her building’s Polish doorman had her piano taken away, along with her aunt—who was Jewish, and who soon died at the hands of the Nazis—Mrs. Berkwic marched straight into gestapo headquarters and demanded the return of her piano. At the time it seemed an ordinary story, not an extraordinary one; I was probably busy thinking about how my mother, in the next room, always knew exactly which note I played wrong. “B-flat!” my mother would yell, as I foolishly hit a plain B. “I went in and said, ‘Where is my piano?’ ” Mrs. Berkwic was saying. “And he said, ‘We took it because you are a Jew.’ ” She ran her hands along the piano, a snippet of the Fantaisie Waltz. “I am a Jew like you are a Jew!” she said. She got the piano back. And then she claimed that the doorman was a traitor and should be punished. The doorman returned months later, head shaved, morale low. The Jews he had turned in were all dead, and my piano teacher had no students left alive. She was scared, but she had put up a fight. Later, when the Americans finally liberated her city, the American soldiers asked her if she wanted to see the gas chambers. This time, she was playing for American army radio. (Somehow it didn’t take very long for American soldiers to discover her. I imagine a romance may have been part of this, but I don’t know. I was foolish not to ask when I could.) And so, a few weeks after liberation, she walked with a few of her new soldier friends, wearing heels and what I imagine to be her best dress. She told me there were handprints, in blood, on the walls of the chamber—little red hands. Mrs. Berkwic also told me that from the camp, she could see her city. And from her small apartment in the city, where she was living with her mother, working to survive in a Nazi factory, she could clearly see and smell the camp. The burning flesh, she explained, the skin. She knew it was there, she said, and her neighbors knew too. She told me not to forget that, and I haven’t. “You could smell it from the city,” she said. “That is: the smell of skin that is burning.”I used to like to piece together Mrs. Berkwic’s prewar world in my mind—the record-company executives, the contest judges, the coffee served in elegant china cups by her cultured and educated neighbors. “Dobriv-yech-eh,” good evening, they said to each other in Russian where her life with the piano began, in cultured Moscow. Then the language changed to Polish when Mrs. Berkwic moved to Krakow to study with the best. Most of these people, I knew, did little or nothing to help those who were forced to their deaths. Mrs. Berkwic, half-Jewish and half- Christian, moved between worlds, walking the tightrope where falling off meant certain death. Her Jewish father died of fear early in the war, or so I understood it, and she trudged on, moving with her Christian mother across the continent, relocating to Germany, of all places, in an effort to survive. Still, she continued to play and prepare for a career as a pianist. She was, she often told me, the youngest winner of the famed Chopin competition; she was a student of someone named Josef Turczynski, who worked with Paderewski. At eight, I had no idea who these Polish people were.It took about two decades for me to understand who Paderewski—she pronounced it Pah-de-rehhhv-skee!—really was: a composer, a giant in the piano scene. There was something else: Paderewski was also the prime minister of Poland. As for Turczynski, who gave Mrs. Berkwic a full scholarship on the spot when he heard her play Chopin—a scene I can easily imagine—he edited, with Paderewski, the official edition of all of Chopin’s music. That was what she was talking about, in a stream of Polish names I never fully understood: the Paderewski edition. The sheet music of every piece I played was made possible by my teacher’s teacher, by his labor, by his love for every detail of Chopin, for what Mrs. Berkwic liked to call phrasing. I was an adult before I understood just how good a pianist my teacher was. She was good in the internationally good, standing-ovation kind of way. She was, in her own way, a poet of the piano. Many times, while correcting my playing, she would say to me, “The life of an artist is the only one worth living.” The life of an artist—what is it, anyway? When I was eight, nine, ten years old, I never thought to ask for details. It would be more than a decade before I knew I would pursue the life of an artist too. By life, perhaps she meant work. It is the work that can be taught, the devotion, the staggering and frightening amount of effort that is behind the life of every serious artist. Sometimes, when I write, I feel the tip of Mrs. Berkwic’s pencil eraser above my elbow, the little gems of her thrift-shop rings a few inches below my shoulder. “The only life . . . ,” I hear someone saying. And then, “That sounds terrible! You still don’t know how to count! You are hurting my ears!”Even though I sometimes hurt my own ears, too, I practiced more or less regularly until I entered college. There, I had to get a special key, and I had to sign up in advance to get the piano room. Lessons meant a trek to the other side of Baltimore, which was a real trial on the slow-to-come shuttle bus, and the whole experience—ten hours a week just barely to keep up my level—seemed an insurmountable goal. The teacher my college assigned me was a woman with a doctorate in math who doubled as a concert pianist. She was young, long haired, perfect, and she seemed sterile and controlled after Mrs. Berkwic’s passionate, irrational outbursts. Suddenly I wanted to hear, “If you want to sound like a lame duck, that is, a duck with one leg, keep playing the way you’re playing.” I even craved the harshest of honest insults: “A symphony