Music represents everything good about being human, but it does not have to be fancy to be authentic. This is clear from the start when learning to play the piano. Talent is not required for this, any more than knowledge about the internal combustion engine is required to drive a car. That’s not as strange a comparison as you might think - both cars and pianos operate according to certain physical laws: The Law of Acoustics, which is the science of sound, The Law of Gravity, which is the science of steering clear of any area where a piano or a car are suspended from a crane, and the Law of Reciprocity, the principle that in learning an instrument and in life, we get back what we put in.
To start, some basics. Understand that the piano is in charge. It is pure potential when well-tuned, and can deliver Mr. Rogers’ theme song and Rachmaninoff with equal commitment. The musician-in-training might think of herself as the hands, foot and consciousness behind the whole operation but lets face it. She is merely the muscle through which the piano can run away with the show.
It bears repeating, the piano is in charge. It will not lie. An f sharp is an f sharp, and if we hit the f key by mistake the piano will sound that f and reveal our clanger. The nice part is the piano has absolutely no judgment about wrong notes. It will always reflect back to us the quality of our effort, but this has nothing to do with opinion or approval. Once we register the feedback, we can go back and play the passage again, mindful of that f sharp. Then play it again and again and again, until it is no longer necessary to think about it. Once the skills get into our hands, well, that’s when things can really start to happen.
The piano is infinitely patient, and will never abandon us. It has the upper hand, so why should it care how long it takes for us to be ready to rock and roll? But this is what balances things out: the piano needs us in order to fulfill its purpose. Without us, it is just an attractive piece of furniture gathering dust and rust while all this amazing music is possible if we do our part. The piano has no judgment about this either. That’s just how it is. A player needs an instrument, an instrument needs a player, and together they are more than the sum of their parts.
Here is the most important way learning the piano is like life: there are always hard parts. Parts we want to skip. Parts we would like to fake, or rush through, or bypass altogether, or call up our friends to tell about the injustice and horror of them. Mastering these passages is not required. But trying to ignore them will leave us feeling terminally inadequate. Because once we encounter them, it is not really possible to pretend we didn’t back down from the challenge. Tackling them might not work out.. It is also possible we will never again fear the experience of being a rank beginner.
Life has periods of relative quiet and complacency, when we breeze through whatever arises and nothing seems too far from the way we thought things would be. These times are like playing when we know the neighbors can hear, and instead of feeling self-conscious and going all pianissimo, we play big and out because this life is our movie and this music is our music. Then something explodes. The baby will not stop crying and we cannot figure out why. Nothing seems to stop that leak from the ceiling in the basement. Its four a.m. and we see our daughter’s bedroom light is on but she is not in her bed. The radiologist just called to discuss something on a mammogram. The hard parts can seem to demand aggressive forceful attacks on the music, or a tendency to rush through just to get it all over with.
The piano will not insist that we change the way we think about the tough passages. It won’t belabor the fact that the only way to get to the end of a song is to play through it. To get through these sections is to break the whole thing down into the smallest possible fragments, just two or three notes at a time, and go over them slowly, repeatedly, and with precision. Persistence is everything. One hand at a time. Repetitive attention to specific, even tiny movements, sends the message to the brain that we can do it. We can because we broke it down into manageable parts. This is the way through. And it works. A measure a day, or a measure a week if it is very demanding, is how the new connections are made, until there is no thought involved. It is going to change everything, to find out we can get through the hard parts.
When we are learning note by note, the piano is one with us. When we are storming through Beethoven’s 5th sonata, the piano is one with us. Wherever we are in the learning brings out what was inside us all along, but needed the piano to bring it out.
In music, and in life, there is movement, and surprise, and transformation, but only if we enter into it completely. Give our self over. Play the piece again and again. Think of nothing except what needs to happen now, and it will reveal things to us. The better we know the notes, the freer we will be with them, and they become a part of us. For that to happen we have to focus our involvement and concentration. We can think of nothing else. And we will get back a feeling so pure and complete we will not need anything more.
Music talks. Listen. Play. Repeat.