I had played piano for over a decade, but my fingers still plunked the keys with the precision of bratwursts.
The way I saw it, I had an excuse: I had never taken a formal lesson.
Piano became a hobby of mine in junior high. I wish I could say I was inspired by a Mozart concerto and had a grand vision of morphing into a musical maestro. But the truth is that I just really liked Linkin Park. We had a piano in our living room, and I thought it’d be awesome to learn their hit song, “In the End.” That was my grand vision.
Those first nine notes, which I insisted on learning by ear, took me a week and a hundred listens to unlock. I was not a musical prodigy — I was just persistent and obsessed with a rock band.
The more I played — and I would learn every song from their debut album Hybrid Theory — the better I got. Songs that used to take me weeks to learn started to take days. Then hours. My progress was addictive.
I dove into piano like a seagull seeking sardines. I jammed on the keys after school each day. I learned how to play the chord progressions and melodies from dozens of pop songs. I taught myself basic music theory. I even wrote my own music.
But I refused to take lessons. Didn’t need ’em. They would ruin the fun, I thought.
I brought a cheap keyboard with me to college. When mathematical modeling homework grew too tiresome, I took breaks by tinkering with songs on the piano.
When I finished university, my parents gave me a beautiful Yamaha keyboard as a graduation gift. I placed it in my new grown-up apartment, excited to play every day.
But I didn’t. Between long hours at work and a barrage of personal experiments, the piano’s beauty was ornamental; its keys covered in dust.
I was stuck. When I did sit down to play, the adolescent joy flowed, only to be stymied by mid-twenties cynicism. I’d hear my sausage fingers hit wrong note after wrong note, and think, Dude, for as long as you’ve been playing, you still suck.
I was sick of being mediocre at something I loved. I wanted to get better. I just needed a goal. So I made it my New Year’s resolution to put on a piano recital.
That motivated me to plow through the cynicism. I picked up right where I’d left off in high school — figuring out songs in mere minutes and learning them just well enough to jam along.
I picked a crowd-pleaser to master for my recital: “Blank Space” by Taylor Swift (Oh, how my musical taste has grown since junior high). I learned it the same way as I had the songs before — no sheet music, no tutorials, and no teachers. Besides, I was always my own best teacher. I learned by doing, dammit.
It only took me a few listens to figure out T Swift’s chord progression, melody, and chorus. It took me a few more to memorize everything. All I had to do was play it again and again until muscle memory took over.
After a few weeks, I thought I was pretty decent — closing in on my New Year’s resolution after just one month. I showed off the song to my friends. They all had the same reaction: “Not bad.”
I could hear the subtext: Not bad for someone with no formal training. Not bad for a cheap laugh at a party. Not bad for an amateur.
The bottom line was, it wasn’t good. No matter how much I practiced, my performance still stunk of mediocrity. My technique was abysmal; my hands moved at the speed of an arthritic octogenarian’s.
It was tough to admit: Maybe I’m not such a great teacher. If I actually wanted to do this — to not just play piano, but to perform — I would need to swallow my pride and learn from someone more skilled than myself.
Thirteen years after hitting my first note, I hopped on Yelp and searched for “piano lessons.” I found McAllister Music Studio, which seemed perfect: They had a 5-star Yelp rating, were located 10 blocks from my apartment, and held piano recitals in December.
I should note that my private piano lessons weren’t cheap: $60/hour. I’d have to cut back on extraneous spending, but I had enough to cover the cost. I count myself as lucky, since many can’t afford private tutelage to pursue a passion.
But just as many say “can’t” when they really mean “won’t.” And I didn’t want to be part of that second group. The check could’ve been for $30 or $300 — either way, the monetary investment signaled commitment. After all, if money was too big a hurdle, how could I expect to climb others? I booked a lesson for the following Wednesday.
I was nervous before my first lesson. The butterflies were bolstered by a run-in with the previous student, an 8-year-old girl. She looked down at her tiny shoes as we passed one another. I was twice her height and had been playing piano longer than she’d been alive, but we were probably at the same musical level. I felt like I was going back to third grade.
