Last semester, I began taking piano lessons. Actually, this was my third attempt to tackle the instrument, after a brief stint in early elementary and a single semester of class in high school. So far, it seems like this third attempt actually took. I’m no prodigy – my sister Molly can play circles around me – but it has become a creative outlet I didn’t realize I needed until I had it.
Throughout the first semester of lessons, my teacher had to repeatedly remind me to hit the keys harder. One day, she said, “Your mezzo forte is more mezzo piano.” I laughed because she didn’t know how true that statement was. I am often medium-quiet when I should be medium-loud. Whether practicing piano or carrying on a conversation, there is a tendency to hush for fear of being heard. Of course, Proverbs 10:19 is true; there is wisdom in remaining quiet. However, when it comes time to play mezzo forte, you need to be able to hit the keys!
Right now, for example, I’m playing on a different kind of keyboard. I may yet cultivate my budding pianist skills into something more, but I am already invested in this writing business. At the heart of my passion for writing, I’ve realized, is a passion for communication. Stringing words together is a different kind of communicative creativity – a different method than playing piano, but perhaps the same end goal.
Not long after my mezzo piano inclination was called out, I was encouraged to “speak directly”. If communication is the goal, this describes the intentionality of whatever method is chosen to reach it. Music, for all its beauty, makes it easy to obscure a message in indirectness. Just think of all the thinly-veiled songs about unrequited love we listen to! So often, indirect attempts like these beg the audience to listen and pursue them, all the while trying to remain aloof and keep up the appearance of indifference.
Søren Kierkegaard is noteworthy here as a famously indirect communicator. He frequently used pseudonyms in his writing, addressing ideas from different perspectives as he understood them more completely. His method was intended to let the listener make a decision for himself based on the pseudonyms’ “double reflections” (written in Training in Christianity under the pseudonym Anti-Climacus). I am not well-read enough to pass judgment of any kind on Kierkegaard’s indirectness, but it is worth mentioning that one area he was always direct in communicating was Christianity. Walter Lowrie wrote that “when he wrote in his own name… he was careful to register precisely the position he had preached on the way to becoming a Christian, for he was fearful of attributing to himself a result he had not really acquired or had not personally appropriated by ‘double reflection’.” While many of his ideas required interpretation due to their indirectness, he emphasized what was most important. In 1837, Kierkegaard himself wrote “Christianity alone is direct speech (I am the truth).”
Speaking directly is, obviously, of vital importance when it comes to our relationships with others. Communication does not shout over another’s voice, and intimacy does not violate the other’s identity. Playing fortissimo is overwhelming! But playing pianissimo is the opposite extreme. A relationship can’t be balanced and shared if one half diminishes themselves by stepping back, compromising their stance. Mezzo forte does not mean stepping backward or forward but remaining confident where you stand. According to Kierkegaard, “absolute humanity means precisely that everyone is a single individual”¹ – in healthy understanding of themselves and of those around them.
Everyone’s mezzo forte might look a little different, whether it’s stepping outside the habit of what feels “safe” with confidence, speaking with honesty and integrity, or even just playing piano where people might overhear. These things take courage, and as I’m Still Learning To Dance, I’m also learning to live medium-loud.
¹A Short Life of Kierkegaard by Walter Lowrie, pg. 171: “To ‘exist’ does not mean simply to be but to stand out from (ex-stare), and that not in the sense of being separate from but intimately connected with the environment from which the individual as an individual stands out.”