Playing the Piano

I’ve recently been thinking about relearning to play the piano, so I’ll be blogging about that a bit. If you have no interest in that, the posts in this series (they’ll have a ‘piano’ tag up top) are easily skipped.

I first started to learn the piano when I was, I guess, 7 or 8 years old. In retrospect, as much as people seemed to like this piano teacher, I don’t believe that she was all that good. Why? Well, I never learned to read music under her tutelage. For context: she was my teacher for about six years.

If you’re already quite familiar with music, you’ll want to skip down the next two paragraphs.

I realise this image is screwed up, and I will fix it later. Damn transparent background…

Imagine you’re sitting in front of a piano. The top set of lines (the “Treble Clef”) is basically for your right hand, and the bottom (the “Bass Clef”) is for your left hand. It gets complicated later on, but for your first couple of years of learning, this will take you a long way. You’ll notice that each line and space indicates a letter, and that letter is the name of the note. If we write notes beyond the range of the lines, we add a line (or more) just for that note. Take a look at C4, on the left, for example. That note is also known as “Middle C”, as it is situated in the mid-point between both clefs, and is also in the middle of the piano keyboard.

For six years, I knew middle C, the G at the bottom of the Bass Clef, D in the middle of the Bass Clef, and B in the middle of the Treble Clef, and muddled through everything else. This was not corrected by my first piano teacher, ever.

The teacher wasn’t “bad” in terms of getting kids to learn to play pieces of music, but she wasn’t teaching to any standards. I would be brought to be ‘graded’ periodically, and would get a mark and would advance a “grade”, but in terms of these grades being recognised beyond her: nope. I recall, at 12, getting something like 80% in one of my gradings and being brought to the principal of my Primary School (Elementary School) and being reprimanded for being the first of her students, ever, to score less than 90%. In retrospect, this strikes me as weird for multiple reasons, not the least of which that the piano teacher wasn’t actually faculty in the school. Her lessons were located in the school, but were entirely extra-curricular (and paid for privately).

When I attended Secondary School (High School), I had a new teacher. I was told that while I had some basic training, the grades I had accrued under that teacher simply didn’t count (internationally), and that I would be trained according to the Royal Irish Academy of Music (I think, this was all more than 20 years ago). This sounds far more impressive than it is: it simply means that 1) the gradings would be much more standardised, and 2) my grades would be recognised if I went to a different teacher/school/country.

The new teacher (Mr. G) was significantly better than the old one. Rather than simply expecting me to work through a particular book of music, he presented me with pieces that were challenging, and forced me to improve my abilities.

This was not a challenge that I was up to. And, I wish to be crystal clear, this was not an issue with the teacher.

As a child, I was held to standards that were forever beyond my reach. 97% on an exam was never good enough: where was the missing 3%? What happened there? And while critical self-reflection on failure is absolutely a good and necessary thing, at 8, 9, 10 years old I had not the capacity for such critical self-reflection. I learned that to reach was to fail, and to fail without reaching at least saved the hassle of trying.

So I continued to take music lessons. I watched my piano teacher open a book for, possibly, the first time and play through the piece at a good pace, with minimum effort. And this was my standard, to which I held myself, and against which I inevitably fell short. Add to this that in my school there was an extrodinarily gifted young man, a year older than myself, who could (it seemed) play anything he had heard. He couldn’t read music at all, but if he heard a tune on the radio, he could immediately and flawlessly play the piece.

If you’re unable to understand how decades of musical theory and practice pay off, and unable to recognise the quirk of genetics that makes such virtuosos possible, you have doomed yourself to constant perceived failure, regardless of how well you might actually be doing.

Being unable to read music, practicing music was something of a chore. I would struggle with the piece until I had memorised the finger placements, and then I could forget about the piece of paper filled with the meaningless scribbles: the paper existed to be fought with, and the fight was not worth winning. So between my weekly lessons, I seldom practiced. I have no idea how I improved as I did, with my “lessons” being my actual practice time, and 1-3 hours of practice a week is basically nothing, especially when that practice is given over to embarrassing picking through the notes, desperately trying to figure out what to press next. Mr. G had an infinite amount of patience.

At 17, I had completely lost interest in playing the piano. and quit lessons. I briefly went back when I was 18, but that was basically that.

I went looking, a few months ago, for a way to rent access to a piano, and have found some cheap options. Long & McQuaide have a music centre, and will allow access to their pianos Monday to Friday, from 10am to 1pm for a whole $5 per hour. That, frankly, is a deal worth having, if you have a weekday off of work.

Yesterday, for the first time in 17 years, I sat down to a piano to practice. Yesterday, for the first time ever, I have realistic expectations of what I’m trying to do, and what my standard is (“better than I was 1 hour ago”). Yesterday, I practiced the piano, learning it as I did Japanese, seeking patterns in the sheet music, recognising that the shape of the music, the pattern of math within, the motion of the fingers… I spent three consecutive hours on the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata (a piece I had once learned). And my hands hurt at the end of it.

And it was worth it.

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