Learning how to do something new sucks. Learning how to play piano especially sucks. And I can tell you that nothing sucks harder shit than the ego-demolishing moment when you realize that not only are you spending your precious time picking out the melody to “On Top of Ole Smokey,” but you’re not very good at it either.
This year I decided that I was going to learn piano. I had played jazz saxophone through high school at a decent-enough level, so I had a vision of the basic competency I wanted to achieve. I was inspired by friends who were able to sit down and play just about any sort of music on the most flexible instrument in the world. A saxophone isn’t worth much without a backing band, but a piano player can fit in anywhere from the E Street Band (Bruce had an organist and a piano player) to a solo act (Keith Jarrett or, worse, Billy Joel). My goal for the end of the year is to be a decent enough piano player that I could sit in for at least one set with a jazz quartet and not embarrass myself.
So that’s how I ended up with the cheapest (relatively, electric pianos tend to be priced in units of “car payments”) 88-key weighted keyboard money can buy. The keyboard’s synth setting might make Van Halen’s “Jump” sound like a restrained chamber piece, and I may still stumble through “The Can-Can” and bastardize “The Marine’s Hymn,” but I’m getting my money and time’s worth.
I came into this goal, like most resolutions, thinking that if I spent more time working toward a goal it would change me for the better. The idea was that, by playing music for at least five minutes a day, I would have a better sense of purpose, growth, play and joy.
And dedicating yourself to something does change you, in a small way at least. I, for one, can now run through my scales in all keys, better conceptualize how the twelve notes conceptually fit together, and—most importantly—play the four-bar piano riff at the start of “Closing Time.” See, positive change.
But doing something for the sake of doing it doesn’t inherently lead to big-picture change. I’m not magically calmer or more meditative about life just because I spent 30 minutes learning how to comp ii-V-I changes (Damien Chazelle, you’re not the only white guy who can make basic jazz references). If anything, I’ve learned that adding something to my plate—even a hobby that’s for my own enjoyment—has the capacity to increase stress, especially since now there’s something else to feel like you’re missing out on if you’re crunched on time. It’s the same as anything else: if you read more, you’ll know more things; and if you lift more weight, you’ll get stronger. But these small changes won’t magically lead to a bigger alteration in your life (becoming happier, becoming more satisfied with how you look, defeating the devil in a fiddle challenge, etc.) without broader reflection on how you’re spending your time, why, and for what purpose.
Nobody would ever accuse me of being overly reflective. But maybe things like learning piano is an attempt to be. I can say, at the least, that I’ve learned a lot more than just how to play “Yesterday” off of sheet music that I last opened in 2004 (sheet music that’s almost as old as America’s military presence in Iraq). It’s interesting to see where I’m willing to cut corners (“Nobody’s going to know if I didn’t nail ‘Scarborough Fair’”) and what will unleash something inside myself that keeps me glued to my seat playing something over and over no matter how dumb it is just for the sheer pleasure of making it happen (again, “Closing Time”).
I feel especially far removed from the 17-year-old who was able to glide through far more advanced music with seeming ease. But I wonder how much of that physical and mental dexterity was a product of my age at the time, and how much I can get back.