Back To School

I belong to the internet age. I believe that there is enough content, in all forms and shapes, available on the internet, for one to be able to teach oneself anything. And I have always been good at teaching myself things. So one day I bought a keyboard and found some lessons on Youtube and started learning to play. The lessons had some music theory and some practice advice. I followed the lessons for some time, but very soon hit a roadblock. I would learn some scale, or a few chords and then wouldn’t know where to go from there. While the teacher on the video would give good advice such as “always count while playing”, I would mostly focus on playing the right notes and ignore the counting. Similarly, I would want to play pieces and not practice scales. Because playing pieces felt like making progress while playing scales was repetitive and boring. And initially I did make progress with pieces. But as the pieces got harder, I was not able to play because I had not developed the technical skills for the same.

When learning myself didn’t work, I joined a class. The teacher said that most people stop playing because there is a steep learning curve and the exercises are very boring. Hence, he will only teach through songs. That sounded pragmatic to me. So he would write the notes for some song on my notebook and ask me to practice. This was not sheet music. He would simply write A C E … and I had to play those notes. I was playing songs now, from the very first week. It was awesome. I could play them for my friends. Or jam with my friend who was learning guitar. I was learning a new song every week. The teacher always asked me to memorise the notes and not to look at my notebook when playing. This way I would know songs and could play them for others whenever I wanted. I did that. This went on for three to four months, and then I realised that the difficulty of the songs was not increasing. All songs were watered down versions of the original, with melody on the right hand and simple block chords on the left. If I attempted something a little more difficult like playing arpeggio on the left hand, both my hands would just freeze. My brain was not able to play two hands at a time when both of them had to play different notes, at different times. That is where I got stuck, and going to class stopped to make sense.

I think the problem with the approach taken by my teacher was that his focus was on performing more than learning. Hence gaining the correct skills and the right techniques was secondary. I only had to learn as much was needed to be able to play those simple songs.

I didn’t touch my keyboard for over a year. But then, once again, my desire to be able to play took me to another music school. This school, while small, was highly reputed. I met the teacher and the first thing he said to me was “We don’t teach songs here. We teach music. You will have to learn theory, learn to read music, practice technical skills and write examinations. Join only if that is what you are looking for”. Since my previous experience was with a teacher from the opposite school of thought, and that had not worked well for me, I thought probably the only way to learn is to learn things the right way. Hence I joined this school. I was told to learn scales, practice Hanon, play John Thompson, write Trinity examinations, etc. This is when I realised how much effort it takes to really learn to play an instrument. During this same time, I was working for a startup and trying to start something of my own as well. Hence I never had enough time to dedicate to music. So even though I was enrolled in school, and the teacher was great, I hardly practiced. Obviously my progress was slow. I did not leave the school though, and continued for a year. But eventually I had to relocate to another city. That was six months back.

Now I have finally found myself another school. I have just attended one class yet. The teacher seems to be very engaged. He spent full one hour sitting next to me, making me play pieces off of a book, reminding me to count whenever I would stop, interrupting me whenever I would hit a wrong note. It was both encouraging and intimidating to receive so much attention from him. I was trying hard not to make any mistakes but my poor reading skills would come in the way. I still need to see how he really teaches. It seemed to me that in the first class he was trying to see how much do I already know and from where he needs to start.

Learning music has been one of the most humbling experiences I have had. School was always easy for me and I always ended near to top of my class. Things came easy and mostly seemed obvious. But once I started learning music, I understood the struggle that one needs to make when things don’t make sense, when your brain seems incapable of doing what you are attempting to do, when your brain tells your fingers to do one thing but they do something totally different, when you try so hard to figure out the next note on the piano but can’t because your ears are not trained. But the good part is, when I learn a new piece, or am able to play both hands together after practicing for long then I can actually feel my brain developing. It’s an amazing feeling to train your brain to do something it was incapable of doing.

I have high hopes that I will be able to finally persist and learn to play piano. I am going back to school. And I am excited.