My mental image of piano teachers added to my anxiety. I’d heard so many horror stories of adults suffering from pre-pubescent piano PTSD after a verbal shellacking from a strict teacher. I had pictured this prototypical piano teacher looking like Ruth Bader Ginsberg — wrinkly, tough, and demanding.
Those fears were quelled when I met my teacher, Debbie. She couldn’t have been further from Justice Ginsberg — young, with dark brown bangs, and a bright smile. She was fun, upbeat, and sometimes spoke with a delightful sing-song cadence to her voice. (I later found out that she’s an amazing singer-songwriter.)
During my first lesson, Debbie assessed my skill level by watching me play “Blank Space.” She immediately zeroed in on my worst habit: I only played with four fingers. My pinkies hung off my hands like gnarled antennas.
She gave me two pieces of homework: Buy a piano lesson book and practice playing with just my pinkies.
For the next week, that’s what I did, plunking note after note with only my pinkies. It was humbling homework. It felt like I had been preparing and serving up 5-course meals all by myself only to suddenly be demoted to cutting carrots.
Despite the literal monotony, I was proud to display my pinkie prowess at my second lesson. My reward was another week of practice and tackling another bad habit: Leaving my foot on the pedal when I played. I had justified the muddiness by claiming that it added ambiance. Debbie was dismissive and gave me a pedal exercise to smooth the sustain.
Here’s the thing with being self-taught: You don’t know any better. You made the decision to eschew the well-trodden path. Sometimes that’s good. You’re learning for the buzz. You’re free to explore, dabble, and create. But sometimes that’s bad. Your solutions to problems are lazy and uninformed. You’re stubborn. You approach your craft without discipline. And worst of all, you’d never know how to correct your behavior until someone more skilled shows you how.
I can’t claim to have fully realized this on my second lesson. But when I played a chord progression with all five fingers and a sensible pedal sustain, I remember thinking, This feels weird, but it really does sound better.
Although I liked learning the fundamentals, I was most excited when Debbie asked, “Why don’t you pick a song to learn?”
I deliberated. The song had to be beautiful, challenging, and impressive — something that would garner a stronger reaction than “Not bad.”
I picked “Married Life” by Michael Giacchino from the movie “Up.” If nothing else, I had the emotional weight of Pixar on my side.
I purchased the sheet music on Debbie’s request. But this was just a formality — I still liked my way better. I learned the opening melody from “Up” by ear.
At the end of our third lesson, Debbie asked, “Want to give ‘Up’ a try?”
I beamed with pride, “Yep. I already know the first eight bars.”
Debbie replied, “That’s awesome! Did you bring the sheet music?”
“Yep,” I said, placing it on the piano.
I played with my head down, not referencing the sheet music once. “That’s great progress!” Debbie said.
Damn right, I thought. But she continued, “Can you look at this bar and tell me what these notes are?”
I faked it, relying on memory. “That’s an F, then an A, a C, and an E.”
“So the third note is actually a D,” she said.
“Are you sure?” I asked. “I’m not sure the sheet music is correct. I’m pretty sure it’s a C.”
Debbie replied, “Hmm… I don’t know. Maybe try playing it the way it’s written and see how it sounds?”
I played it again. The notes rang true.
“Yeah, I guess I can play it this way,” I said. It was all I could offer at the time.
I guess. Did I actually think I knew better than Michael Giacchino, an Oscar-winning composer? The pinkies were bad, the pedal was worse, but this was egregious. That was the last straw for my self-taught hubris. I finally submitted: I really didn’t know very much about piano.
It was good timing too, because the path ahead would only prove more difficult.
When I learned the melody on my right hand, I played it in a way that I thought made sense. But with little sense to draw upon, my fingers crossed and twisted, resulting in awkward movements prone to mistakes.
I had never learned the proper fingering. Debbie detangled my mess, mapping out which fingers would play which notes. I had to relearn the entire melody.
After a week of practicing the correct way, playing got easier. My fingers didn’t jump anymore. Now, they glided. But that was just my right hand. With my weaker left hand I had to learn to play a complicated waltz.
Learning took focus, but once I gathered momentum, I made a commitment. When I got home from work, instead of plopping down on the couch, I’d opt for the piano bench. I would make time to practice every day, even if just for five minutes. I had to stay diligent.
