Tempo Rubato

a pyramid metronome sitting on an open book of piano music
This is a torture device.

So I’ve been teaching myself to play the piano. I took a few years of sullen lessons in childhood, but I was more interested in singing and not terribly gifted at either. I absorbed a handful of musical terms and little else. In college, I moved onto other passions and music lost out in the battle with literature and politics. Then three years ago my parents gifted me a piano, and I realized the baby grand could exist merely so I might dust it once in a while or I could learn to play it.

As with most things, the initial period of learning went wonderfully. If you go from knowing nothing to having mastered one skill, you’ve doubled your knowledge. Hooray! Playing the piano–if one were generous enough to label those efforts “playing”–was gratifying and almost meditative.

But as my (meager) skill improved, I had to face the simple truth: unlike Gershwin, I got no rhythm. Absolutely none. Where my internal ticker should be there is a void.

And thus enters the metronome.

It’s obvious, even to me, that I play with what could most kindly be called a loose sense of tempo. That’s one thing, I suppose, when I’m a beginner picking away at scales. But it’s another if I’d ever like to improve and play, you know, music.

When I attempt to play with the metronome running, however, I become disoriented. It’s like riding the tilt-a-whirl: you’re hurtling around at sickening speed bracing yourself for the worst. You slide between the sides of the carriage. Fine, sure, this is fine. The moments rush into one another until time gets sticky. The carriage slows, perhaps–who can say for certain. Then it lurches backward and accelerates. Back and forth. Slow and fast. Time, space, and direction lose their meaning. If you’re me, you can only shut your eyes tight and pray for it to end.

This sounds hyperbolic, but I assure you it is not. Even as I know the tick, tick, tick of the metronome is regular–and my sense of the tempo is emphatically not–any attempt to impose structure on my playing makes me want to puke. Even if it means I wallow in level 3/4 music forever, I’m happier without the metronome.

And if I’m not happy playing, whatever is it for? I’m never going to be Lang Lang–that was never the point of the time I spend at the bench. I also don’t mean to defend mediocrity. I want to learn to play well. But I have to do it my way.

Which brings me to my writing. For the last two years, longer perhaps, I’ve been stuck. I start projects and abandon them a few chapters in. I read and research…and lose interest. I manage to finish something but struggle to revise it. And always, always I feel hopeless about the market.

I’ve been in this place before with my academic writing, and I eventually resolved it. I’m not hopeless, therefore, that I’ll never write another novel on my own. But if you’ve been wondering where a new contemporary series is from me, it’s in that place where the metronome’s tempo is intelligible. And someday, maybe I’ll figure out how to get there.

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Author: Emma

Emma is a novelist, full-time mama, recovering academic, and former political staffer. When she’s not reading or writing, she loves her twins' hugs, her husband’s cooking, her cat’s whiskers, her dog’s tail, and Earl Grey tea.

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