Within my circle, I can easily win the title “Most persistent music learner”. I have played musical instruments for 15 years, started with guitar then transitioned to piano. That is not something extraordinary. The special part is that I’ve never been good at any of them but always at beginner level. Being a failed traveler on an incomplete journey, what do I write when I write about piano? Joy.
Exceptionally successful people, especially rich ones, are frequently invited to deliver speeches about their aspiration and commitment. They tell you to follow your dream no matter what. The irony is that those people have been successful in following their dreams, or at least making good money while doing so. If all piano learners can make a living by practicing piano, there would not be anyone giving up. A lot of us do give up.
Why don’t I give up on piano despite being a perpetual beginner?
A short answer is this: there are more to gain from practicing piano than playing good music. If you just want good music, then go online, why bother spending days and months and years torturing yourselves with the instrument. The real joy of practicing music must be somewhere else.
Who is to blame?
Most of the time when playing piano, I can’t avoid hitting wrong keys. Do I get upset at the piano, or laugh at myself and try again?
Zhuangzi’s book (I’ll write about it soon) has a relevant story: A fisherman sleeping on his boat gets hit by another boat. If there is a drunkard on the hitting boat, our guy will likely get furious, accuse and yell at him. They may end up engaging in a bloody fight. If there is nobody on that boat, our guy will just get over it. Same incident, why does his attitude depend on the existence of a drunkard?
The story demonstrates our tendency to blame other conscious beings for our bad luck. Let’s be honest, we constantly blame other people for unwanted outcomes: the boss or colleagues, neighbors, politicians, societal hierarchy, etc. Some are reasonable. Many are just distracting from taking our own responsibilities. If you want to fight city hall, good luck. Regardless who is the real perpetrator, it’s easier to start with examining ourselves.
The piano gives you such a training. How can you blame the piano for hitting the wrong keys? Some people do, and they have to pay a good price for it (a new piano). Most of us are sane enough to admit that it is our fault. Now there are two options: many of us can’t handle that egoistically destructive feeling and quit; some of us accept the incompetent self and move on.
The unconscious piano is a mirror to see our inflated ego. One important mental training at the piano is to build constructive attitude to our constant failures.
Life is unfair, I’ve heard so many say so. Their exam questions are tricky. Their colleagues play politics. This society is biased and corrupted. They long for a community or activity in which everybody plays strictly the same rules.
How about piano?
A music sheet is a set of instructions on when to hit which keys (and how strongly/softly). It’s that simple. For the piano, the mapping from musical notes to its keys is 1-1, meaning one note corresponds to one single key, and vice versa. If you and a virtuoso use the same music sheet, then eventually you two should hit the same keys in the same order. The game is so simple.
But few people are satisfied with simple rules. Many attempt to bend the rules despite they are clearly stated. Some argue about the artistic aspect of music. I’ve been criticized by some of my friends for following the music sheets too rigidly. Yes, I agree that on stage you don’t want to play like a machine (you will never do), but it is a good start, especially if you respect the music sheet – instructions, and add some emotional deviation later after mastering it. Don’t bend the rules, unless you’re a lawyer.
Although painful for many people, I find the activity of figuring out the instructions from the music sheet and how to execute them on the piano the most interesting part of piano playing. It requires substantial mental and physical effort, of course. But it gives me a sense of fairness, of clear and universal rules that my favorite concert pianists and I all have to follow. It is so fair, that any failure for compliance is attributed only to personal responsibility.
Creativity within constraints
Where is the artistic component if playing piano only means following the music sheet? What is the meaning of this dull, mechanical life?
Sometimes, we need to learn how to find joy in the plainness.
The music sheet may dictate the outcome of playing (sound), but it leaves the selection of fingers and muscles to the player. The fun part of practicing piano is not in the final sound, but in the execution. Which fingers should I use to hit these keys, how should I press them, should I lean a bit forward to put more weight on the keys, should I raise my wrist a bit to deal with the black keys, etc, are the questions I, and any serious piano practitioner, ask when converting the music notes into sound. This is where no rules are rigidly defined. The freedom in execution is so much that there exist many piano techniques and schools. Some use more of finger muscles, some others advocate for arms and shoulders. Eventually, it is up to the individual player to decide how to hit the keys. Here we can be creative and have fun.
I nearly abandoned classical guitar for good after the first year because of the lack of motivation. Only when did I discover the book on guitar techniques “The Art of Classical Guitar Playing” by C. Duncan that I found the joy of practicing guitar. Many were surprised that I kept practicing for so long without playing many pieces. The reason is simple: I cared mostly about how to play, not how many. The same happened when I approached piano. I was tremendously motivated by the seminal books “Mastering piano technique” by S. Fink and “The physiological mechanics of piano technique” by O. Ortmann that I learned how to find joy in every key stroke. If you want to enjoy practicing piano, pay attention on how you play, not the sound.
Many find the piano is too complicated, too difficult to deal with. It’s not the case for the protagonist in “The Legend of 1900”: to him, the piano is finite, it has 88 keys, that’s it; the real life, however, is infinite in possibilities, it is such a much more complex and brutal place. He is the master of piano, yet is scared of life outside his ship.
The piano is a simplistic model of the real world, an instrument to train yourselves with disciplines and problem-solving. Whenever I sit at the piano, I find myself immersed in a different world with fair rules, clear instructions, the challenge to interpret them, the beauty of music, the joy of making sound and the responsibility for my own mistakes.