When I think of Sojin, I think of sunbeams.
I think of watching the sun-illuminated dust fly from the strings at the force of my breath, and of seeing my distorted reflection wrinkle its nose in an effort not to sneeze. I think of everyday in the mid-afternoon when the sun was in just the right position and the light from the window entered from just the right angle, sunbeams would gather around the keys and the shiny, black body, and the dog would lie in a heap near her pedals, soaking in the patch of sunlight. It did not matter to the sunbeams, or the dog, that their presence tarnished the golden finish of the pedals, or that the satin ribbon that held the keys together was not so red as it was.
Sometimes I forget that there was a moment in pre-Recessional, North Shore Chicagoland that families were buying such frivolous things as pianos. I cannot picture my thrifty, practical mother insisting on buying something as ostentatious as a grand piano which would easily big the biggest piece of furniture we owned in our living room. I think she thought she would finally learn to play it, and no little upright piano or half-size electric could match the loft of her dreams. It was the late 90s and, for my parents, buying a piano was partly a cultural staple, partly a Midwestern status symbol.
And so, at age six my parents took me to the piano display room where a smiley salesman lead them around, chattering nonstop. What color would you like, white or black? What size, baby or full? Can I interest you in a Steinway? Or something a little more in your price range? This one is very nice; do you play? No? Well give the keys a whirl anyway, that’s it!
But I hardly payed attention to the talking and the negotiations. Because in a room full of display pianos, my goal was not ownership, but friendship. The voice of the piano when random keys were played by tiny hands seemed mirror my own fluttering heartbeat and the wild glee of six-year-old imagination. My mother stopped me and my dad held my hands because the incessant noise and dissonance disturbed the other shoppers, but never before had I experienced such perfect communication.
Doesn’t every musician romanticize their first piano? Of course, back then we didn’t know I would be a musician, but in hindsight, from the moment I first saw Sojin taking up a remarkable amount of space in our living room, how could I ever have become anything else? If my parents had hoped I’d put some intelligence to good use as a doctor or lawyer or some otherwise important person, they should have bought me a grand chemistry set or taught me to build a spaceship out of Legos. Instead, my childhood was dominated by the grand piano in my living room.
In the end, we didn’t go home with a Steinway, or even a Yamaha or a Baldwin. We came home with a piano made by a manufacturer that even piano aficionados probably couldn’t recognize: Sojin. The letters S O J I N, printed in gold on the bottom of the lid became crucial as I began piano lessons, because I learned to identify middle C, right underneath the golden J.
It began with piano lessons: learning to read notes on a staff, identifying them with the specific keys and specific sounds, learning to hear the consonances and dissonances and incorporating that into my own primitive ideas of what was “right” and “wrong.”
Consonances: Major and minor thirds. Major and minor sixths. All perfect intervals. The sound of my grandfather’s applause when I learn to play “Ode to Joy.” The smell of Mom’s Christmas casserole wafting in from the kitchen. My father’s deep baritone singing Nat King Cole’s “L O V E” while my sisters dance. Coffee mugs abandoned on the piano bench after a morning warm-up.
Dissonances: Major and minor seconds. Tritones and sevenths. Slipping on the hardwood floors and falling into Sojin’s legs. My mother yelling from the other room to keep it down during the American Idol finale. My sisters’ banging on the keys while I try to learn a new piece. Petting the dog, lying in his usual patch of sunbeams, after we found out just how sick he was.
Even in the most earth-shattering moments, there was Sojin. I watched the televised Memorial for the victims of the Sandy Hook massacre with my teary mother, and wondered how I could possibly incorporate this kind of pain into my growing worldview. I felt an itch in my fingers and I went to the piano and played the Pieta, Signore accompaniment, forcing all of pain into my fingers, into the keys, processing that emotion through sound. I leaned into every wrong note and felt its bite. And when it was all over, I silently turned away and went back to the television.
Sojin was who I turned to when I was tasked with writing my first real melody in 11th grade. Major key, 12 bars long. I turned to Sojin with tears the next day, after my teacher had played my melody to the class saying “This is, I mean, this is really bad” and told me I should never compose again. Sojin was who I turned to a week later when I wrote my second melody. Minor, 24 bars long. It was where I turned to when I came home after my first semester of collegiate composition classes to play for my parents my new piece. No key, five pages long.
When I was fourteen, my family packed up all of our belongings and moved to Wisconsin. I watched the movers take Sojin apart, piece by piece. First they took the bench, then removed the lid and wrapped it up. When they put her back together in the new house, the strings were in disarray, the hammers wouldn’t strike, and the few sounds I could elicit were dull, out-of-tune, and absolutely miserable. I walked around for a week with an itching in my fingers and a lump in my throat before my parents finally hired a piano tuner. And when he went about his work, I listened to each ting of his tuning fork the way someone listens to the beeping of the heart monitor of a friend in a coma.
The year we didn’t have a Christmas Tree, my parents put presents under the piano. On my 11th birthday I played The Entertainer and made up lyrics that I proceeded to sing at both of my sisters’ 11th Birthdays. I used the stand to hold up the music I studied as I learned to play clarinet in middle school, and I grabbed pitches the one and only time I ever tried to start an a capella group senior year.
In over fifteen years, two states, and three houses, Sojin has been a part of my family’s life. I grew up with and around the grand piano that my mother thought she would learn to play. What was a luxury for my parents, became my normal, everyday life.
I think of those few times these days that I’m home, practicing my old favorites after dinner. I think of pretending not to notice that my dad has slipped into the room to listen, or that my mother will be humming the tune tomorrow morning. I think of dust of the strings, reawoken now that I’ve come home again, floating across the keys and the satin ribbon and the golden letters. I think of all of this when I finally close the lid, turn off the lamp, and go to bed.
When I think of Sojin I think of moonbeams.