Tien Gang looked down at his hands. They were not a typical concert pianist’s hands at all. They had short, stubby fingers, and were not even very flexible. It was his feet that were beautiful. His toes were very long, thin and supple. At school, he had always been nicknamed “Daddylongfeet”. Even now, some of his old friends still teased him by calling him that.
Today his hands were hurting and warm, the joints stiff and inflamed. He had been noticing a little stiffness for the last few days, but had put it down to not enough exercises at the piano. But that couldn’t explain inflammation, could it?
Alarmed, he went to his little music room crowded with scores, books, papers and tuning forks, sat down at the piano and tried some quick scales, arpeggios and glissandos. But his hands didn’t seem to want to obey him. What had always come as naturally to him as breathing was now a strain. He knew he had to make an appointment to see the doctor quickly.
The receptionist glared at him as he entered the surgery. As usual, he was late for his appointment. But taking in the jet black hair that fell over thick eyebrows and twinkling intelligent almond eyes she didn’t dare ask why. After all, he WAS Mr Gang.
“How can I help?” asked the doctor.
“My hands.” replied the pianist, showing them to him.
The physician frowned.
“Hmmm, I’m afraid to tell you, sir, that you probably have arthritis.”
“I beg your pardon?” Tien’s eyebrows disappeared into his hair, and his brow furrowed. “Arthritis?”
“I’m very sorry sir, but I think that is the case.”
“But I’m a pianist! My hands are my career! Is there no cure?”
“I’m afraid not. But we can give you a cast to wear at night to slow the process down.”
“But it must stop it!”
“Nothing can stop arthritis,” the Doctor said, gravely.
Tien’s mind went as blank as a music sheet waiting to be written on. Compose yourself, he thought firmly.
“Very well,” he said, trying not to let his voice crack, or go out of tune, as he liked to think of it. “I’ll take the cast.”
The doctor nodded, and reached for some polystyrene from a drawer. “Press your hand into this, please, sir. We’ll get the cast to you as soon as possible. Wear it all night every night.”
“Thank you, doctor.”
When the cast arrived, it was an ugly plastic thing with Velcro to attach it to the hand. Tien tried every night for two months. Those two months were pure hell for the pianist. He couldn’t sleep a wink and that meant he couldn’t concentrate on his piano practice which meant the world to him. Finally, not being able to bear it a second longer, he decided to think of a solution. He thought day and night for a further week, and finally, it came to him: He would play the piano with his feet.
After all, didn’t some artists paint with their feet? And he remembered very well the Chinese proverb from The Wisdom of Confucius, which he had read and reread almost as often as the famous piano concerto by Grieg, “Heavenly music is interpreted differently by everyone”. Didn’t that mean he could play his music however he wanted, because everyone had different ways of doing so? He tried playing the first movement of The Moonlight Sonata with his feet, putting a chair beneath his legs to keep them up. He did this every day for as many hours as he could. For the first couple of months, the music was hesitant and slow. But then, one day, the blank sheet of music which had been Tien’s mind ever since he had been told he had arthritis filled with notes, and the instrument seemed to be speaking to him as never before.
Within six more months, Tien Gang was once more on the stage in one of the biggest concert halls in the world. The hall was packed with people, excited to hear him play once more. They didn’t know he was now playing with his feet. That had been kept secret. What would be their reaction, Tien wondered? There was only one way to find out: The pianist cleared his throat and silence fell instantly. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “welcome. Today’s concert will ;com” he smiled to himself, “let us say- different to usual. I will now begin with The Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven. I hope you enjoy it.” He sat down at the piano, put his legs up on the chair, placed his bare feet on the piano and began to play what he had been working on since he had decided to play with his feet. The audience looked at the pianist in astonishment. What was going on? But the music was too beautiful to think about this. When the piece was over, tumultuous applause filled the hall and Tien Gang received the most appreciative standing ovation he had ever experienced. The pianist stood up and bowed. When the noise had died down, he explained everything to the audience. From then on, Tien Gang continued with his career, and went on to become the best-loved pianist of the day.
Note: In China, the surname is always said first. I chose the name Tien Gang because in Mandarin, the word Gang Tien means piano.