The first time I sat down to try and play a piano was five months after my 40th birthday. It was a five octave Yamaha Beginner keyboard with a bossa nova attitude and basically no dynamics and I had no idea what I was doing.
I couldn’t read sheet music, but when I looked at the (minor) number of sheet music on the page, I could Ramin Djawadi’s cover of No Surprises (opens in new tab), I thought it looked pretty manageable. It wasn’t.
I stayed at my father’s house and helped care for him during a serious bout of illness. My father loved music and acquired instruments like a magpie – but couldn’t really play anything besides guitar and definitely had no formal training.
By the time I moved back in he had somehow acquired an old accordion (half the buttons were stuck) and a beautiful full size double bass on which he had learned a few notes by ear. He had a beginner’s violin and eight guitars, all left-handed. And a very dusty keyboard.
I’ve always wanted to learn the piano. I played around with guitar as a teenager, but I didn’t want to be the play-and-sing type, and it kind of amazed me that there was an instrument that had such a versatile sound (The part in Groundhog Day where Bill Murray plays a wild boogie-woogie and then seamlessly transitions into Rachmaninoff Variations was a big influence (opens in new tab)).
I was always amazed when someone can sit down the public pianos at St Pancras station (opens in new tab) and throw out some anime music or a cover of Dancing Queen and entertain a crowd of grumpy people that the Eurostar is late. Probably now or never, I decided.
I couldn’t get a teacher, of course, because I had to snag practice time on the odd moments when my father was resting and I didn’t have to catch up on work. Instead, I started on YouTube and fought my way through Andrew Furmancyzk’s Beginner Lessons (opens in new tab) on scales and try not to force surprises by watching other people do (opens in new tab).
At first, watching these play-along videos seemed like the obvious way to get better fast – I’m good at Guitar Hero! You just have to copy the keys! – but after a couple of weeks I realized that endlessly rewinding and watching a video again is not the case nearly as efficient as looking at the sheets, assuming you can already read the notes.
I couldn’t read sheet music at all, but I jumped in head first and spent hours squinting at (then) complicated runs and chords before my wife, who played trumpet through her teens and 20’s, took a peek while I took mine Head banged, explained rather gently that it was ridiculous and bought me Albert’s basic piano course book 1 (opens in new tab)which turned out to be one of the books that every piano forum recommends.
I made it my goal to learn scales and chords for ten minutes and a lesson from Alfred every day before I did the hard stuff. I wrote down the list of songs I really wanted to be able to play to stay focused: Maxence Cyrin’s cover of Where Is My Mind by the Pixies (opens in new tab)To Elise and (so it says in the Goals section of my notebook) ‘A Britney Spears medley (opens in new tab)‘ – but I mostly stuck to practice.
Piano is hard and strange. Hand independence is definitely the hardest part: in the beginning it feels impossible to play different rhythms with both hands, literally impossible as everyone else you’ve seen doing it has a special gift or trick that you just don’t have be able to learn.
The answer, I found, was to slow it down altogether, take it apart until it’s not even recognizable as music, do it every day, and then rebuild it. Or you play a bass line with your left hand so many times that you can do it automatically, and then only have to worry about the right hand (that’s how I learned the first part of No Surprises).
Very often the trick is to practice consistently and then give your brain time to catch up: Sometimes I would take a day or a week off and something I was working on would fit so perfectly that it would come most naturally to me appeared thing in the world. Then I would find another, more difficult thing and go through the whole thing again.
It gets easier after a while, because even if that can’t-do-this feeling returns occasionally, you know it’s an illusion: you’ve learned something impossible before, and the process will definitely work it again .
My father passed away in October, four months after we knew something was wrong with him, three months after I started playing the piano. Of course I had a few days off. When everything calmed down, I started again.
One nice thing about learning piano as an adult as opposed to a kid (I suppose) is that you don’t to have to practice, you receive To practice: It’s something you can turn off the noise for 10, 15, or 25 minutes at a time instead of staring at a screen or worrying about everything else that’s going on in the world.
Now, when I play, I occasionally remind myself that I’m doing something my dad saw when I started, something I think he would have liked to do himself and something he’s very passionate about I was happy that I made my decision.
I’ve been playing for almost three years now. I can play everything on my old goal list, at least well enough to play the St. Pancras piano when the crowd isn’t too intimidating, and I’ve moved on to harder stuff: Rondo Alla Turca (opens in new tab) and Maple Leaf Rag (opens in new tab) are at the top of my notebook.
I guess I should take a lesson from a pro at some point: I’m not sure my technique is efficient enough to work my way up to really fast pieces, and I definitely overuse the sustain pedal. But I’ve learned to love music in a very different way than I did when I was younger: the arpeggios and four-note chords in, say, John Williams (opens in new tab)‘ Jurassic Park Theme never stops being amazing.
Hopefully, when I look at sheet music, I’ll always remember that at one point I couldn’t read it, let alone hope to play it with my fingers, and that the only things that have changed are time and effort were.
And to everyone reading this, like dozens of people who have reached out via my youtube channel (opens in new tab)He thinks it’s too late to learn, I would say it’s never too late. start today