Reflections On Learning Piano as an Adult

Remember back in January when I decided take up the piano after a fifteen year hiatus? As we head into the final couple months of the year, I thought I’d give you guys an update on how that’s going! As you’ll recall if you saw my posts on Instagram, I played the piano for years as a kid and had gotten quite good, but then I let the hobby slide as the realities of being a “grown up” took over. Last holiday season, I realized that I didn’t have any activities in my life that I pursue simply for the fun of them. So I decided to make a New Year’s resolution of learning piano as an adult—or in my case, re-learning!

As is typical of my personality, I had lofty expectations when I started my lessons. I figured I’d be playing my old favorites in no time! After all, the muscle memory was stored in the recesses of my fingers. Getting back to snuff would be a simple matter of dusting off the keys and brushing up my skills. What’s more, I thought, I had the benefit of discipline that I lacked as a teenager. In high school, practicing the piano was my most hated chore. Yet with the wisdom of age on my side—not to mention countless self-help books about successful habits on my bookshelf—practicing would surely be a breeze. Anne was coming Bach, baby!

Well. Ten months later, I’m still nowhere near my previous level of proficiency. So far I’ve got one song passably under my belt and have half-completed a handful of others. As it turns out, trying to re-learn something I used to be great at is even harder and more frustrating than learning something for the first time—because there’s an added layer of judgement I heap on myself each instance I encounter something I “used to be able to do” and now can’t. What’s more, it’s truly shocking how my adult brain refuses to assimilate new information no matter how insistently I drum it in. When I was young I could master a song in a couple weeks. At 36, I can practice the same four bars of music ad nauseam for months and still trip over them every darn time.

Oh, and on the subject of practicing? I’m still the same human I was at 16, and I still hate to practice the piano. I hate it more, even, because as indicated above, it doesn’t even seem to be paying off! Squeezing sessions into my already jam-packed schedule causes significant stress; failing to squeeze them in causes significant guilt. Add to that the fact that I’m generally exhausted all the time, even when I’m at the keyboard trying to focus, and my future as a concert pianist looks bleak. I  mean, if you had a choice between practicing the piano for twenty minutes or sitting on the couch and watching Brooklyn 99 for twenty minutes, what would you do? (The correct answer is always Andy Samberg, FYI.)

But. In spite of nearly quitting a handful of times over the past several months, I’m still going. Why? For one thing, I really like my piano teacher. He and I are the same kind of crazy, and we really hit it off during my lessons. He doesn’t even get mad when I don’t practice! As well, there are moments—few and far between though they may be—when I feel the old rush of joy I used to experience when the notes fall from my fingers with effortless ease. Most importantly, though, I’ve kept it up because of an excellent point that Ivan raised: I began this endeavor in the first place because I had no hobbies, nothing I do only for myself. If I quit my piano lessons, I’ll be right back where I was last December, a dull Jane with no fun in her life. My piano lessons are a stake in the ground for self care and sanity!

So I’ve persevered, using each time I’ve nearly quit as a moment to check in, assess what’s not working, and recommit to exploring what does work. Most recently, I started putting my practice sessions on my calendar and sticking to them just as I would a work or social appointment. I also got a pep talk from my teacher, who reminded me that usually the benefits of practice don’t show themselves until after two or three weeks, not just two or three days. In our instant gratification-obsessed world, it’s humbling and it’s healthy to have a low-stakes reminder that hard work can be its own reward. And finally, I just ordered a book of Christmas tunes for the beginning-to-intermediate student. If nothing else, this will be the year that I annoy the heck out Ivan by playing carols nonstop on the stereo and on the piano. Because really, who needs Bach when Santa’s coming to town?!

Photo: Monica Wang.