growing up

Teaching Myself Piano at the End of the World

Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Videos: Getty

Learning to play the piano was never a choice — it was an inevitability. A fact of life as indisputable as the oil painting that hung above said piano — of myself, pint-size and gussied up in black velvet, standing before the elephantine instrument — throughout a decade of half-hearted practice sessions that began when I turned 6 years old.

I spent countless hours sitting on a hard wooden bench in front of a grand piano I was sure I’d never grow into, swinging my legs to-and-fro a foot above the pedals as I stretched my pudgy little hands wide in my best attempt at forming a chord. I understood it as a rite of passage. A hazing process all 6-year-olds had to go through. Just a part of the after-school activities’ gauntlet all of my classmates’ parents were putting them through.

Growing up, my mom always told me I had “piano-playing fingers,” praise she claims was only intended to highlight their elegance and length, but that I always interpreted as her not-so-subtle attempt at pro-keyboard indoctrination. I suspected she was planting the seeds she hoped would one day grow into full-blown musicality. But instead of blossoming into a sonic gift I would cultivate and cherish for the rest of my life — much like my brief dalliances with the swim team, karate, and the entire French language — the piano slowly became a specter of unfulfilled potential that loomed large in both my life and our living room. It was no longer simply an instrument but a locus of immense guilt, responsibility, and disappointment as I failed to meet what I felt were the expectations of my teachers and parents. Expectations that, in hindsight, were probably almost nonexistent but at the time felt crushingly omnipresent.

There is something about participating in hobbies and sports when you’re that age that always feels like you are auditioning to go pro. Every introductory class, every team tryout is tainted by this aura of adult expectation. The prospect of discovering their child has been a secret savant all along. All this makes it nearly impossible at that age to appreciate the vast amount of dedication, effort, and failure that’s actually required to become good at any given craft. It also certainly didn’t help that my cousin turned out to be a bona fide violin virtuoso.

The only reason I even stuck with the instrument for as long as I did was that I could tell how happy it made my family. I could sense how proud my mom was to have a daughter who could read this foreign language comprised of dots and lines and translate their geometric riddles into impressive performances on command. It has taken me until adulthood to fully grasp that my carousel of weekly social engagements, sports teams, and various lessons were as much about exposing me to the wide array of activities life has to offer as they were about blending into our yuppie New England environs. I can now appreciate that after a life raised in the poor, rural South, my mom was attempting to not only give me every opportunity her upbringing never allowed, but communicate to the Mayflower descendants I went to school with that we fit in there just as well as they did. Knowing my way around a piano as an elementary schooler helped convey that we too were a particular type of family of a particular means.

When I turned 16, my mom’s iron grip on my piano-playing future finally loosened, and after a failed attempt at jazz piano, I eventually quit my lessons. Ever since then, I’ve considered any musical aspirations I once had to be long behind me, discarded along with those daydreams of growing up to become an actual Spice Girl. That is until the past couple of months, when I’ve suddenly become plagued by pianos all over again.

Everywhere I go, a piano emerges: tucked into the corner of a bar, half-discarded on the curb, abandoned in an airport terminal, or decorating a friend’s wedding venue. I’ve also been thinking that being able to entertain the masses in a pinch is a talent that could really come in handy at the end of the world. So I figured why not just give in to my musical destiny and teach myself how to play the piano all over again. On my terms.

Right from the start, I faced some difficulty getting my newfound melodic ambitions off the ground, as choosing what type of portable keyboard to buy proved to be more difficult than just picking the cheapest one off the Google search results page. For one thing, I couldn’t remember the appropriate number of keys for a piano to have. In the end, I went with 61, reasoning that 44 looked too petite, while 88 seemed far too cumbersome. In an attempt to make the whole experience more user-friendly, I also purchased a keyboard in baby pink with the logic that its cuteness might tempt me to pull it out more often. But what I failed to grasp was that the reason the piano came in that cute color is that it’s designed for children. However, I didn’t let that fact deter me, instead telling myself that practicing on such a stupidly small keyboard will guarantee my precision when I inevitably encounter an adult-size version. As I continued to play around, I quickly realized that when certain notes are played simultaneously, the entire keyboard short-circuits and goes completely silent. And while this is bad for practicing any form of rhythmic ambidexterity, it has forced me to focus on perfecting my one-handed melodies. So with some of the quirks of my new children’s keyboard all figured out, I decided to kick off this musical adventure by learning what I hope will be the first of many crowd-pleasers to come: “A Thousand Miles” by Vanessa Carlton.

By far the most surprising part of being a reformed piano student is how quickly it has all come back to me. I was never a remarkable player, but before this little experiment, I couldn’t even string two notes together. Now, suddenly, I’m not only slowly sounding out the dulcet tones of Ms. Carlton, “Für Elise,” and Pachelbel’s Canon, but I’m actually starting to be able to pick out their melodies by ear. Much to my surprise, I also understand scales for the first time in my life. Most important, though, I no longer expect myself to do things perfectly from the second my fingers touch the keys, nor do I believe I might finally uncover some long-dormant expertise. Returning to this pastime as an adult has allowed me to take the pressure off and reinfuse some of the joy and playfulness that got lost in my original practice.

Playing the piano again has been a lesson in getting out of my head and into my body. There’s something almost zen about playing the same riff for the 432nd time. You stop thinking, your hand slackens, and then, suddenly, everything just flows. In fact, I often find the more I consciously focus on what I’m supposed to do, the more everything goes to shit. For me, everything works best when operating from that liminal space between thought and intuition. Picking up the piano again has become a much-needed lesson in forcing my brain to take a back seat. And during these increasingly dark times, I treasure that ability to hit the cerebellum off switch every now and then.

While my total mastery of “A Thousand Miles” is still one deceptively tricky bass line away, I already have big plans for what musical masterpiece I’m going to work on next. The sheet music for Dionne Warwick’s “I Say a Little Prayer” is currently sitting in my digital shopping cart and, yes, I am planning on orchestrating a My Best Friend’s Wedding–style impromptu sing-along in the near future. Even if I have to be the one to throw the brunch in order to make that happen.

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Teaching Myself Piano at the End of the World