The Wesleyan Argus | Keys to learning, notes to success

c/o NPR

I remember in middle school, everyone and their brother seemed to play the piano. Although I have heard my fair share of complaints from classmates about their classes, this has never deterred me from wanting to learn. My earliest piano memories date back to 4th grade when I downloaded a piano app on my iPad. This particular system had a built-in teaching mechanism and could play a song on the virtual piano by lighting the key corresponding to each note. However, no app is perfect: the 88 keys couldn’t fit on the screen, which required me to scroll from one end of the piano to the other. I tried to learn Adele’s “Setting the Rain on Fire” but eventually gave up due to the obvious difficulty of playing on an iPad. Instead, I started singing.

During my private lessons, I sometimes had to look over my teacher’s shoulder at the lyrics to the sheet music as she played, but rather than focus on the words, I watched her hands glide across the piano. I was impressed with how she not only played different melodies and rhythms with each hand, but also how quickly she was able to move from one end of the piano to the other without missing a beat or press the wrong key. However, when I tried to do the same, and this time on a real piano, it never worked. Instead of a perfect melody like my teacher, I randomly string together a line full of off-key notes that honestly sound like a four-year-old banging pots and pans.

But this summer, I was determined to succeed! During winter break, I bought a piano, but it was gathering dust in my garage throughout the spring semester. Finally, at the start of summer vacation, my dad and I cleaned up the cobwebs, opened them up and put them together, and I was ready to begin. I wasn’t sure where to start, but as an overly impatient person that I am, I figured I could just skip learning to read music and start playing.

Now you might be thinking, how do you do that? Well, I searched YouTube for videos of the songs I wanted to learn that showed someone playing the song. I watched them, carefully observing which keys the pianist was pressing, thinking I could just memorize the song. It turns out to be an extremely inefficient method of learning to play. I spent hours squinting at my screen, replaying the same eight seconds of video, and trying to decipher the key-by-key breakdown of the melody.

After a few days of this I realized it wasn’t working and taking the time to learn how to read music was definitely worth it. So I went and ordered a book that explained the basics of the piano: which key is played with which finger, exercises to practice playing different melodies on each hand, and above all how to read music!

It was fascinating to understand how each space and line on the score corresponded to a specific note, and further, how the note could change slightly if there was a flat or sharp symbol next to it. I learned to count different time signatures, the pattern of beats and the number of notes in a measure. Slowly the dots and stems on the sheet music pages began to unfold in a language I could understand.

From there, I moved on to playing full songs. In the beginning, however, even the simplest ones were difficult to play because making sure I was playing the right notes while keeping the rhythm is not an easy task. Since I didn’t know where each key was, my eyes went from the sheet music to the piano and back up to the sheet music. I remember the long pauses between notes as I mumbled to myself,

“Is that an F or a G?” Wait no! It’s neither, it’s definitely an A…or is it?

All those frantic stares, head bangs, and mumbles certainly got me some weird looks from my parents. From their amused expressions, I could almost hear them thinking,

“What the hell is she playing at?!

Over the summer months I got better though. I remember the first time I played “When the Saints Go Marching In” without looking down, I was ecstatic! As I developed my skills, my confidence grew, but I wanted a way to test myself and make sure I was playing correctly. I pulled out old sheet music from my high school singing groups and tried to play the melody. Since I knew the song, I would know if I played it wrong.

Needless to say I stumbled a bit. It wasn’t easy to navigate, but I’m so proud to say that I was mostly able to play the melodies to “Come to Your Senses” from “Tick, Tick…Boom”, “Come Ready and See Me” by Richard Hundley, and “All Too Soon”, a traditional Celtic tune by Stephen Hatfield.

Although I’m not yet a piano pro, I’ve definitely come a long way this summer and I’m so excited to continue developing my skills. Now, what this will do to my poor parents when I get home for the winter break is a story for another time!

Sabrina Ladiwala can be reached at [email protected].