I started learning piano in my twenties - one year on, here's how it went
When I was about seven or eight, I went for a taster violin lesson at school. The idea was to get an idea for the instrument, and see if I wanted to learn properly. I enjoyed it - but the expected lessons never materialised.
A few years later, I asked my mother why: Apparently the tutor had refused to teach me.
It's fair to say that I am not a natural musician.
But at the start of 2016, I resolved to change that. I decided to learn the piano.
A year of immense frustrations, endless Philip Glass, and deep satisfaction later, here's how it went.
Why? I wanted to do something totally new
I'm 24 years old, I live in London, and I've gone through life without knowing the first thing about music. I love to listen to it - I've got a pretty big collection, and I go to gigs regularly. But how it's made has always been one great big opaque mystery to me.
Both of my brothers play - saxophone and guitar, respectively - but the extent of my musical education was tapping out basic beats on a glockenspiel and learning the first few bars of "Neighbours" on the piano at school. So why did I take the plunge now? Well, there were a few reasons:
- I wanted to challenge myself. 2016 was the start of my third year living in London. I'd settled into a routine, and wanted to add some variety to my life - and something that would push me in a new direction.
- I wanted to do something totally new. Learning music for the first time isn't like taking up a new team ball-sport, or an unusual arts-and-crafts activity. Music is an entirely new category of human endeavour I have never meaningfully engaged in before. That makes it pretty exciting - and intimidating.
- I love music. Pretty self-explanatory. I hoped that learning an instrument for the first time would enrich my appreciation of the artform.
I also set myself a few goals - some strict, and some more nebulous.
- Pass my Grade 1 piano exam by the end of 2016. If you're not familiar with the system, you can take exams as you learn instruments, from Grade 1 through to Grade 8. A clear target of reaching Grade 1 by the end of the year would give me something to work towards, a way to measure my success or failure.
- Improve my knowledge of classical music. I had no strict timeframe for this, or a set point when it would be "completed." But I've never known my Bach from my Beethoven, and I wanted to change that.
- Learn "Metamorphosis II," by Philip Glass. This was a longer-term goal, beyond 2016 - it's a beautiful, flowing, and technically tricky bit of music that I wanted to work towards as I got better.
How did it go? The short version is that it was fantastic - I'm extremely glad I did it, and I'd strongly urge to anyone thinking about taking up an instrument to do it, whatever your age.
It wasn't all plain sailing, however.
Learning something new is a lesson in humility and patience
Note: The following sections go into some detail on what and how I learned. If you just want to know whether I passed the exam or not, skip down to the "arcane mystery" section below.
Let me make this clear: Piano is hard. Really hard. It requires you to think in a way you've never done before, juggling a thousand balls simultaneously. Interpret the music. Keep the tempo. Vary the volume. Move both hands independently of one-another. Make sure it all actually sounds good.
You know that brain-straining feeling when you try and multiply three three-digit numbers together? That's what it felt like to be interpreting and playing music on the fly.
I also decided when I began that I was prepared to invest real time and money into this, and pay for a tutor to give me lessons on a (near-)weekly basis. This obviously isn't an option for everyone. But having a tutor means you get expert guidance and avoid learning bad habits - and I'm very glad I did it. For me at least, learning independently would have been far more difficult and infuriating. If you care about something, invest in it.
Though I had committed to learning piano by the end of 2015, an accident involving a very sharp knife and my thumb meant I was only in a position to buy the piano and start learning at the end of January 2016. For the first week or two, I tried learning using Yousician, a freemium app that can teach you piano and other instruments. It was better than nothing - but it was also limited, and I quickly began looking for a human tutor.
My first songs were simple, five-note affairs: "When The Saints Go Marching In" was a particular favourite. But an early frustration was the basic-ness of the stuff I was playing, often simplified versions of popular songs. I wanted to be better than I was. I wanted to play stuff I wasn't capable of.