of wrong notes!” My new teacher was more polite, more conventionally educated, and more technique oriented. Her homework assignments took up precious time. I wanted to learn to write, and I felt that practicing an instrument was taking away from the same emotional energy. No professor of mine thought to ask whether I played an instrument, and no one encouraged the study of other arts as an essential part of becoming an artist. No one said, “Hey, do you play the piano? Well then, don’t quit.” In fairness, I rarely talked about piano. I thought I was bad. And I thought then that being good at art was what mattered. I hadn’t yet learned that the joy in process is enough; it has to be enough. Now I think it is the work that matters, the only thing you can possibly hope to control. In fact, it is the work that has often been my only reward: the wrong notes and problematic measures that become closer to right and then really right, as deeply right as the ones that are right and true from the beginning. These days, I rarely play. It is a shame, I know. Years after I left for college, Mrs. Berkwic screamed at one of my siblings, “Your sister really understood Chopin! Ask her how to play it!”Most of the pieces I love live in my mind now, not in my fingers. The pieces I struggled through live in my head, in my neck, bent down when I remember how comfortable I was then, with mistakes, with wrong notes in the middle of a great piece. I was so casual then about the rarity of a masterpiece, the triumph of a mere human over the vastness of time. But the fourteen years of piano, serious piano, lead me still. They let me recognize who can teach me something. The piano led me through a meeting in a small office in freezing Boston with a great poet who was my teacher. I had no idea what a towering giant of the form he was, and I am glad I had no idea, or I would not have been able to hear him. He closed the door, and shut it tight. It was just the two of us: teacher and student. I cannot remember anymore whether it was that time that he threw my poem out the open window, or made a motion to, or whether it was another time. What I do remember is how he closed his eyes. The listener, he explained, should be able to tell the different parts of a poem from the rhythm of each section changing. “It’s like a sonata,” he said. “A poem like this should have movements.” And then he told me to read my poem out loud. He listened to it, eyes closed, completely focused. The poet moved when the second section began: I watched him opening and then closing his intelligent eyes. When nothing fluttered at the start of the third section, I knew. “You know what to do,” he said, when I finished. And I did know that I had to make sure the third section sounded like its own section because of his unmoving eyes toward the end of the poem. I knew because Mrs. Ludmilla Berkwic had given me and all of my siblings ridiculously discounted piano lessons—I remember her charging thirty-five dollars for the five of us—because she believed in music, or maybe, in us, in me.The great poet once asked me, in one of those seasons when I was trying to survive off writing alone and was about to give up, “How is your writing?” It was in that moment I knew he thought I had a chance, the slightest chance at writing as a life. The question moved me the way the movement between sonata sections used to. It reminded me of who I was and who I could be, if only I worked hard enough. I remember, still, how he, like Mrs. Berkwic, closed his eyes and tried to teach me musicality: exactly what cannot be taught. I hear what he taught when I read Auden’s unforgettable elegy to Yeats, which is in three parts, like a sonata, and which changes in each part, the rhythm switch unmistakable as movement. That elegy has, at certain moments, what Mrs. Berkwic used to call capriciousness, with its surprising notes like the sudden “You were silly like us” or “your gift survived it all: / The parish of rich women, physical decay, // Yourself.”Another day, in that year of poetry school in Boston, a well-meaning poet who had been honored extensively by the world gave the class career advice. The plain truth, he said, was that most of the people in the room would not continue. And even for those who did continue, the future was murky. “I cannot tell you how kind the world will be,” I remember him saying. I understand now that it was the most honest thing he could say, a form of kindness. Back then, though, I looked around at the eleven faces and counted: the poet had said that probably only one of us would “make it.” Then I stopped and breathed. What did I really want? I knew exactly what I wanted: I wanted to learn from poets. That was why I had moved to that cold, expensive city and lived in a living room instead of a bedroom to save cash. I am pretty sure I lived in the cheapest place in all of Cambridge, Massachusetts, complete with a limping, quietly vindictive landlady whose adult son came in one day and took my cat-shaped tea kettle because he wanted it. (I know because he actually told me: “I took your kettle. The black one,” he said, looking at me with eyes that knew I could not afford to move.) I didn’t know if I would become a poet or become another kind of writer, of prose or plays or journalism, or a writer at all, or any kind of artist. That was too far into the future for me to think about. At that moment I wanted only to be taught by poets, to learn about language from people who knew what it was. I suspect, looking back, that Mrs. Berkwic knew I would try to live a life a little like hers. She once made a strange comment, saying that I would have to lift weights if I wanted to continue playing the piano and writing. “You will need strong