Friday, January 10, 2014

A Language that Transcends Words

A woman approached me, wiping her eyes.
"Wow," was all she said.
I felt my mom's smiling gaze on my back.
"She wasn't expecting that. She saw the way you walked and didn't think you'd be any good."

I've been struggling to write this post for months. How do I write about something that resists translation? 

I started at the age of eight or nine with a silver keyboard in the front entryway. I began taking lessons from a good-natured, carefree guitar player who had also managed to teach himself the basics of piano. 

I still remember the cautious excitement in my chest as I carefully studied the pattern of white, black, white, black. I remember running my hand over the keys and thinking, Maybe this would be something that I could be good at...My legs were stiff and slow, but my hands moved just as well as anybody else's.

I started out by playing simple, one-handed melodies. I was no prodigy by any means, but I was determined. Eventually, the guitar teacher had exhausted his limited understanding of piano, so I resumed my study of piano with an older woman in my town whose musical knowledge was frighteningly expansive.

I took my lesson from her every Thursday before heading off to school, and I was intimidated by her at first. She was no-nonsense, dedicated, and "technique" was her middle name. Technique, technique, technique. What's more, she expected me to practice at least five times per week for thirty minutes each day. 

I didn't practice nearly as often as she had requested at first, but each week we grew closer, and I began to look forward to my lessons. 

On my tenth birthday, she motioned for me to sit next to her on the piano bench, and she played "Happy Birthday" for me. My heart danced. 

I remember, too, how sometimes her husband would whistle along to my melodies from the kitchen, to our profound amusement.


I don't play much in public (which frustrates my mom endlessly!), but when I do, people are surprised. They see my legs and somehow come to the conclusion that the girl with the crooked gait couldn't possibly play the piano. 

Once, in fifth grade music class, the teacher asked if anyone could play. I folded my hands in my lap, staying silent, until my brother nudged my shoulder, whispering for me to raise my hand. When I refused, he spoke up, pointing me out: "She does!"

So I went up in front of the class and played a piece. Afterwards, I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was the aide for my class.

"I had no idea you could play like that," she said. And from that day on, she treated me differently. It was almost as if she had finally realized that I was capable. 

And this was by no means an isolated experience. In tenth grade, I took an electronic music class, and we were assigned a project where we had to strip a movie clip of sound and create our own sound effects to accompany it. I recorded a melody on the piano for the background music, and when it was time to present our project, one of my classmates inquired as to where I got the music. 

Before I had time to respond, the teacher cut in: "They got it from a professional music site, so they'll get a few points off the rubric for that." 

My partner, trying not to laugh, corrected her: "Actually, K played it on the piano."

The teacher was shocked. Apparently it never occurred to her that the girl with cerebral palsy could play an instrument.


As I grew older, I cherished my piano lessons, a sanctuary from the world. For a little while each week, it was just my piano teacher and me, communicating in a language that was somehow more powerful than words.

And one day she turned to me and said that I'd grown up before her eyes... "Just yesterday, it seems you were nine years old, just a beginner, and now you're eighteen, playing Bach and Beethoven." 

I smiled, wishing I could put into words the amazing gift she had given me. I couldn't find the words, so I played, hoping that the musical notes would communicate what was beyond the scope of spoken language. 

Music has carried me where my legs could not.


  1. I love this. And you and your heart and your strength and your MUSIC because truly, it speaks in deeper tones than ANY words. And you can play into people's hearts.

    With music, my dear, you can RUN.

  2. As always, so beautiful. Thanks for sharing the music of your life

  3. Wow. That is so awesome. I play (not well and not for a while)and I think music can do things nothing else can. Let the music dance!

  4. That was beautiful. May I ask, do you feel at all conflicted between wanting to maybe perform more in a public way, and wanting to keep music a mostly private thing, for yourself? Now that you are in college, there are probably some really exciting opportunities for you to perform, but I could also imagine wanting it to be just for yourself.

    1. Thank you! :) And I definitely have those conflicting feelings...for the most part, I tend to want to keep it to myself (I love that you picked up on that possibility; a lot of people don't quite understand that! My mom and my piano teacher were always urging me to "share my gift" and perform, and while I get that, sometimes it's just nice to play for myself!). There's a grand piano in the foyer of my dorm, and sometimes I'll play there when I'm having "piano withdrawals," but I always go when I know there aren't a lot of people around because I get a little self-conscious when they crowd around to listen. :) Thanks for commenting! I've been meaning to say, by the way, that I love reading your blog!

  5. Thanks for sharing this little bit of inspiration. You are definitely shattering the views others have of individuals who have disabilities! I wonder of you'd consider guest posting for me?

    1. Thanks Sylvia! And I would be honored to guest post for you sometime; just let me know when and what you'd like it to be about. :) I love your blog!

  6. Aw, I love this so much. It's really beautifully written (as is everything you write, my awesome friend) with so much meaning...nobody should assume anything about anybody's abilities or talents, the power of music, the power of those who teach, and, well, all of it. All of it is just wonderful.

  7. I hate that people have judged you so unfairly. It makes it crystal clear when reading about these instances, why you choose to frame your disability the way you do. I keep wishing, though, that your mom would phrase her comment a little differently. (Maybe check out my post on Monday? Maybe you will see what I mean...) But like...instead of drawing your eye to everyone else's opinion of you - or their thought process on you and your abilities - I wish she had told you - "You know what, honey? You were great! My favorite part was... I love the way you played... How do you feel you did? Because your dad and I are so proud of you."


Please feel free to leave a comment. I would love to hear from you. Thanks! :-)