In that sense, it was a lesson in patience and humility. It's increasingly rare that I go into something completely blind, starting from first principles. You gravitate towards fields and pursuits you're good at, and away from those you're not. Learning piano forced me to face my ineptitude head on, and try to change it.
Slowly and surely, I improved - and it made a world of difference when I could begin playing stuff that didn't feel dumbed-down. John Cage's "In A Landscape" is haunting, and relatively technically simple. And Philip Glass's Metamorphosis II is actually very manageable, before the rapid-fire arpeggios begin. Without a doubt I've played it more than anything else in my repertoire - to my flatmates' resigned amusement.
Can you hear the mistake? Here's a live version of the full song. The finger-melting arpeggios start around the two-minute-thirty mark.
I expect I could have progressed faster had I applied myself more. Lessons, nominally once a week, sometimes happened much less frequently, and I had a gap of a month or two during the summer when I didn't play at all.
But in the early Autumn, I agreed to try for Grade 1 before the end of the year - and that's when it got frantic.
I forgot how much I hate exams
Music exams are set and administered by external exam board organisations (I went with ABRSM). It involved learning and performing three pieces from a selection available, memorising scales and broken chords, doing sight-reading, and an aural test (listening to music, identifying traits, and singing it back as an "echo.")
In short, it aims to test the full range of skills required for you to be considered "good" at playing a given instrument.
It's all scored out of 150. You need 100 or more to pass, with 120 to 130 considered a "merit," and 130 above classified as a "distinction," the highest grade. The lion's share of the marks come from the three prepared pieces, worth up to 30 each, with the other three around 20 each.
After agreeing to take the test, I quickly realised I was nowhere near ready. My tutor must've rescheduled it at least half a dozen times to give give me more time to prepare, and I was practicing morning-and-evening by the end to try and get up to speed.
I ended up taking it in the first week of December - the last week available to do it before Christmas. I turned up with only minutes before it began, butchered the sight-reading, and actually felt my hands shaking at one point while performing. Not a great experience.
So, how did I do?
The Lincolnshire Poacher, above, was one of my exam pieces. Playing from memory without the sheet music in front of me, I'm wobbly on one or two bits.
Music is an arcane mystery I wanted to unravel
Part of the allure of learning music for me was the arcane mystery of it all. From the outside, the rules of music bear to no discernible relation to the "real" world. It has no clear grounding in scientific thought. Why are there only seven notes? Why is it written the way it is? Why do some notes have sharps or flats, and others don't? Why are some combinations of notes good, and others bad? Why is everything in Italian?
And yet somehow, it all comes together, like nothing else on earth. Like magic.
However I did in the exam, I knew that I'd made a little progress down this new road. I had learned the basics of a beautiful alchemy, of organic aural creation.
At least, that's what I told myself as I anxiously waited for my tutor to get back to me with the results.
After two long weeks of waiting, I finally got a text on Wednesday December 21, 2016. I passed!
In the end I did rather better than I thought would be, scoring 126, a merit. Even my sight-reading - which I had thought was diabolical, out-of-time, and incorrect - scored 16/21.
Na Krmitku, by Czech composer Petr Eben. This was my best exam piece - I scored 28/30.
I've got a long way to go - but I'm proud of what I achieved
All my life, I've loved drawing and painting. As such, I'm pretty good at it, and it rarely feels difficult. While I'm sure I struggled with it in the past, because I have two decades of experience to fall back on - much of it as a child - I can now produce relatively sophisticated pictures fairly easily. I don't really remember being "bad" at art.
Piano is not like that. I have to work at it constantly. I remember clearly when I sat in front of the keyboard, barely able to create a simple melody. Every plodding step and slow improvement I make, I have earned. And that makes it all the more satisfying.
Sure, I've got a long way to go until I'm as good as I want to be. Grade 1 is an exam more commonly associated with eight-year-olds than grown men. My rendition of "Metamorphosis II" is incomplete, and my education in classical music is still largely restricted to composers I have direct experience playing.
But I'm proud of what I accomplished, and I'd recommend it to anyone, regardless of age or ability. Take the plunge, you won't regret it.