Recently i was asked to write about my experience as an adult learner for a piano website. This is what i gave them:
“Music…gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.” - Plato
i love music. Everything from Tchaikovsky to Britney Spears, from Gilbert and Sullivan operetta to traditional Japanese song, from ABBA to childhood recordings of ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’. For as long as i can remember, music has been a constant in my life, and every memory i have is accompanied by some sort of ‘sound track’. But for someone who was so long moved by the sounds of instruments, it took me a really long time to decide to learn to play one myself.
i love the piano in particular and have always wanted to play, ever since i was big enough to reach up and put my fingers on the keys of my mother’s old upright. But alas, my parents moved around a lot while i was growing up, and worked very hard for very little, so it was just not financially or geographically possible for me to have lessons.
So now, all grown up and in my 30’s, i finally decided to take matters into my own hands and find a teacher.
i was a little nervous at first, and didn’t have much hope in finding someone who wouldn’t take one look at my heels and highlights, and laugh out loud at the ridiculousness of a grown woman starting a new hobby plonking out ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’. Also, i had no idea where deciding to venture down this musical path would take me. i wasn’t sure about exams or how long i would want to learn for, but i had a vague and geeky fantasy that i would work my way through till i could at least play ‘Piano Man’ at dinner parties and have a good old fashioned sing-along at the drop of a note. (Even though i am incredibly shy and don’t like to even sing in public). i wasn’t sure how that would go down with piano teachers who were probably used to teaching primary school students with no hang ups or inhibitions, and working with a dry and rigid system.
Fortunately it was quite easy to find the right teacher once i had made the decision to learn. i asked around a bit, Googled and eventually found a few options on Gumtree who offered lessons to adult learners. In the end i chose Toni Crichton because she offered the choice of private lessons or group classes, and also offered contemporary lessons, classical training, or a combination of them both.
i began the tedious scale’ey process of learning to read and play sheet music just over a year ago (starting from grade 1 with all the other 6 year olds!) i am now preparing for Gr 4 and am LOVING every moment of it! But it was a process.
We started with a Grade 1 level book that used original music by Toni, which was great because i didn’t have to feel like too much of a fool stumbling my way through well known nursery rhymes, which would have just put me off. The beginning was very slow and i was acutely aware of the fact that i was basically learning a new language. There were moments when i felt quite embarrassed for not being able to just sit down and produce Beethoven’s 5th, like i imagined a lot of people my age would, but had to keep reminding myself that they probably had lessons from very young. After a while, it all just started to click into place. Toni taught me special little things that really helped me hit the right notes and train the music into the muscle memory of my fingers. Its like typing. Who these days ever really thinks about where the letters on the keyboard are, or even while sms’ing? We learn through muscle memory and our fingers just do what our brains tell them to do, almost instinctively without having to think about it. Basic, i know, but for an adult learner with a piano and a good ear for music (meaning i can hear every single little mistake i make and it grates me!) it was a revelation!
If there is one thing i can say for sure, Practice makes Perfect. i found that if i practiced once a day even if only for a short while, it would make SUCH a difference to my advancement by the next lesson. And similarly, one hectically busy week where i let the practice slide due to other pressing life matters, i could see and hear the backward slipping in my new skill.
Soon enough i decided to be brave and enroll for some exams. i was enjoying playing and learning so much, that i decided to go for official grading and help push myself further. Suffice to say, not ever being great under pressure, i was a nervous wreck before my exams! i seized up with panic before my practical exam, made the stupidest mistakes, and while sitting at the piano with the examiner out from England scribbling on his note sheet over at a table in the corner, i actually had a moment where i was staring at the music and the keys and had no clue what i was looking at! When i left the room i realized i was shaking. The theory exam was worse, as i was in a hall filled with all the other students – and i was old enough to be all of their mothers! In fact, as one mother dropped off her son, i noticed her looking at me a bit funny, sitting at my tiny child like desk, pencil and eraser all neatly laid out and ready for me to write the exam. i don’t even want to know what she must have thought of me, or worse still, what all those kids must have thought of me! It was like being a kid again myself, and not in a good way.
But i ended up getting distinctions for both my practical and theory exams, so all those nerves really were uncalled for. Amazing how many expectations we as adults place on ourselves.
The next step in my development of this musical skill was to help me get over the little problem of performance anxiety i discovered i had (thanks to the almost tearful breakdown after my practical exam). Toni had arranged an end of year concert for all her students and asked me to play a piece along with the others. Ages 6 to 14, and then, oh ya, 32-year-old me! Once again i was nervous as hell, intimidated by my own age, and shook like a leaf, but managed to play my pieces with (almost) no mistakes. It was amazing to see the abilities and unique playing styles of the other students, and i was really impressed with one boy in particular who, even when he made a mistake, didn’t flinch a muscle but barged right on confidently through his piece. His was the best that day, and I realized that in music, much like life, confidence and presentation are all that really matters. That and knowing what you’re doing of course, which means practice, practice, practice!
After the concert a lot of the other students parents asked me about my playing, when i had started and why now. And none of them looked like they were mocking me or looking down on me in any way what so ever. They all seemed really impressed that i was doing it for myself, and encouraged me, rather than sniggering about the 6foot grown-up playing along side little children literally half her size and a third of her age!
i have always regretted not being given the opportunity to learn the piano as a child, but through my experience over the last 14 months, i am starting to think maybe i am at an advantage coming into this so late in my life. i am old enough to appreciate the privilege it is to learn something so beautiful. i can enjoy the process, feel rewarded when i actually play through a whole song, and am so proud of my examination certificates. i relish a personal achievement every time i learn a new scale, start a new song or play a piece i have already learnt by ear. i can savor this thing that is adding so much value to my life, my soul, my culture.
As Shakespeare said, “If music be the food of love, play on”. So my plan is to play on, indefinitely.
Love, lust and fairy-star-dust