27 March 2020


There's a chapter in my life — maybe let's not call it a chapter as it's more of a swirl: brief, sudden, significant; or a fragment connected to other fragments of a similar hue, as you may have already figured out, life's like that: all over the place.

I'm talking about my enrollment at a music conservatory. Yes. In my early to mid-20s, when I started earning my own money, I intermittently took run-of-the-mill piano lessons near my work-place, during the course of which, a certain tutor encouraged me to go to the next level. And encouraged, I was.

Emboldened, in fact. I applied and, with the help of my tutor's glowing recommendation, got accepted at the conservatory.

Let's start from the end. I didn't graduate. Things came up, such as the opportunity to write for a national publication. Then I also realized that I was in the wrong program. Now I should be providing further explanation but it would sound — not just to you but to me — as if I'm making excuses. Better that we save this backstory for later, for coffee, after the quarantine. (If you're reading this from the far future, check the post date. We are in the midst of a pandemic. COVID-19 must ring a bell.)

Anyway, the hard part. Writing what I have to share. A vital information in this little story is my age at the time. Twenty six. Legit adult. I've held several jobs, as well as high positions. Yet I was reduced to a crying baby by my piano teacher. I had never cried ever in school!

For a clearer picture, this is the one-on-one practical lessons, where the instructor is seated beside you as you practice. The routine thus: I play; she insults my playing. No audience was present to witness the ordeal, but perhaps it would be better if there were. Because at least a single soul might've offered me some comfort.

The only person I confided in was my professor friend. I remember specifically asking him if my situation merited filing a grievance report. I didn't cry in front of her, by the way. I also didn't report her. She seemed to have that reputation, however. Though she was still there, thriving. Was I too sensitive? Was I a terrible pianist and couldn't just admit it? Ah, I was so angry and embarrassed.

You're probably drawing a terror teacher caricature in your head, and I will guess that you have it right. She is old, bespectacled, spinster-like, and dresses well. Fair-skinned, beautiful even. I won't be surprised if she's from a well-off conservative family.

Wow this story is longer than I imagined. Don't worry, we're nearing the point.

She has a sister. A nun who teaches sociology in the same college. I was in that class to fulfill a unit requirement.

The name has escaped me, and I can't recall what led us to that small talk, but the nun-professor told me that her evil-piano-teacher sister says that I'm good.

"Magaling ka raw."

Those words are clear enough in my memory.

WTF right? Part of me couldn't completely celebrate the second-hand compliment. Another part of me was suspicious, since Evil Piano Teacher's actions didn't match Nun Professor's message. Surely something big had been lost in translation.

I am all for discipline and rigor, values which, for me, aren't discordant with compassion. Have a heart, for chrissakes.

Though I hated that teacher, she didn't make me hate music. She made me hate the callous and fear that I might become one myself. Whenever I think of her, which is every time I play the piano, I try to be kind. There's a reason for her behavior. I also think of all the times I've heard nice things said about me by way of other people.

Why can't we look each other in the eye and tell the beautiful things that we see? It's a promise I want to keep. To let you know at once how you fascinate me.


Practising the theme from Love Affair by Ennio Morricone. Recorded on March 24th, a week into the Luzon Lockdown.

09 March 2020

Matilda's profound, lingering magic

Dahl, Roald. Matilda. Puffin books, 2004.

She couldn't possibly keep a gigantic secret like that bottled up inside her. What she needed was just one person, one wise and sympathetic grown-up, who could help her to understand the meaning of this extraordinary happening.
. . .
Matilda decided that the one person she would like to confide in was Miss Honey. (p 164)

What has so far been a light, fun read turns into poignant literature after that passage. Like Matilda, I, too, have secrets I can't keep bottled up inside me. And though I need only one person to confide in, finding them is hard.

Maybe it's my age, but I reckon that Roald Dahl's Matilda is the story of Miss Honey. Granted, the two ladies fulfill each other's hunger for family; yet Miss Honey undergoes the bigger changes: first in her attitude (from docile to emboldened), then her lot (from poor to rich), all thanks to Matilda, who's pretty much a superhero, not once showing any signs of vulnerability.

The friendship between Miss Honey and Matilda — signifying equality between children and adults, the value of thoughtful listening, and the humility to seek and accept help — makes the book special to me.

In the Tim Minchin and Dennis Kelly musical adaptation, this friendship is almost a given; and the focus shifts to putting things right, more specifically, rewriting your pre-existing narrative.

Despite the profusion of books ontsage (Matilda uses a stack of it as her constant chair), the musical isn't making an argument for reading. Rather, it reminds us that books are more than just treasured possessions of socially inept losers. Bookworms are neither goody-goodies nor pushovers.

Take the case of Matilda. She personifies a revolting spirit from the get-go, in her opening solo, Naughty, where she also displays her critical thinking skills by reviewing the stories she's read:

Jack and Jill went up the hill
To fetch a pail of water, so they say,
Their subsequent fall was inevitable.
They never stood a chance; they were written that way.
Innocent victims of their story.

Like Romeo and Juliet.
T'was written in the stars before they even met.
That love and fate, and a touch of stupidity
Would rob them of their hope of living happily.
The endings are often a little bit gory.
I wonder why they didn't just change their story?

Her age and height notwithstanding, Matilda stands up to adult bullies fixed in their unfair ways. What's great is that she doesn't come off as an annoying woke police (as even she endorses a bit of mischief).

For all its sleight of hand, drawing out myriad emotions from its audience must be the most clever trick the musical has pulled off. Matilda is written with youthful idealism tempered by a knowingness earned by those who have had a taste of life's bitter pill.

The show is able to duplicate the lightness and poignancy of the novel, and gets infinitely better in the second act. Here, children sing of things they'll do when they grow up, which they equate to being invincible. If you're an adult, the whole number becomes a mirror where your younger self looks back at you (different from nostalgia, a mere sentimentality). Watching kids ride a swing and fly paper airplanes has never been so heart-shattering.

Another noteworthy number is Quiet (a personal favorite), where a feeling we may associate with anger, confusion, or displacement is articulated using every possible theatrical tool — music, lyrics, choreography, lights. The result is a clear and resonant expression of an ineffable childhood experience.

This is a musical that refuses to coast on charm. Words are demanded to be heard. Structurally, I admire the decision to have Matilda tell Miss Honey's backstory in installments, as it reinforces the joys of storytelling, as well as the titular character's powerful imagination, while making us pay close attention.

When I replay it in my head, Matilda the Musical proceeds with a feel-good simplicity, though it's far from feel-good and simple. Its cries of courage ring with meaning because of a pointed awareness of reality. Happy ending aside, we all are Miss Honey still singing When I grow up…, still unsure of how to write our story.

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