Being an adult student is hard. Ask anyone who has ever embarked on the learning curve (willingly) post-varsity - we feel as though we signed up for something paralleled to stocks-and-ladders: We know we did it because we want to develop a skill/pursue a goal/ do well in our field/follow a dream...but it is just so darn hard to climb the rungs of learning whilst living an adult life with all its demands and pressures, to the point of torturous! As if our daily stresses, with its traffic jams, missed appointments, broken hearts, family dramas, monetary strains, failed attempts and spreading waistlines weren't bad enough, we go and throw a nice little self-inflicted exam in the mix? Way to go to hammer the self-doubt home.
Three years ago I decided to finally do the thing I had always wanted to do and learn to play the piano. I thought I had a little raw music talent to help kick things off, some time on my hands, and a loving Husband who would let me practice to all hours at home - what could go wrong? Easy! I'd be playing Rachmaninoff in no time. I'm a grown up, after all. I had worked my way up in the corporate world from nothing to a National Brand Manager, spent a year in a part of Zambia not many are willing to go, overcame a deadly disease in my late teens and lived through the tragedy of losing a loved one to an untimely death. Learning to play the piano was going to be a piece of red-velvet cake, surely as easy as it was going to be fun!
But, of course, there was no cake in my immediate future. I had no idea what a rollercoaster ride I was about to embark on. First the rush, the fun, the sheer pleasure of it all. Then the fear, the doubt, the hard work of it all. The past few years have been measured in hot flushes swinging between happy reward and sweat-drenched frustration. Yes, I learned the difference between a major and a minor chord. Yes, I learned to play pieces of Billy Joel and bits by Beethoven. Yes, I can now transpose from simple-duple to complex time signatures. But mostly, what I have learnt - really learnt, is that work, work and more work is the only way to play the piano.
I have to be honest - I don't like the work. It's great when things are clicking into place and a song is erupting from the keys, but the rest of the time, I am filled with destructive internal questions. Questions such as; 'Isn't it easier for a child to learn this stuff? Why am I even trying?!', or 'Doesn't it take a full ten years to reach the last school level in music? Will I ever get there?!' and even 'Don't kids absorb more and learn easier? What's the point?!' These are questions I use when I feel the hardness and injustice of it all, that I am in my 30's and thus unlucky enough to only be learning my ABC-Majors now. But the answer to all of that, I'm sorry to say, is 'No. Suck it up, buttercup. You gotta work.'
So then, after running through a few scales, arpeggio’s and some finger exercises, I think, 'Oh well, maybe my talent will help me get to the next level.' Wrong again. Talent can help me play a melody from memory, just as the ability to walk upright will get me from point A to fifteen km's later. But work will help me construct a chord progression around that melody, work will teach me to read the sheet music to play the fullness of the song, just as work will help me develop my ability to run five, ten , twenty km's without stopping! Imagine no one ever pushed harder in training for a marathon than past the point of sweat. As soon as you are out of breath, then stop, because that is too hard. No, we keep working, pushing past the boundaries of our weaknesses, and complete those twenty km's. Imagine we walked away from relationships the first time we found that it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows? No one would ever stay together. It takes work to be happy in relationships, work to go the distance. The same goes for learning to play an instrument. This isn't guitar-hero, friends. This is hard, cold, finger-numbing, brain-squeezing, ear-assaulting, hours and hours of work!
Perhaps the question I should be asking myself when the doubt or laziness arises is 'What made you do this in the first place?' My answer would be that I love music, and I love to create. The combination is a powerful form of self-expression that I simply cannot get in any other way. Listening to music gives me a lot of pleasure and helps me feel a release of this self-expression, but to truly experience my inner most feelings and abilities, I need to be able to play it myself. That's just me. If I want to be able to do that, then I better work.
I think the best thing about being an adult learner is that I am beyond the competition and beyond the parental 'thou-shalts’ of it all - I am doing this for me and me alone. It isn’t about a grade, or getting the top mark, but rather that I want to know how to play beautiful music so that I can play what I am feeling, and possibly pass the love on to another. I want to be able to read music so that I can play what others, composers of the past and present who have lived through times and lives that I could not even possibly imagine, have felt. But the only way I will ever be able to experience this bond to both history and self, is through work.
The moral of the story is that hard, consistent work is the only way to learn to play the piano. But it is the most rewarding work I have ever done, and I plan on doing it for a long time to come.
Love, lust and fairy-star-dust