Ellen Ackroyd’s friend Fari taught her to view the piano as a language.
Fingers are pretty funky things, aren’t they? They can groove around and have a little boogie – whether that be through writing that postcard you had to send a week ago to your grandma or cooking up something amazing in the kitchen or painting or drawing or playing the piano (and let’s not forget getting in touch with your sexual/sensual self).
I started playing piano at the age of five and to be honest, for the first couple of years, I hated it. The thought of seeing my stern-eyed teacher every week knowing that no I had not practiced my scales, no I had not learned that segment of the piece and no, I still couldn’t combine both hands, scared me. I was young and my fingers were stumpy little things that craved mud and mess and dirt. But there I was, sat in front of this eerie instrument with black and white rectangular shaped boxes that constrained my every movement. I remember getting frustrated by the row of keys that lay diligently alongside one another and the inability to slip through the slim cracks in between each of them and play hide and seek – my favourite (childhood) game.
As I grew older, I started to notice how my hands could stretch further and the tips of fingers danced rather than plonked across the keys. I remember hearing myself play a piece by Chopin for the first time (after months of inpatient practice) and being open-mouth shocked by the sound of passion, by how my hands moved with ease and (dare I say) maturity. But the real thrill of it lay in the creativity: the ability to weave, to spill and spell out words from my fingers that at times, sounded like a soft summer morning or an embrace or even a fast-paced race. I would just sit there and drift off into another language.
As the infamous teenage years rolled around, so did self-doubt and insecurity. My once childlike body was slowly changing faced with the imminent stage of womanhood – and I was stuck in between. I woke up one morning and noticed that someone had carved curves out of my body. I looked in the mirror and couldn’t recognise myself: the face of a stranger stared back at me unblinking. This anonymity, the fear of the unknown, the desire to fit in, to be beautiful, to be smart, to excel, to have friends, to be independent, to matter, to love and be loved pushed me into a dark hole. I was not alone: I became friends with bulimia and self-harm and anxiety and together, we set off on the journey towards self-destruction.
During that time, my trusty piano stood strong in solidarity, never judging and always ready to lend a listening ear. I feared the physical contact of my hands with the keys: with every movement, I would taste the hunger and exhaustion that sat at the bottom of my stomach and feel the scars ripple across my wrists. The notes turned to dust and rusting flakes of noise. But I let this happen, willingly. The music was too loud, too present, too alive. My shy crooked cracked fingers fumbled around, searching for the honey liquid sounds that used to rise up into the air and land on my tongue and melt. But my tongue was a desert, a rotting wasteland of language.
That was until the day we had our first confrontation, my piano and I.
I reluctantly rolled up my sleeves with a sigh. My scars were fading but I could still feel them crisscrossing my blue veins. As my fingers touched the instrument and its baring pearly white teeth, I collapsed in C minor, my head limp on the keyboard. Tears after tears streamed down my face, my cheeks and onto the keys, forming wet pain puddles.
Emptied, I started to wipe away the drops, erasing the tear-shaped footprints. But then something incredible happened: with every brush of my fingers, a sound burst into the air. And then another. And another. And suddenly, I wasn’t making noise, I was playing music. The tears and the vulnerability had become a rhythmic pattern and my fingers were soaring and giggling, unashamed and free.
I started to enjoy playing again, experimenting, daring, making mistakes but learning from them and above all, growing. I even began playing with other people and loved the way in which our hands were both mirrors of one another but also windows of opportunity and exploration. Fadi was such a person. Born in Syria, he moved to the Netherlands a year ago as a refugee. When I first met him, I talked to him about my interest in piano, literature, politics, culture and sociology.
Fadi told me he also loved playing the piano and was interested in computer programming. I remember saying how his studies were so different to mine and how I would never be able to enter such a field. But he surprised me when he asked: “but Ellen, programming is just a kind of language. Piano is also a kind of language. So we may be interested in different topics but we speak the same language no?”
And of course, we do. Our most beautiful conversations have happened with our hands, messing around on a piano, trying out new sounds and producing our own sentences that albeit, sometimes do sound dissonant and off-key. But there is still a certain harmony in our common love for sound: it lies in the co-creative space that happened to take the shape of a black and white keyboard. And from creating that space to experiment and to learn from one another, we both found a place for our passion to thrive.
I play the piano to be silent and to listen to raw and authentic thoughts that I have no words to express otherwise. I struggled with finding a voice, my voice. I think that I was perhaps wrong in assuming that my voice is solely located in my throat and that it must be compressed into predetermined verbal and linguistic categories – commonly referred to as words – to be understood. My voice also lives in my hands: it is when my mouth is silent that I can hear myself and when my fingers explode with passion that I can see myself. Meeting Fadi taught me that a voice, just like a basic musical pattern, is strengthened in a pluralistic setting; its sound is enriched by varying chords and tonalities and is malleable and flexible.
I sometimes think about what the ideal voice would sound like. I think it would be close to a shade of deep blue jazz – a little chaotic and quirky but constantly renewed and reinvented by collective creativity, energy, and passion.