I sat down on the small, faux-leather bench and slid it along the wood floor, so that my navel was perfectly aligned with the words engraved in gold. They read “Steinway & Sons” – that hallowed mark of quality and craftsmanship; the instrument of choice for the musically and financially talented, neither a descriptor that applies to me. I let out a deep sigh of preparation and gave a small nod. “Now find Middle C,” said my instructor, a woman with a kind face and soft-spoken nature. My hands floated down to the piano keys and landed on an ivory tile. She smiled. I missed it.
I’ve always been musically inclined – hell, the reason I write for this website is because I was jamming out that hard at a Kanye show – but there’s a big difference between appreciating someone else’s art and making your own. By age 32, I’ve faked my way through a couple of bands as a mediocre bass player, a shitty guitarist, and a pretty decent hype man, but a lot of that was based on instinct and the good sense to surround myself with better musicians. More often than not, the best musicians were pianists. There’s a reason for that: you need to understand music theory to truly master the piano. The instrument sits at the intersection of percussion and stringed instruments, giving it the ability to create sounds that cover the entire range of human emotion. If you’re good enough, a piano lets you say what you want to say, precisely how you want to say it.
Learning a new skill as an adult is hard; harder than I remember, at least. I’m now three weeks and five lessons into playing the piano, and every hour spent practicing stretches me to the fullest of my abilities. It feels like my skull is split open and a ton of esoteric knowledge is dumped into my brain; learning how to read music makes me the same kind of jaw-tight frustrated as TSA lines at the airport. Both are tedious, painful experiences that gobble up time, but hopefully lead to incredibly worthwhile results (unless you’re going to Cincinnati).
It’s both mechanical and intellectual, and takes repetition, repetition, and more repetition. That being said, I’m a sucker for this kind of pain, and I find myself listening to favorite pieces of music with fevered excitement: I fantasize about playing Bill Evans’ “Love them from Spartacus”, Keith Jarrett’s “Köln Concert”, or Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune”. Last week, I actually cried with joy and awe after watching Yo-Yo Ma – the acclaimed cellist – talking about how learning takes practice and work and dedication. I’ve given myself entirely to this endeavor and I feel a sense of satisfaction and purpose that has been missing from my life for a while. I’m not sure if it’s me or the music, but I feel small and new and eager to learn in a way I haven’t felt since I was a boy. It’s so scary and so exciting.
I bought an old, used digital keyboard a couple of days ago and some music theory books, and both are expected to arrive by tomorrow afternoon. I can’t remember the last time I was so eager to jump into something. I don’t know what my career with the piano will look like – it might be the case that I crash and burn – but this is a puzzle I would love to solve. It feels good to learn a new skill.