Saturday, December 2, 2017

{how i found my way back to piano}

A friend recently told me a story about how when she was a little girl, she wanted to learn to play piano. Her mom set up the lesson, but during the first meeting, the teacher told my friend that her hands were too small to play and refused to teach her.

I expected the story to end on a higher note—like how her mom found another teacher, and she learned and fell in love with the instrument. But that was the end of the story. She never found another tutor and never learned to play.

This gave me a flashback to when a teacher refused to teach me piano in third grade. I've always been naturally musically inclined—trained classically in voice since I was six, played both the violin and cello when I was little, perfect pitch by middle school—but with piano, it was harder. I play by ear, which means it is easier for me to learn by just listening to the full song rather than the recommended method: reading the actual sheet music. Though I didn't ever fully give it up, thanks to the piano in our living room, I wasn't formally taught the instrument again until high school. Until I found a wonderful teacher who adapted his teaching style to mine.

(Taking a moment here to side-eye those two teachers. I don't want to think about how many other students they refused to teach.)

I finally learned to play the piano the "right" way, but it still never came as easily as I wanted it to. Back then, my goal was to be able to accompany myself (or sister) while singing, and that's where I ended up—only able to do exactly that. My ability never went beyond the basic chords and I was rarely able to play the entire piece of music as it was written. And as I went into college years and beyond—now in the stages of life without regular piano lessons—I just settled with playing the same eight songs I knew. Every time I went home, my mom not-so-secretly wished I pulled a new song out of my hat, but the truth was...I never really considered trying. I had convinced myself that my left and right hands couldn't play anything complicated together, and that I would always struggle with reading sheet music. I stuck with what I knew.

But I yearned to play more. When I moved to San Francisco, music was no longer a part of my life. I lived across the country from my sister and singing parter, and voice lessons felt like a step back. My ice-breaker answers at work events shocked people: like how I've performed at Carnegie Hall three times and was a special guest on someone's tour in Ireland.

It seemed like a different life from the one I was living on the west coast and I desperately missed the thing that made me me.

So I bought a keyboard...

...and let it sit and gather dust for the better part of three years. I played it maybe a few times, but I still could not get over that hump of not being able to play anything beyond basic chords or songs. It was so disheartening and really ate away at me. I've since changed rooms from that one above, and even though the piano moved with me, I let it become another surface where I drop my mail and bills, instead of something that makes me happy.

Until this past fall. This year has been tough—my health, career, and personal life all took hits in different ways. I was constantly stressed, overanalyzing every part of my life, and I needed a jolt.

I listen to film scores and piano pieces while I work, and so on a whim, I downloaded sheet music to a song I'd been listening to on repeat. When I brought it home, I committed myself to it. 

I made a goal: learn it by Thanksgiving. Not just the chords—the entire thing, line by line, note by note. It was mid-October and the 5-page song seemed doable in that amount of time.

I set aside at least 90 minutes per weekday, with more hours on the weekend, and though I was rusty that first week, my hands eventually warmed up and it came back like muscle memory. It was like I never stopped—but this time, I was even better. There were days when I played the same three bars for five hours straight just to get the finger movements down, but I eventually nailed it.

I found myself more capable than I gave myself credit for, and it just...clicked. I identify notes quickly, I can play the treble and bass clefs at different tempos (at the same time!), and my fingers deftly move from key to key as fast as I can type.

Imagine my surprise when I finished learning the song by the end of the month.

So I downloaded another, and told myself I'd learn that one by Thanksgiving. And then I finished that one just days before the holiday, and downloaded another. And another.

I now have three-a-half completed songs under my belt, and have made a new goal for Christmas. I purchased a music binder with plastic page covers, so I can keep everything organized and protected, upgraded to a more robust pedal, and even bought some fancy keyboard headphones so my neighbors aren't sequestered to constant piano.

My roommate has been a rapt and supportive audience throughout this process, indulging my ego with startled reactions at how easily I picked it back up (considering she, too, had only heard the same eight songs I played for my mom). It hasn't just decreased my stress. I am having so much fun. 

I had visions of going home for Christmas, sitting down, and surprising my family with a repertoire of new songs. But the truth is, I've been so proud of myself, they've already seen snippets of the songs via FaceTime or videos. I don't care...I'm still counting the days until I go home and sit down at our baby grand (so different and better than a keyboard!) and play all of the songs over and over for them.

I still write the individual notes with a pencil on the bass line, and I still practice getting the tempo right by playing aloud to the actual song, but even though it is my own way, I am doing it. I am reading music and playing the piano and I'm actually good at it.

I still start and end each day at my keyboard. It wakes up my mind in the morning and relaxes it before bed. I have fallen in love with it all over again and found a piece of myself that had quietly been floating away. It has been the biggest gift over the past few months and I regret not doing it sooner. I can't even think about how many songs I could play by now.  

If you are reading this, take it as a lesson to not give up on something that you love—even if it's hard. Keep doing it. Maybe you will surprise yourself. And more importantly: it is okay to learn differently than others. I'm going to repeat that again: it is okay to learn differently than others. I have had to adapt my way of understanding things to what is not the norm all of my life, and that's okay. It really doesn't matter how you get there, just as long as you do.

I am so deeply moved by the piano; there is something about it that is beautiful and calming and significant in a way no other instrument is to me. I am so happy I found it again.


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