A couple of weeks ago I posted about our piano. It was built in Cincinnati in 1950-something and arrived at our house on the back of a van, accompanied by a pair of London wideboys. It’s ours now. Only trouble is, I can’t play it. Not yet.
I can pretend to play it. I can sit in front of it, open up the Big Book of Elton John Classics and put my fingers on the keys. I imagine that’s half the battle really, I’ve taken the first step. After all, that must be what Elton John does every day? (He’s had a long career, he can’t remember all of his songs.)
When you’re learning something new it’s very easy to convince yourself that it’s too hard. So to make myself feel better and to trick my brain into thinking this really is a worthwhile undertaking, I’ve compiled a list of reasons why I might be really bad at playing the piano and reasons why I might be awesome at it. I know, I know, thinking of reasons why you might be bad at something is not exactly positive but if I think of them all in advance, then they won’t catch me by surprise when I’m preparing for my grade 8 piano exam. Let’s start with the negatives, ok?
- I have freakishly small hands. I mean really, really tiny1. And they’re not even elegant and slender, they’re just stumpy and weird. When I worked in a lab I had to buy special gloves because even the extra small ones were too big. I used to hide them in a drawer so nobody would take them until I realised that nobody would ever take them because pre-schoolers aren’t allowed in biochemistry labs. When I had my engagement ring made the jeweller told me that it was illegal to make rings that small (possibly, I can’t remember now.) So this could be a problem if I am ever to fulfil my piano playing potential. But I’m not going to let this put me off. Children play the piano and my hands are very slightly larger than a child’s. Here is a picture of my hand next to my six-year-old’s handprint to prove it.
- The bass clef is all weird. When I was a child, I could play the recorder pretty well. I even took exams and stuff. But the most valuable thing I learnt was how to read music. I was really very proficient at it and the good news is that it’s never really gone away. I still know my minims from my crotchets and all the Italian terms are still in there somewhere. I can feel it all coming back to me, my brain has been holding onto it all these years just willing me to take up the piano and now it’s been vindicated. Oh but wait a minute, what are all those other notes down there? The bass clef you say? Well that’s easy, the notes are all the same just played with my left hand, yes? No. No they are not the same, not even slightly. For a start, all the notes which live on the lines up the top, now live in the spaces down the bottom. It’s a terrible system. It may have worked for Bach but I’m not happy about it.
- I’m a rage quitter. Once upon a time, I spent almost every spare minute of my day playing Tomb Raider 2. It was a brilliantly compelling game once you got the hang of the awkward aim and shoot controls but there were really only two states in my Tomb Raider gameplay – winning or quitting. If I wasn’t solving puzzles and shooting bad guys I was throwing the controller across the room and lying on the floor, waving my limbs around in the style of a toddler in the confectionary aisle. So I’m a little concerned that when I fail, for the 18th time in a row to play When the Saints Go Marching In I might rip the metaphorical plug out of the wall.
But that’s not the right spirit is it? What about all the positives Lisa? What about all those things which will make you an awesome piano player?
- I didn’t learn to drive until I was 34. Not because I couldn’t but because I didn’t want to. It was nothing, honestly, to do with fear of rage-quit. It was just because I really, really enjoyed catching the bus. Especially with a toddler, in the rain, at 7am. The bus was just the best. But eventually, with a second baby on the way I decided it was time to become one of those other people. So I learnt to drive. I practised loads, took my test and passed. No secret. Four years later, it’s all muscle memory. I can do a hill start whilst simultaneously tuning in radio 4 and shouting at my children. I’m really good at parallel parking. I’m assuming that playing the piano is much the same.
- I’ve got really good books. If any book is going to teach you how to play the piano then surely this book called How to Play the Piano by James Rhodes is the one. It’s a little bit magic because it promises that in 6 weeks (justifiably, I reckon) you will be playing Bach’s prelude no.1 in C major. I can already play the first 6 bars pretty seamlessly. Little acorns and all that. I’ve also just acquired all of the theory books that my eight-year-old husband (no! he was eight then, not now, silly) worked from when he was learning to play. And he can still play now, over 30 years later. So he must have done something right.
- I think this is the most important one – I really, really want to be able to play the piano. I always have. Every time I listen to Nina Simone or Tim Minchin or the first few bars of Seven Seas of Rye by Queen, I desperately want to be able to do what they’re doing. It’s too simplistic to suggest that if you want something bad enough it will happen but surely a naively enthusiastic grown up is a more efficient learner than, say, a reluctant child getting rapped on the knuckles with a wooden ruler?2.
Despite feeling like the world’s older learner as I doggedly plinky plonk my way through Merrily We Roll Along, I’ve suddenly realised that time is on my side and in fact, I have the rest of my life to learn to play. Hopefully it won’t take that long, it would be a crying shame to finally perfect something from that Elton John book on my death bed (especially if it was something from the Lion King) but really, I’m not short of time at all. Anyway. Even if I’m not cut out for the piano or my freakishly small hands hold me back, it’s still a better use of time than playing Tomb Raider 2.
- Over the past months I have mocked the 45th president of the USA over his small hands (they are small though, aren’t they?) but the sad truth is this – mine are probably even smaller. People in glass houses.
- Purely hypothetical, this isn’t the 1950s.