Written by Elizabeth White ETA’11-12

I’ll never forget the look on Host Mother’s face when I confessed to her that I had never learned to play a musical instrument. You’d think I had said, “Kimchi doesn’t cure diseases,” “K-Pop isn’t really all that catchy,” or some other such blasphemy. When she had recovered speech, she managed to utter the words: “You will play piano. I will call the teacher.”

It wasn’t a question.

A week later, the doorbell rang and Piano Sonsaengnim (Teacher) entered my life. After the appropriate amount of bowing and greetings, we sat down together at the family’s piano bench.

“Ah, I’m nervous. All English…” she said in Korean to Host Mother, laughing.

“It’s okay,” replied Host Mother. “Our teacher understands a lot of Korean.” And with that extremely generous introduction, she closed the sliding glass doors until they clicked shut.

Piano Sonsaengnim and I looked at each other and started to giggle. She then pulled out a crisp green elementary piano book from her bag and folded back the first page. We both nodded, and the lessons began.

Every Wednesday and Saturday, Piano Sonsaengnim would come to our house. Each lesson was filled with the sounds of laughter, the halted chords of a beginner’s efforts, and the occasional “Wow!” from Sonsaengnim when I struck a particularly bad note. Language, we found, was not necessary. We had hands to gesture, we had heads to shake or nod, but most of all, we had music.

I remember the first time we played a duet together. After learning the basics, my beginner’s piano book (with its colorful cartooned pages) eased the learner into playing some very simple ‘songs.’ To the novice, it just sounded like noise, like the strange result of pressing seemingly random keys. What I had failed to notice was that each of these songs was titled ‘Student’ and had an adjoining page titled ‘Teacher.’ They were duets, never meant to be played alone.

The bench gave a slight creak as Piano Sonsaengnim sat down beside me. She placed her hands tenderly on the keys, and with a nod of her head said, “Sijak.” (“Start.”)

What followed was nothing short of a mystery to me. My earlier pings transformed into a rich medley of sound. The awkward pauses in between notes became rhythm, and the strange assortment of notes became music. The ivory keys rumbled with a beautiful power.

When the song ended, all I wanted to do was to play it again and again until it was time for Piano Sonsaengnim to go home. Every lesson from thereon, I couldn’t wait for the duet time. Because during that time, the piano, music, and I—we all transformed.

Almost a year after that first piano lesson, I (along with Host Mother) am happy to report a noticeable improvement in my musical dexterity. After bringing down the house with my rousing rendition of “Jingle Bells” at the local Christmas recital (where my musical colleagues gave me sticky-hand high fives backstage and cheered me on from their booster seats). I have now moved on to more sophisticated pieces, such as the world-renowned masterpieces “Happy Birthday” and “Roly Poly.”

Despite my newfound musical independence,  I still look forward to my duets with Piano Sonsaengnim the most. When we play the piano together, fingers dancing and flying on their ivory stage, my music transforms into something more beautiful than it could’ve ever mustered on its own.

Playing piano is like experiencing the world. On our own, we can vary notes to make a song. But without traveling and experiencing another part of the world, we will always be playing the same select notes. It takes the people we meet along the way — like Host Mother, Piano Sonsaengnim and my army of little musical colleagues — to show us what we’ve been missing.

Like duets, life was never meant to be played alone.

Elizabeth White is a 2011 ETA at Seondeok Girls’ Middle School in Gyeongju.