The Life-Changing Coffee Break

There aren’t many moments that transform your entire life within just a few seconds. For me, one of these moments occurred in 2006, shortly before I graduated from the Mozarteum in Salzburg as a concert pianist.

For the exams, I was practicing like an insane person -- 7 to 8 hours everyday. My life consisted of only eating, practicing and sleeping. One day, worried about my state of mind, my roommate convinced me to go for a late-afternoon coffee. I remember that it was an unusually hot day for June. I decided in favour of a coffee-to-go and a walk alone in the city. Feeling guilty of the time I was losing wandering around, my feet took me to the old Wiener Saal of the Mozarteum.

The entrance hall was quiet but pleasantly cool. There was not one soul in the corridor, just a distant piano murmur. Having spent many hours in the building, I knew it was coming from the main concert hall in the first floor.

I went upstairs as the music got closer. It was a piece I didn’t know. Somewhat romantic but also surprisingly modern at the same time. I silently opened the main door in the back of the concert hall and took the first seat available. People looked at me as if I were from another planet. They must have thought “oh, what kind of person is this, coming so late to the concert!”. I can’t blame them though. I still had the coffee in my hand and was trying not to spill it while digging to find a piece of scrap paper in my bag which in that moment felt like an endless black hole.

Although I felt quite ashamed to have caused a little uproar at the back of the hall, I still didn’t know what the piece was. There was a sad beauty in it, like I had never heard before. It spoke into the deepest cells of my heart, somewhat waking up my melancholic Turkish soul. I leaned forward to the grey haired lady sitting in front of me to have a look at her program. She was almost asleep and didn’t care much about my close proximity to her heavily perfumed, spray-tamed hair. Oh, I still remember that … smell… nothing nice.

But the music... it made everything worthwhile. As I could just withdraw from the program the sleeping beauty was holding in her hands, it was Alban Berg’s Piano Sonata Op. 1. Composed in 1909, as a piece of homework (!), when he was a student of Schönberg’s.

What an amazing piece of music - he was only 25 years old then! Just like I was, when I heard it. I left the hall when people were still applauding and got myself a copy of the score to study. I’d forgotten all the preparation stress for my graduation and was consumed by the Sonata. I practiced it until perfect and did a recording a year later.

Who would have known that this very recording would open me totally unexpected career paths. It got me into Harvard as a Research Fellow and caused me to meet some of the most impactful encounters of the last 15 years of my life.

It is not an overstatement to say that thanks to that little coffee break my life changed. Since that day, whenever someone offers me a coffee break, I tend to say “yes” :-)

© Seda Röder