I recently attended a “house concert” put on by a friend of mine, Tom. He had some great musicians there, including an amazing young pianist (I think she was in her early 20’s). As someone who took piano lessons for many years growing up, I had an epiphany that night: Despite my years of lessons, I really suck at playing piano.
Being from a Korean family, my parents, meaning well, and like all Asian parents do, put my brother and I through piano lessons starting sometime in elementary school. I tolerated it to be a good son. I figured it was something you just had to do, like going to school.
But, both my brother and I hated practicing. We’d set an oven timer to exactly 30 minutes (the minimum amount of time we were able to negotiate from our parents) and we’d stop when the bell rang, even if we were in mid-sonata.
Boredom was part of the problem. We were taught standard classical pieces and were forced to spend weeks perfecting them. (“Perfecting” is the wrong word, perhaps I should say “attempting in vain to improve” them).
I’ve always had a pretty good ability to concentrate. No ADHD for me. But, it was torture trudging through the same piano pieces week after week.
On top of that, I hated to be on stage or performing for recitals. I think I had stage fright. I did a lousy job at these performances. Given my introverted personality, a stage is probably the absolute last place on Earth that I wanted to be, or should have been.
Tragically, my lack of talent was never recognized. So, I went on to waste many man-months (child-months?) of time on something I wasn’t very good at and didn’t really enjoy, when I could have been doing something more productive, like watching “Star Wars” a few more times.
Some of you might be thinking, “you ungrateful asshole – your parents spent a lot of money to put you through those lessons!” Believe me, I am very very appreciative of everything my parents have done for me. I have the most supportive parents in the world. They paid a lot of money for lessons from great concert pianists. But even they would admit that I had the wrong kind of piano lessons. I can prove it to you if you put some sheet music in front of me.
I would have much preferred learning a greater number of easier, more popular songs in a shorter amount of time, and being able to sight-read, rather than learning a few long classical pieces over a period of months. (I am a big fan of the 80/20 rule).
With regard to our piano abilities, my brother and I refer to ourselves as “trained monkeys”. Yeah, lock me in a room with a piano and a sonata and a gun to my head, and in a few months I’ll do a half-decent job of playing it. Sight read? I wish. Improvise? Forget it.
Actually, my brother was smarter than I, and, in a minor act of rebellion, switched to guitar around junior high, I think. That is a lot more practical instrument, in my opinion. (Ever heard of anyone playing the piano around a campfire?)
Plus, of course, women dig guitar players. I, on the other hand, went on to play keyboards in an 80’s cover band with some school mates. Even the drummer gets more attention from women than the keyboard player does. Heck, the guy running the mixing board gets more action.
But, all was not lost. In my adult life, I revisited my nemesis, the piano, and actually got a great deal of enjoyment out of learning some songs that I picked out for myself. These are shorter, much easier, and more popular than the classical monstrosities I struggled with before. Here’s a sampling what’s in my current repertoire:
- Theme from “Schindler’s List”
- Ashokan Farewell (piano arrangement of the theme from Ken Burns’ “Civil War”)
- Theme form “Up”
- “Over the Moon” (from “ET”)
- Anything by Coldplay
I still can’t sight-read (except for Coldplay), but I’m a little better than before. I enjoy playing the piano so much more when it’s on my own terms. I realized I probably would have been much better off if I had stopped lessons after a few years and then just been left to my own devices with the instrument.
But, no point in dwelling over past tragedy. I’ll overcome this childhood trauma. Now excuse me while I go practice some Coldplay. – Brian