We were half way through our 10 week adults course and learning a piece called ‘The last train home’. I had written this piece to teach 7ths and to introduce this ‘Jazz-sounding’ chord. It was the first piece on the course that didn’t have an ‘easy to listen to’ melody and I was fully aware that it was usually at this point where pupils might begin to demonstrate a fair degree of frustration.
It was generally at this point in the course when pupils realized that playing the piano, well it isn’t just a matter of sitting down and having the notes miraculously flow through dexterous fingers which are somehow aligned with that greater power, which exudes all that is beautiful. No. Instead, we stand at that station waiting in anticipation for that train, which we pray is actually coming.
I’ve likened learning to play the piano to surfing. It may be because I wasn’t one of those prodigy children who found her notes early on and just played with a musicality beyond her years. Nope. I was that kid who had to put in the hours. I was that piano pupil who spent hours at the piano while her friends were out doing what other kids did while we were mastering Hanon or fighting with The Circle of 5ths. I was that music student who would go home for the holidays to visit my teacher (Thank you Margie) who would then get me through my varsity pieces instead of taking that long vacation. I was that pianist who learned that the music only comes when muscle memory has kicked in and that practice isn’t supposed to sound good, otherwise you’re doing it wrong.
Like surfing, you’re likely to get pummeled by the waves. But before you know it you’ll be on the board and riding. You need to be ok just being at backline. It’s about enjoying the process. Because it’s the process that makes you a surfer, not the wave.
Learning to play the piano as an adult has its challenges. So does learning to surf it would seem. I was married once. To a surfer. Let’s just say that there was a one and only time I did get out to backline and I didn’t come back to shore actually on the board. My first surf was at a place called Kommetjie. Any Cape Town surfers will know that most beginners start at Muizenburg. We’ll leave that story there.
I do know that some things are hard to achieve, and mostly because as adults, we want to be brilliant at it yesterday. We also often start a process with the reality that we have years of ‘un-learning’ to do before we can even begin that process. A child hasn’t been reminded for over 20 years that they can’t do something, that they’re bad at something, or that they might fail. They come in without all those fears. An adult has to begin something in spite of all those untruths.
I find myself as a teacher spending much of my precious time with adult pupils gently peeling away those layers so they can just relax and find their notes. This post is dedicated to all my pupils who are putting in the hours. Who are pitching for lessons and finding the 5 minutes, which hopefully turn into a few hours. Because when the muscle memory kicks in, when your eyes are finally ahead of your fingers and your left and right brain have gotten over their issues and made peace with each other, when your pedal foot decides to join your body and your arms, wrists and fingers decide to actually listen to your brain, when your brain stops telling you ‘you can’t’ and when the notes stop looking like random blots on the page, well that’s when the train arrives.