Faculty Voice: Emily Arsenault

FullSizeRenderI remember when I first encountered my piano, though it was years before I could call it my own. It lived in my cousins’ house in the toy room past the kitchen, sitting across from a tall bookcase of encyclopedias (back when people still bought encyclopedias). I recall sneaking down there during holidays and birthday parties, lifting up the fallboard, and placing my small fingers on the landscape of black and white keys. At the time, I did not know what to call them or how to read the figures on the pages in front of me. I knew, though, that those keys could sing something beautiful, and I immediately began to love them. I did not need an audience; I was content inventing little tunes for the toys in the room, for E.T. and Scooby Doo who watched from the corner, and of course, for the encyclopedias.

When I was 12, the piano moved to my house, and I was thrilled to start lessons in seventh grade. My sweet, hand-me-down piano was far from perfect, a half-step out of tune, with sporadic nicks in the wood and small chips in a few keys. Still, its sound was rich and warm, and it quickly became my beloved companion. Like my instrument, I was certainly not the “perfect” piano student. In every other area of my life, I was an ambitious rule follower, always striving to do my best work, to push myself harder, to be faultless. Driven to perform well, I obsessed over grades and never wanted anyone to think I had not given enough. This, however, was not the whole of my truth. In another breath, I was a curious daydreamer who was desperate to create. This was the part of me that wrote poems in the margins of my lecture notes. This was the mind that often drifted during class discussions, pulled instead into visions of the films I wanted to make, the houses I could design, the stories I wished to tell. This, too, was the part of me that I brought to piano lessons.

With piano, I was ready to “play” in the truest sense of the word, and I was lucky to have a teacher who understood who I was and what I needed during those hour-long sessions each week. My teacher realized pretty early on that while I was often reluctant to practice my scales and exercises, I was passionate about playing and would devote myself to learning pieces that I loved. In the years that I studied with her, she always gave me the freedom to choose my music. Moreover, she offered a space in which I felt safe to improvise, compose, and share my own. And on a few occasions that I remember, she understood that what I needed most was just to sit at the piano bench and talk about the day, barely playing a note.

Piano continues to be an important part of my identity, though one that few people usually see or hear. When I was younger, I did not play piano in recitals or practice for any auditions or competitions. Over the years, I have incorporated piano into my drama and movement classes from time to time, but rarely play in public otherwise. With piano, I am still very much that young girl at her cousins’ house, content to play for the toys and the books and herself. I still have my old piano, embracing its imperfections as I try to do my own. My piano is what I seek at the end of a busy day, a reminder of who I am beyond my to-do list. It grounds me and reveals me. It celebrates with me and it remembers. It sings with me when spoken words will not suffice. It articulates, clarifies, and amplifies. And sometimes, its music breaks through the chaos and complications of our world to sound something like hope.

At Milton, I see in my students many of the same ambitions and impulses that I felt during my middle school years. In various ways and in countless arenas, our students challenge themselves to work toward their goals, whether academically, artistically, or athletically. As a teacher, I always want to support my students in pursuing these challenges. Additionally, as I look back to my experiences learning piano, I remember the simple ways in which a teacher (or any person) can make an impact: recognizing students’ needs as both learners and people, creating spaces in which they can express themselves authentically, giving them opportunities to explore what they love, and most importantly, listening.

If I could offer a few pieces of advice to the students in our community, I would encourage them to not only seek out those who will listen, but to make sure to always listen to themselves, as well. As I reflect on our school motto, “Dare to be true,” I think about the ways life often calls us to speak our truths in the public eye. We are called to stand up and share our ideas, showcase our creations, exhibit our talents, and advocate for our perspectives, and we certainly should. However, in a world that often emphasizes and necessitates performance, I encourage you to also listen to yourself and seek a moment away from the spotlight when you need it. Dare to listen to your drive and your daydreams. Dare to pursue your passions, regardless of who knows, hears, or sees. Dare to play for yourself. Dare to choose your own music.