Tuesday, July 18, 2017

20 per diem: How I really learned to play the piano

(Rachel Poletick)
Every once in a while a thought will pop in my head that sounds something like this:

Could I be a ballerina?

I look down my short frame at my tiny feet and try to cycle through the five ballet positions I learned in a beginner's dance class. Sometimes I even take the opportunity to prance around the room, pretending I'm on stage. I move with a reckless abandon that's usually reserved for kids up to age nine.

Then I come back to reality and remember that while my fantasies may quickly plop me on a stage in the middle of a performance of Swan Lake, reality may not be so kind.

Sub in just about any incredible talent that takes time and practice, and you begin to approach my dilemma.

Could I be a novelist? Could I be a marathoner? Could I be an artist? Could I be an actress? Photographer? Programmer? Comedian? Designer? Historian? Pottery maker? Lion tamer/clown/unicyclist?

As I cycle down the list, landing on a singularly desirable path becomes more and more unlikely. Instead I become trapped in a loop of possibilities.

So a few months ago I decided I would stop the madness. And I started playing piano.

The piano and I have had an on-again, off-again relationship for years. With a piano teacher for a father, my chance to learn and eventually grow into a virtuosic pianist was always on the table. At times I even toyed with the idea of focusing on the instrument. Yet something never quite clicked.

I would spend a few months on it and give up. Years would pass and I would try again, ending up starting back over from a more intermediate skill level because unlike riding a bike, the piano requires consistency.

The piano requires practice.

When I sat back at the keys recently, I quickly had the same realization. I was back to square one yet again, agonizing over my diminished recognition of chords and my inability to play through songs I'd memorized years before. I thought about walking away once more.

Instead, I listened. First to the music. Underneath each wrong note, I heard the right one in my head and searched for it among the keys. I played through and accepted warts and all. Accepting the screw ups allowed me to pride myself even more in the triumphs.

Second, I listened to my Dad. Play every day, he said. It seemed daunting, like forcing a square peg through a round hole. If I'm not good now, how will I ever be? I asked when I would ever witness the progress I craved. He advocated patience.

So I set on the task, spending at least 20 minutes at the piano each afternoon.

As the keys became friendlier, increasingly familiar with each passing day, I fell more in love with the piano than I had in my 20 years of sporadic playing. Why, though? Why now, at 24, am I finally seeing what seemed unfathomable at 10, or 14, or even 22?

I spent years assuming something about the piano, about all learned skills for the matter.

John Keats once wrote, "...if poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all."

In my inability to accept my beginner's status, I'd lived and died by this axiom. The way I saw it, the piano did not come as naturally to me as it did others. Instead of testing my theory, I believed it completely and without question. And I never improved.

What I discovered in returning to the piano for 20 minutes per day (give or take a few) was that the absence of perfection need not equal the loss of enjoyment. Prodigious talent may be sought after, but it is no substitute for hard work.

It is one thing to cast off a never-ending list of wishes, complaining to the unseen forces of time and motivation for your inability to make them come true. It is another to make an effort to see them through yourself.

If only 20 minutes a day can make a difference, perhaps those wishes aren't so far off.

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