Learning to play the piano

a man playing a Steinway piano

Photo by Dolo Iglesias on Unsplash

Table of Contents


1. Introduction

Well, a new year has started and while I rarely write new year's resolutions, the combination of the new year and some other audio and mental murmurings got me interested in learning to play the piano. Here's a brief look at my journey thus far.


2. Why now?

I've never been a musician. My father and brother both played piano, clarinet, and saxophone. I took piano lessons when I was very young, but it didn't stick, while my brother played his whole life. So, I grew up listening to him practice and play. He was really good, though our mother got tired of the practice at times.

I'm not sure how, but I wound up in possession of my brother's clarinet. About 6 years ago, I decided to take it to a music shop and have it refurbished. I started taking clarinet lessons. I was really enjoying it as I love the sound of the instrument. Then, as luck would (not) have it, I suffered a sudden loss of hearing in my left ear. Doctors attempted to treat it, but the treatments were unsuccessful. After a while, I attempted to resume playing, but the nature of the clarinet, my one-sided hearing combined with the resulting bone virbations when playing, the whole thing became unenjoyable. I still love the sound of the clarinet, just not when it's the one in my mouth.

Time has passed and with my brother passing away from cancer in 2019, my sister-in-law asked me to go through some boxes he had stored in their attic. Much of this was held over from when my brother cleared out the attic of our childhood home after our mother passed away in 1996.

Among the items in these boxes were stacks and stacks of sheet music...for clarinet, saxophone, and piano (mostly piano). So I packed it all up and shipped it from New Jersey to our home in California. I went through it all and found quite a few pieces that were from my father's era as they were dated from the 1930s to the 1960s. I kept some selected pieces, mostly piano music, and began to search for a home for the rest. I reached out to the head of the music department at a local community college and they embraced the idea, saying that they would share it with students; a definite win-win.

Finally, I've always enjoyed the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim, the Brazilian composer, pianist, guitarist, songwriter, arranger, and singer. I have several of his albums and I find the music to be among the most soothing I've ever heard.

I've dabbled via trial and error to play a few of Jobim's melodies, and while that can be fun, without the chords (and any real competence) my energy level to pursue these pieces fizzled.

My goal in wanting to play is pretty simple. I want to be able to create the feeling that I get when I listen to good piano music. I want that feeling to come out of my own hands and flow into my ears (or, in my case, ear).

It's similar to the desire I had to create this website...I wanted to use my own hands and mind to create what you're seeing here visually. I continue to learn how to make the site work better under the hood and to increase my level of competence.

But now it's time to get started on this piano journey...for real.


3. How should I start this journey?

When I decide to learn something new, I often turn to YouTube. I'm not sure if it came through the algorithmic feed of a particular search that I did, but I encountered Scott Houston's channel, called Play Piano in a Flash.

I liked the way he talked about learning quickly, as I'd be considered right of center on the patience spectrum. I ended up signing up for one of his webinars where he introduced his method. I found the pitch compelling, though the latter portions of the webinar were a very very heavy sales pitch with a deeply discounted offer. There were several elements of the webinar that I found rather misleading, but they're not worth going into here as they are not really at the core of my piano learning journey. In the end, I signed up for a 2-course package at a discounted price from their advertised price.

Each course consists of 8 classes and each class contains multiple lessons. The course also comes with lesson books and what he calls the "Gig Book," which is the sheet music for all of the songs covered in the lessons. They're nicely packaged along with some other resources.

Back to YouTube, I've since learned that there are quite a few great piano teachers with their own YouTube channels. Here are a couple of the teachers that I've enjoyed watching and learning from: Corey Lennox, Julian Bradley, Piano from Scratch, and Jonny May.


4. Feeling overwhelmed

Going back to my earlier reference to learning music as I've been learning to develop websites, the parallels of both having an overwhelming body of learning materials can leave one feeling, well, overwhelmed.

There's this concept in web development learning circles known as "tutorial hell." It refers to that phase of learning where you watch a ton of tutorial videos and watch someone explain and code...and you get this feeling that you "get it," only to move on to another tutorial. It can be addictive as you feel like you're learning, but you're only learning in your head, not by doing anything on your own.

On top of that, deciding on which path to take to do website development is yet another facet of the problem that can result is significant paralysis at the "getting started" phase of the learning journey.

Escape from tutorial hell requires that you actually sit town, turn off the videos, open a code editor, and build something on your own. Sure, you'll refer to resources on the web for specific details on how to make things work, but that head-to-hand-to-keyboard expression of code into the system is required for true learning. Yes, things will not work as expected, and you have to muster the grit and perservence to dig in and understand why things aren't working and how to fix them. A successful result is quite gratifying.

It appears that a similar thing is possible with learning to play the piano. That said, there is only one piano, so the tool is prescribed. Yet, with YouTube, there are more than enough tutorials and lessons and examples of piano playing and, if you're not careful, you too can end up in the piano version of "tutorial hell." The real similarity here is that you have to sit down and put head-to-hand-to-keyboard in order to express the notes and to listen and adjust as you learn.


5. Holding myself accountable

Being on the right of center of the impatience spectrum when it comes to learning, I wanted to get going quickly. But it's one thing to want to get going quickly and something altogether different to playing well quickly.

I remind myself daily that patience with myself and my progress will be the most important element of my learning journey. As of now, I still don't know if I will end up quitting in frustration. After all, I'm only on day 18 of this lifetime road.

I've come up with some ideas on how best to hold myself accountable...as I really am afraid that I'll quit.

First, I am logging my practice sessions. I've got a spreadsheet with a row for each day and my time spent doing with coursework and playing around with the melodies in the Jobim book (much of which is over my head). I will admit that my daily practice log already has some holes in it. Out of those 18 days, I've already failed to practice on 3 of them. I can live with that. I want to practice because I want to, not because I have to.

I've limited how many people I've shared this journey with. Well, having written this sentence here, I obviously am sharing it with all of you. Up until posting this, I had only told my wife and a total stranger. And now that I'm actually playing songs and feeling progress, it felt like a good time to write about it as yet another means for holding myself accountable. In fact, I'll be seeing this post (or at least its title) almost every time I work on the website.


6. So, how's it going?

I've since been working my way through the Piano in a Flash courses.

I wanted to get started right away, not waiting for the print materials to arrive. Fortunately, there are downloadable versions of the course materials.

As of the time of writing this, I am on class 4 of course 1. I'm playing songs like Happy Birthday, When the Saints Go Marching In, Ode to Joy, and a few others. When I say "playing," I mean practicing. My timing, well...it sucks. And I struggle with getting the chord changes right as well as getting my fingering right on the melody. Playing with 2 hands, instead of just fingering a melody, is yet another challenge...but I have made progress...I'm playing real songs.

Shortly after signing up for the course, I bought a book of lead sheets of Jobim's music. After a week or so of coursework and learning a little bit of my way around the keyboard, I started to learn the melody lines of some of Jobim's songs, by reading the music, not just trying to play by ear. I allocate my practice sesssions to working on the songs from the course and 10 minutes or so at the end of each session learning Jobim melodies. It's a pleasant way to end the sessions.

Lastly, if all goes well, I'll come back and share a recording of something I've wanted to play and am not too embarrassed to share.

Until then...bye bye.