Learning Piano

When I was about ten my grandparents gifted me an acoustic Yamaha guitar. At the time it was the coolest thing I owned, and I proudly carried it around my house with my pockets full of picks and dreams. I couldn’t wait to start learning how to play, and during my free time I would set myself up in front of my bedroom mirror, watching myself strum as I daydreamed about how good I was going to get, and how I couldn’t wait to show off my talents to my friends. In my mind, it was really only a matter of time before I was playing insane riffs to large, cheering crowds. My parents set me up with lessons with a neighbor and thus I was officially off on my journey to become a guitar master.

And I promptly gave up after a few months.

Look, learning anything new is hard, especially when you’re ten and have the attention span of, well, a ten-year-old. I really tried to learn the instrument, but with the amount of effort it took, coupled with the fact that guitar playing can be especially rough on your fingers–talk about calluses!–it was really only a matter of time before my adolescent mind had moved on to other things. And so, for the next fifteen years that guitar sat in a corner of my room, undisturbed and collecting dust like a forgotten photo album. In the meantime I was going through school, every now and then spotting a friend playing an instrument and wondering what could have been.

By ten, I had also realized I was never going to be much of a fire truck driver.

I think everyone should try to learn to play an instrument at least once in their lives; it can be an outlet for creativity, stress relief, or just a fun hobby to pass the time. I always remember being drawn to music, and while I can’t sing to save my life, I knew that at some point I wanted to give learning an instrument another go. But when that time finally came about two years ago, it wasn’t the guitar I picked up; by then there was another instrument I had a much more vested interest in. 

Like many things in my life, my interest in learning piano came from watching my sister be good at it first. She took lessons for a few years when we were kids, getting quite good at it before she gave it up for other hobbies. When she was playing, our house would be alive with piano renditions of Kelly Clarkson and Grease hits, and I’d love listening to her practice. And it wasn’t just when she was playing: I’ve always loved the sound of a piano, and I knew that if I was going to try to pick up an instrument again, that was going to be it.

Fun fact: my hair is blue in this picture because I actually got it cut in a super-secret barbershop in Disney World. They also put some weird sparkly stuff on it, which I think was supposed to be pixie dust just just made my hair reflect like a disco ball for 12 hours.

So where to begin? Well, the first thing I did, as I’d assume any millennial would, is go to Youtube for direction. There I found synthesia renditions, which, for the uninitiated, are basically tutorials that tell you which keys to play at what time (you can check out an example HERE). I started memorizing the notes and I actually managed to get a full song down. But since those tutorials don’t go far in teaching you how to read actual sheet music, I found a teacher and began taking lessons.

And this time I didn’t quit. Six times a week, for at least twenty or so minutes, I’ll sit down and practice. I don’t think I’m that great, but I’m definitely having fun. I mean, it’s been two years and I’m still really into it. And I do think I’m getting better every day. Now I mostly just wish I had started sooner. 

The coolest thing about knowing how to play an instrument is when you actually get to play for other people. But while a guitar can be carried around easily, with a piano you kinda just luck into situations where there happens to be one in the room for you to play. But when those situations do come, it’s like how I imagine people who love cats feel when they find one out in the wild. There’s just a contagious magic there, and I love playing for anyone who’s willing to listen.

Piano playing is actually the second of my talents; the first is my ability to shrink my little brother down so that he can fit in the palm of my hand.

Which brings me to last year when I was taking writing courses in New York City. To get to class everyday I would take a bus that would bring me to the Port Authority Bus Terminal, the major bus station in the city. There, on the first floor, is a piano that anyone is free to come up and play. I used to plan my days so that I would have a few extra minutes before class to watch people work the keys, and sometimes I would even stop by after class, too. Some of the players were really good, and as I continued with my lessons I toyed with the idea of actually playing there myself, though I would swiftly shoot the idea down due to the wave of anxiety such thoughts would bring. Playing in front of a few people is one thing, but in a bus station full of them? That was a mountain I didn’t yet have the courage to climb. 

Still, I did always hold onto the goal of playing there, seeing it as something to work towards. When I finally managed to build up the courage to do so, I remember lowering myself onto the bench and being frantically aware of the many eyes watching me. I’m generally not the sort of person who demands attention when I walk into a room, and yet here I was about to do something that would practically ensure I was being watched and judged. So to keep myself calm I lowered my gaze to the keys and just started to play before I could chicken out. I did a slow, rather sloppy version of the melody of Heart and Soul, which many people know from that scene in Big, and when I finished I quickly gathered my things, intent on making a quick exit. 

Until someone started clapping.

“Good job!” they called cheerfully. It was an older woman, and I still remember how her face shone with a bright smile. “You play well!”

Her words have stuck with me because they weren’t coming from a friend or family member. This was a woman I didn’t know, who could be as blunt and honest as she wanted. For the first time I had opened myself to unbiased criticism, and she could have said I was the worst piano player she’d ever heard. But instead she gave me something I needed: a much needed boost of confidence. Still, in the moment I was so surprised that all I could say was a stuttered, “T-thanks,” before grabbing my things and hurrying off. 

But from then on I would always play on that piano whenever I went into the city. Funnily enough, it was the perfect low-pressure environment to practice in: people were usually in a hurry and didn’t stick around watching for long, so I was free to keep playing the same two or three songs until someone else wanted their turn. Also, if I messed up badly, chances were the people were going to forget all about me in the next five or so minutes. Still, the coolest thing that happened was when a man came up to me after I was done, handed me a dollar, and walked away. That’s stuff you don’t forget, man. 

One of my favorite audience members was a homeless man who would always belt out the lyrics whenever I played Lean On Me, by Bill Withers. He would come up to the piano and watch me play, and when I was done he’d cock his head to the side and say, “Play that one again, son.” So I would, and it would be so much fun. The man didn’t have the best voice, but he sang with passion and raw soul. And he had more courage than I had to be singing in front of so many people.

So it’s been two years now and what have I learned? Well, other than a few songs that I love to play, the importance of discipline when pursuing a musical hobby–they’re not wrong when they say it’s more important than motivation. For now I’m going to keep working and practicing and trying to get better. The pandemic has allowed me to devote even more time to doing so–because honestly, what else is there to do sometimes?–and I’m feeling good about the progress I’ve been making. In no way do I see myself ever performing professionally, but I’m making the most of what it is, and I’m really excited to see how far I can go with it.

Oh, and as for that guitar that had been in my room? Well, it’s actually now in my sister’s possession. Funnily enough, she’s learning how to play it, so somehow we’ve ended up swapping instruments. Crazy, right? 

Since this has to have been building towards something, I figured I’d close by sharing a cover I filmed. I do apologize for the crummy quality and occasional mistake/sloppy editing; I’ll be posting a much better version some time in the future.

Like I said: it’s not great, but it’s getting there.

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