When you tell people that you play the piano, they very often assume that you are good at the piano. Because adults who play the piano very likely began during childhood, and 10+ years of playing the piano is probably long enough to attain mastery. I have met and seen adults my age, younger, and older perform classical, pop, and just-plain-advanced pieces on the piano when encouraged to “play something.”
I, dear Reader, am also one of those adults that learned to play the piano during childhood. I had a few different teachers, but my most formative experience occurred in elementary school. We would arrive at the teacher’s house and one of us would have a lesson, while the other siblings would wait with a parent in the kitchen. I learned the fundamentals — the notes, the rhythms, and the easy key signatures (like C, F, and G for example).
Around that age, I was bribed with cold-hard cash by my parent to perfect a Disney piece that I had been practicing on the piano. I don’t remember under what circumstances this proposal was made, but I did it and to my memory, it was the first time I was ever paid to do something that didn’t involving cleaning. But I digress… I did like the piano. However, for me, there was a lot of associated stress involved. Practicing the piano basically became homework or a chore. Our teacher would assign us scales (which I sucked at) and piano pieces to practice. A few days a week (I can’t remember how many), I had to practice for thirty minutes, and a timer was set.
I played simple kid versions of Sweet Georgia Brown (aka that basketball tune), Disney’s “Once Upon a Dream” form Sleeping Beauty, and even the “Imperial March” from Star Wars. I liked the music but I felt stressed as my performance was evaluated every single Sunday by my teacher. To make matters worse there were also the piano recitals, which added a thick layer of anxiety on top of my stress burden. Overall, I had mixed feelings about the piano.
As a child, I appreciated music; I could read music, and I had a good understanding of how music “worked.” In high school, I even took a music theory class in which we learned the mechanics of music composition. For example, we learned that a major scale (the happy sounding sequence of tones) is just two tetrachords tied together by a whole tone. There were so many quizzes. How many sharps and flats are in a natural B minor scale? The G flat major scale is enharmonic with what other scale? (Answers at the bottom for nerds.)The teacher would play two notes on the piano and ask us to write down what interval it was (a fourth? a fifth?… a tritone!?).
With all this practice and lessons, you would think that I was pretty good at the piano, right? Well, here’s the thing about the piano and most things in life — you must practice to maintain the skill. Sure, muscle memory exists, but playing the piano is not like riding a bike (oh look, another thing I’m not great at, more here). After years of lessons, at some point during adolescence I finally won my case after begging and pleading to stop meeting with a piano teacher. I mean, what was the point of learning the piano anyway? I wasn’t a prodigy. It’s not like I was training for the piano Olympics or trying to go to college on a piano scholarship (which, come to think of it, is probably a career path I would have been dissuaded from anyway). After years of stressed, I could finally stop playing the piano.
Then, several periods of time later (I must say, remembering when things happened in childhood is kind of hazy for me), I sat back down on the piano bench and tried to relearn some of the old pieces. I admit I was sad to have seen the quality of my performance diminish. Also, I was weirdly ashamed and secretive at first (because, god forbid, anyone found out I actually liked the piano again). Then, once those feelings had passed, I was overeager to learn the piano on my own terms. I bought piano books filled with pop songs that my teachers would never have included in our lessons years prior.
Finally, playing the piano was fun again, however, to be honest, my technical skills totally stagnated. My piano-playing ability peaked in 2009. This was the year Michael Jackson died and, in his memory, I worked super hard to play his music on the piano, which meant trying to wrap my head around all the syncopated rhythms and complex key signatures. I had never worked so hard at the piano and many months later after my period of mourning was over, I chilled out and, for the most part, I just played music I already knew how to play.
As an adult, I play the piano irregularly. I have an electric piano and go through short bursts of practicing semi-regularly to not playing a single note for very months at a time. I have never been good at memorizing pieces (so I stopped trying in high school) and, therefore, I cannot just whip out a tune for people when they gesture to the odd lobby piano and say, “play something.” I never took learning scales seriously and now, when someone points to my electric piano and says, “play something,” even though I have my music right in front of me, my fingers will get all tied up because they always do.
For me, playing the piano for fun has been a bit of a stress reliever. Even though I do not hit the notes perfectly and the rhythms lag and accelerate unnaturally, I find myself drifting into thought and problem-solving mode to the tune of broken Für Elise or the love theme from Romeo and Juliet. Playing for other people, on the contrary, is about performance or about playing the accompaniment so others can experience the joy of singing to live music. In the abstract, sure, it would be nice to be so good at the piano that I could encounter a random train station Steinway and serenade hurried passersby with a hauntingly beautiful rendition of an otherwise annoying pop hit. However, playing the piano does not, in fact, come naturally to me and trying to attain such a goal at the “cost” of practicing, practicing, practicing is just not worth the pain for me.
I don’t often tell people that I play the piano because people have expectations of piano players. They expect you to be good, they expect you to have pieces memorized, and they expect you to perform at the drop of a hat. There are beautiful and talented people who are eager and obliging and they rock, but I’m just not one of them. Disappointing people sucks and I love the piano and loving it all on my own in my little apartment playing only for me is good enough for me.
P.S., here are the answers to the music theory questions, because I know y’all are dying to find out:
- There are two sharps (F and C) in a natural B minor scale (which, by the way, shares a key signature with the D major scale).
- G flat major (which features six flats) is enharmonic (a fancy word for when notes sound the same but are written differently) with F sharp major (which features 7 sharps). In short, you play the exact same notes on the piano, however, one can call the black note that the piece starts on either G flat or F sharp (but, please, for the love of all that is holy, only call it G flat for reasons I’m too lazy to explain in this footnote).