Twenty years ago, my friend Dave was in his thirties and mentioned he started taking piano lessons. It was a casual remark, but I still remember the envy I felt. Growing up, I wasn’t exposed to music, short of listening to Kiss or Led Zeppelin on 8-track tapes. Learning to play an instrument seemed like something reserved for other people, not for me.
Times changed, and I changed. When I started taking piano lessons recently, I thought of my friend, and wondered what happened to him.
My first few months of learning have been liberating, allowing me to shed limits I had placed on myself. I’m able to do things much sooner than I had expected, including playing a few simple songs and reading simple music. I surprised myself.
On Tuesdays, I take my lesson right after my daughter takes hers. My young son even practices a bit. Then our teacher and a friend join us for dinner and wine, and they’ll play some more. I mentioned that someday I wanted to play “Bye Bye Blackbird” as Nina Simone played it. We found it on YouTube and my teacher started to play it by ear. One night my cousin and my daughter played a duet.
We have music in our house, I thought. It’s a miracle.
The failures still sting. The worst ones are when I fail to try. The lack of a strict practice schedule means I missed 5 days this week.
Comparing myself to someone else presents a different kind of struggle. Below, for example, are the pieces my daughter and I are learning to play. Mine is on the left and hers on the right. I’m fifty-one and she’s seven (“almost eight,” she reminds me).
Attempting to play my simple piece, I realize how stupid and stubborn my hands can be, refusing to carry out even the simplest of independent instructions.
I can feel my inner critic telling me, Give up. You’ll never be as good as them anyway.
The best time to start learning piano
Perhaps if I had started playing twenty years ago, I would have given up. But not now. I've come to know that learning almost anything includes learning how to deal with setbacks, learning about discipline, learning about yourself.
After many years, I had a chance to see Dave recently. We had lunch with some of his colleagues and I told them about my learning to play piano, and about how I felt when Dave said he started taking lessons.
“He plays beautifully”, his colleague said.
I smiled. I was happy for him, and I was happy for me. I thought of this old proverb:
The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is now.
I’m planting my piano tree now. Maybe twenty years from now, someone will say “he plays beautifully.” Maybe I’ll just enjoy nurturing my new practice and watching myself develop.
What tree could you plant today?