hands and arms,” she said, as if there were even one athletic bone in her tiny body, still wearing heels as she pushed age ninety. “You can ruin your hands if you are not strong!” And even though I was a foot taller than her, she insisted on giving me some of her clothes. I managed to squeeze into a shiny sleeveless top, part of one of those three-piece sets, and then she gave me a long pale-yellow evening dress, a performance dress. The curse of the slow, and of those who can’t count and don’t understand that time always moves forward, is to try to describe the living and instead praise the dead. This is also, I see now—now that I am lucky enough to teach students myself—the special, personal curse of the teacher: not always to see the student absorb what was taught. The teacher, like Moses, is destined not to be there at the final moment: not to be there, in the land itself, when the student finally understands. Mrs. Berkwic was alive when I began this piece, still playing in her nineties, still saying exactly what she thought. She had a stroke when I was about halfway through; for a few months I heard reports from my mother about how Mrs. Berkwic was still shopping, post-stroke, with her piano-tuner husband, in Costco. And then, while I was in graduate school for creative writing, Mrs. Berkwic . . . I was shocked. I had honestly expected her to live forever.Maybe I am trying to keep my piano teacher alive by writing about her. I want a second chance, to play again, to be smarter than I was when I graduated college and stopped playing seriously. That house on John Street where I took my first lesson has long been sold; there is nowhere to go to remember but my own mind. I want to stretch out the remembering for as long as I can. Thinking about Mrs. Berkwic makes me want to dispute a comment that has been ringing in my ears for eleven years about how kind the world will be. The world’s kindness is not all that matters; it does not solely decide who or what survives. True: masters, students of Paderewski himself, and winners of the Chopin competition can be thwarted by history, by the gun at the neck, the piano in the hands of the gestapo. Plenty are felled by more common woes: alcoholism, poverty, hopelessness, old age, and just plain bad luck that seems to march on and on, with no sign of a rest at the end of the measure. But Mrs. Berkwic taught me not to care. The life of an artist, the real life—whatever it is Mrs. Berkwic was trying to say—well, that has nothing to do with the kindness of the world. That life is always worth living precisely because it transcends life. I am a witness to this basic truth: Mrs. Berkwic lives in the places on my shoulders and upper arms where she beat Chopin’s tempo into me with her pencil and her ring-covered fingers. I still feel fat pillow fingers on my arm whenever I hear Chopin played badly, or whenever I am forced to hear a poet who does not understand the poetic line, no matter how kind the world has been to him. “Aach!” I hear someone say. “Just terrible!” Paderewski lives through his student who lives through her students, and Chopin continues despite the vagaries of the revolution. And I see Mrs. Berkwic’s quarter smile when something sounds right, at last, when somebody hears Chopin, when I am lucky enough to be present in the recitation of an actual poem, a piece of music. There are whole weeks of each year, whole months, whole seasons when I rush to the page as she rushed to the piano, and in those seasons all I want to hear is Chopin, the poet of the piano, that is what he is, the poet of my life.Once in a great while, in the silences where there is no music, I wish I had asked Mrs. Berkwic more questions. Why did I not ask the names of the other contestants in the International Chopin Competition that year, the year she was the youngest contestant? Had I asked, I would have heard, “Well, there was Dimitri Shostakovich.” I could have asked who her classmates were in conservatory, and I would have heard, “Horowitz was there. He was a little older than me.” But mostly, I wish for the past exactly as it was: I wish not to know the entire story. In the age of the Internet, I—we—are told who is connected to whom before we ask. The power of the question, of mystery, is diminishing as we breathe. And I am starting to believe that bare facts are like notes, names without the melody, the fingers, the piano player who gives them life. Facts alone are vaporous, temporary as breath. Slowly, at a speed far more laborious than the Internet’s flashes, the connections that created my piano teacher come to me anyway. Not long ago, I went to hear a pianist play all of Chopin’s études in a row, in another of my many Chopinfests, and I remembered—to my shock—how they sounded in Mrs. Berkwic’s pillow fingers. I could hear them exactly as they were. Sometimes as Chopin plays in the background, I revise pieces and make them worse. I stumble, I make mistakes. I hit my head on new chandeliers, and I forget essential details. Maybe getting paragraph order wrong is the same as not being able to count, not understanding all of the order and grandeur of music on the first try. But it doesn’t matter. “Generally speaking,” I hear someone sigh, with the exhaustion of history, of too-high heels in a country with a terrible sense of elegance, a country with exuberance and muscle and an endless ability to forget the past, all those old and dusty revolutions, “it is all right.” Aviya Kushner teaches at Columbia College Chicago. Her essays have appeared in A Public Space, Gulf Coast, Partisan Review, and the Wilson Quarterly. Her first book, The Grammar of God, is forthcoming from Spiegel & Grau. “A Duck with One Leg” appears in our Spring 2014 issue.