The last time I picked up a musical instrument was back in 2007, when I sold my ten year old Fender Stratocaster guitar and amp for fifty bucks before setting off on my hotel living adventure.
Despite having owned the guitar for a decade, I’d never learned to play a single note (strum a single chord?)
Same story ten years earlier when, in high school, I bought a second hand drum kit, convinced its overbearing presence in our living room would force me to learn to play.
In the end, I couldn’t even master a simple drum roll.
Post-Strat, I resigned myself to the fact that I would never learn to play music. That, when others produced their guitars or harmonicas at parties, or jammed with friends on weekends, I’d be resigned to singing along atonally and self-consciously in the background.
Twenty five is pretty much the cut off for learning music, isn’t it? Didn’t I once read something about brain plasticity and how it’s easier for a toddler to play Mozart than a grown man to learn chopsticks? Something like that.
But then a few weeks ago, during my weekly French lesson, a bold thought struck me. They say the same about language, don’t they? That it should be impossible – or at least highly problematic – for 39 year old me to learn French from an almost standing start. Yet there I was, sitting in a classroom, yammering away about Brexit and Macron in a foreign tongue with something at least approximating aplomb. What I lacked in youthful brain plasticity, I seemed to have compensated for using a grown up’s understanding of grammar and logic (and Brexit and Macron).
So why couldn’t an old man like me learn to play an instrument?
Somewhere out on Union Square a man was playing a drum solo, expertly, on a set of plastic buckets. I’d walked past him on the way to class, and now I could hear him through the open window. Could I see myself as a late blooming Phil Collins or Karen Carpenter?
No, I thought. Not drums. I’m definitely too old for drums. Drums, at 39, are a sure signifier of a midlife crisis.
And definitely not guitar. Christ, anything but guitar. Even if somehow I could succeed where I already once failed, imagine suffering all those hours of practice – never mind the callouses – just so I could be half as competent as that guy strumming his Jack Johnson covers while he waits at the gate for his flight to Maui.
For drums, see also saxophone. For guitar, see also harmonica.
So what does that leave? Harp? Tuba? Xylophone? Piano?
Now there’s an idea fit for a 39 year old! Uncool but approachable. With the promise of quick early results, but still the potential for a lifetime of improvement. Any instrument that comes with its own chair is surely the instrument for me.
Moreover, Evie (6) has also expressed interest in learning to play — so the cost of the thing would be an investment for the family, not just a selfish hobby. Imagine the family singalongs!
A quick Yelp search (also how I found my French teacher) confirmed my assumption that there are countless piano teachers in the city, albeit only a few really good ones. And of course all of those good ones had yawningly long waiting lists.
But that suited me fine too: As the lateness of this newsletter will testify, life is a little hectic at the moment and this probably isn’t the best time to commit even an hour a week to something new. So I emailed the best (according to Yelp) teacher, added myself to her list and mentally prepared myself for an endless wait.
Two weeks later, an email arrived: A slot had suddenly opened up! Weekly, on a Thursday, two hours before my weekly French lesson. Kismet! Thursday would henceforth be my afternoon of learning!
And so it was that this past Thursday, I took my first piano lesson. My first music lesson, in fact. Unlike with French, where I at least had a rudimentary understanding of directions and bread purchasing, I had never played a single note on a piano, except by accident. And yet by the end of the class, I was proudly, happily, and slowly plink plonking along to Camptown Races and Mary Had A Little Lamb amongst other toddler favorites. It was as if I’d been playing piano for… well… maybe an hour and a half.
The only indication that maybe I had rushed into things came at the start of the lesson when the teacher asked me, almost in passing, what kind of piano or keyboard we had at home.
“Ah,” I said, “I suppose I need to buy one of those.”
“Probably,” she said.
The following day – thank you Amazon – I finished assembling our new Yamaha in the dining room and invited Evie to be the first to try it out. She seemed delighted at the prospect but then, once she’d sat down in front of the keys, she hesitated. I thought maybe she was overwhelmed at the 88 keys, or already bored at another of Apple Paul’s ridiculous games. But no – I realized she was the exact opposite of bored. She was focusing intently, carefully adjusting her fingers on the keys, like she had seen the teachers do at school.
And then she started to play – not a recognizable tune, obviously, but definitely, recognizably a melody. She innately understood that the higher notes went in one direction, and the lower notes in the other. The look of concentration as she moved her fingers up and down the keyboard, striving to find the right sound to tell whatever story she was telling in her head was genuinely astonishing, as was the tunefulness of the result. I went to fetch Sarah, and asked Evie to show her mom what she had shown me.
“That’s amazing,” said Sarah.
“It really is,” said I.
It really was. Just like it was amazing the first time we heard Evie pitch-perfectly mimic a birdsong, or teach herself to whistle. In hindsight, of course she was going to be a natural on the piano.
So that was lesson one: Learning piano as an adult is certainly possible, provided you don’t mind being outclassed by a six year old.
I have a feeling these next few years – as I try to master chopsticks and Evie prepares for her first performance of Ballade no 1. in G minor – are going to be a good reminder of the importance of humility.