Keys for comfort: Teen pianist begins playing for right reasons

By comparing herself to others and overthinking the process, Danielle Wong struggled to find comfort in front of the piano -- that is, until she found fun on her own terms.
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Self-doubt always creeps in and causes me to pull away from the musical paradise that I almost reached. Sometimes I think it’s because my older sister, Katerina, is such an amazing pianist and I feel pressure to perform as well as she does. Other times I think it’s because I’m afraid to succeed at piano.

The bright light beats down on my face and I feel miniscule beads of perspiration begin to form. My hands shake. I struggle to keep them still.

I feel hundreds of eyes on me, every single one piercing through my mind, judging. I feel the vibrations of my nervous leg jittering with anticipation. My hands slip off the keys from the layer of cold sweat on my hands. I place them back on the keys, breathe like it’s my last breath, and begin playing.

It’s a beautiful piece, and I soon lose myself in it. It’s warm, soft and wrapped around my heart. But as I finish, I’m struck by the thought, “Did I mess up at all?” And at that very moment my worst nightmare comes true. One of my fingers slips and I hit a wrong note.

Suddenly I feel like my whole world is turning and spinning. A voice from the past, the one inside my head, continues to haunt me.

“Danielle, why’d you mess up? Why don’t you ever prepare better? You can’t blame anyone else but yourself.”

I force myself to finish the piece, but no longer is it a beautiful song. It is now cold, hard and distant from my heart.


This is usually what happens when I perform piano.

Self-doubt always creeps in and causes me to pull away from the musical paradise that I almost reached. Sometimes I think it’s because my older sister, Katerina, is such an amazing pianist and I feel pressure to perform as well as she does. Other times I think it’s because I’m afraid to succeed at piano.

I always get scared when I make those tiny mistakes during my piano performances. Every minor mistake is followed by a larger one. They throw me off, making me terrified of what could happen at my next recital. I always feel some flash of hurt, anger, disappointment and of course, that torturous doubtful voice inside my head saying, “What if I had played it with more feeling? If only I didn’t have a nervous breakdown when I played the wrong note!”

I’m also terrified of disappointing my family. Sometimes I dream about being an amazing pianist, but then at one of my concerts I do something terrible and my family never speaks to me again. I understand that I’m so lucky to have a supportive family, as not everyone has a family that cares enough to cancel all events for that day and attend a piano competition.

Even when I want to quit piano—which has happened too many times to count—my parents refuse to let me because they know I can succeed and that it will make me a better person. Their unconditional love and support makes me feel like I need to succeed so that the sacrifices they make for me don’t go to waste.

However, fear of success, and the fear of not living up to my older sister, caused me to pull away from piano. When my piano teacher decided to close her studio and work at MacPhail Center For Music, I finally had an excuse to “teach myself.” But somehow the idea seemed a lot more appealing in my head than when I actually started practicing.

I took a break from piano last year, and along with my parents, decided to compose a plan to begin teaching myself once school ended. But once again, I got scared and used the excuse of “being too busy” to avoid practicing.


The recital has finished and I’m on the couch watching TV. I’m wallowing in remorse and embarrassment at yet another recital gone sour.

My mom comes to sit next to me. She doesn’t say anything at first. Instead, she just sits there with her arm wrapped around me, the sleeve of her worn out red sweater rubbing against my silky pink pajamas.

Then she asks quietly, just barely over the noise of the commercial, “What happened?” I reluctantly reply with the only acceptable answer. The one I know she probably won’t understand or be happy with, but the one that holds the truth.

“I don’t know.”


Then I had an epiphany. It struck me that I had been sitting around, as scared as a mouse of achieving something that could only help me grow—not only as a person, but also in my future career. So I took it upon myself to go downstairs and face my mountain. I opened up a book and began trying out new piano songs until I found one that looked particularly difficult. The page was littered with all kinds of rhythms and symbols foreign to me.

I was about to flip to the next song when I remembered what I’d just told myself about facing “the mountain.” I flattened the book out and winced throughout the first page of difficult notes. Then I went online to listen to a performance of the song and melted from the beauty of it.

I remembered the last recital when I had messed up a similarly beautiful song, and I steeled myself against the past and focused on the present. Hope and the excitement of starting something new coursed through my veins.

I felt myself sit up straighter. I was going to do this. I was going to succeed.

And I did.

I’m more than halfway done with the piece. It’s not just beautiful to listen to, but it’s beautiful for my fingers to play. I began to play more often for my mom, telling her, “Listen to this!” or “Can you come and listen to me?” We would discuss my plans for a future career in piano openly instead of shying away from the topic.

Soon, I no longer took her feedback as negative, but as constructive. Katerina even became less of a threat to me, and instead serves as a source of inspiration and wisdom. Even my younger sister, Isabelle, is beginning to excel at piano, and I hope to teach her everything that my older sister taught me.

Now I can perform piano in front of large audiences without being paralyzed by self-doubt and fear. This experience also taught me not to quit when I haven’t put my best effort to the struggle, but mainly that I should learn piano for myself, not for someone else.

Before, I had to drag myself to the piano. Now, my fingers can’t wait to have some fun.