After several weeks of consistent practice, I could play each hand’s part with confidence, but still individually. Putting the pieces together was the hard part.
Playing with both hands is a delicate dance. It’s hard to describe what it feels like, so I’ll use a series of similes to explain. It’s like reciting numbers in Spanish while writing days of the week in French. It’s like being an air traffic controller for a fleet of first-time pilots. Actually, maybe it’s more like walking two Labrador puppies when one wants to wander through the bushes and the other is straining to chase pigeons. Point being: it’s an attempt to harmonize muscle memory and mental cognition. And on a new piece — especially the hardest oneI had ever attempted — it took months to learn.
After three months of minor frustration, major patience, and incremental breakthroughs, I could play the entire song without mistakes. I had memorized the notes and knew the mechanics well.
But I still didn’t sound like a real pianist. I played the piece like a 90s computer simulation. It wasn’t infused with any spirit — the happy parts lacked joy, and the sad parts lacked melancholy.
And so we added more layers. I learned about dynamics, how to vary the volume, and phrasing, how to form the musical shape of each measure. I learned the difference between legato (long and flowing) and staccato (short and punchy). I learned how to ascend a chromatic scale; how to play each hand at a different volume; how to crescendo and decrescendo.
And then the song had life. It breathed and sighed and fluttered. I was obsessed with nurturing it — playing it three, four, five times a day. I had never given this much attention to one thing. But there was always something that could be smoother, a section that could be more expressive. I sought mastery.
It all culminated in my piano studio’s winter recital. The atmosphere was friendly — just the adult students and their friends. But for me, the pressure was on: a New Year’s resolution awaiting resolve. I was a horrible jumble of nerves — sweaty palms, shallow breaths, and a stomach struck with sudden indigestion.
Eight students in, it was my turn.
I walked up to the backlit stage. Rippling red curtains and fresh poinsettias framed the nine-foot Steinway grand piano. I sat at the bench and took two deep breaths. I nodded my head right, 1–2–3, nodded left, 1–2–3, and hit that first F note.
I had played the song thousands of times, but this was the moment — a hundred eyes on me for the next four and a half minutes.
I hit a wrong note early. The sound reverberated through my ribcage. A few seconds later, I hit another wrong note. My chest tightened. I felt hot. Not now. Not now. Not now.
I kept playing, resorting to muscle memory. But my thoughts boomed through my skull. I tried to quiet my mind, concentrating on the upcoming trill. Focus on the trill. Focus on the trill.
And then I lost track of the present. I stumbled my way through the whole section, eking out a meek trill to end it.
My dream was becoming a nightmare. I was blowing it. This was a disaster. A full-scale meltdown.
But I took a breath and kept moving forward. I nailed a blistering chromatic scale, then let a long pause and a dissonant chord fill the air before bringing the melody back in. I forgot where I was — it was just my breath, my fingers, and a piano.
Before I knew it, I had landed softly on the final G major chord. I let the notes linger, lifted my hands, and was greeted with clapping and cheers. With a big smile on my face, I took a bow.
I had fantasized about this moment. Even practiced bowing in the mirror. It’s why I started taking piano lessons in the first place. I felt proud of how far I’d come. I felt joy that others enjoyed my music. I felt relieved that all the hard work had paid off.
But I felt something else too. It was small, but it was there.
I felt guilt. I had played the song flawlessly alone in my room. When it came time to perform, I nearly blew it. I felt like the audience didn’t hear my best; that I hadn’t earned their applause.
It’s here that the roles reversed. Up until now, I saw piano as an instrument to be learned. But everything I learned about piano couldn’t compare to what it taught me.
Piano taught me that it’s OK to mess up. No one noticed what I considered to be an epic meltdown. I watched the video later. I could barely tell. And that’s what happens when you’re so far inside your own head that you scrutinize your every move. If you make any mistake, you have one of two choices: You can either succumb to paralysis or keep going.
Piano taught me to keep going. To stay in the moment. To let go and move on to the next bar.
To realize that people remember the right notes, not the wrong ones.