Discover more from Well-Read Herring
There was a man playing one of those free to use pianos in the Gare du Nord. I feel sorry for the pianos that live in such draughty environments. I don't know a lot about their needs, but I imagine they require a certain level of care and upkeep, and I worry this is not entirely compatible with the echoey indifference of a station concourse. Perhaps this concern of mine informs my perception of the music because the melodies of public pianos always sound half dead to me, as if someone has taken a sharp, round ice cream scoop to their heart and patiently hollowed it out. The sounds of a piano should not have to compete with any other sounds. They should be allowed to ripple and envelop everything. But, in the brouhaha of the station, every note ends up gasping for air.
I still had a while to wait so I moved closer to the man. He was playing what sounded like a waltz. I thought it might be Chopin, but then I remembered that whenever I recognise a piano piece, I always assume it is by Chopin simply because I think of his music as memorable. I stood to one side keeping at a respectful distance, but close enough that I did not quite escape the man's frame of awareness. I felt this must be the case because after I had been standing there for a few minutes, he started making small mistakes. Of course, I had no way of knowing I was causing him to fumble. When I thought back to this moment later, I told myself I had probably overestimated the weight of my own presence, mistaking my second-hand embarrassment for guilt.
The piece appeared to swell in complexity as it progressed, and the mistakes became more frequent and noticeable. This made me increasingly nervous because I suspected he felt self-conscious about his performance. A few other people had stopped to listen since I had arrived and I worried I had somehow encouraged them to do so, adding to the pianist's misery.
Eventually the music stopped. The pianist had not allowed himself to interrupt the piece before getting through every note. But as soon as it was over, he stood up. I clapped enthusiastically. I desperately wanted him to know that, by any standard, what he was doing was very impressive, that no one would think any less of him because of a few slip ups, and that it would be unreasonable to expect anyone to play to their highest ability under these conditions anyway. The sound of my clapping seemed to startle him, and he looked up apologetically before hurrying into the crowd and out of sight.