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Life Lessons

Learning To Play Piano When There Is No Recital

A photo of the painting Lady at the Piano' by Felix Valloton, from 1904.
Felix Valloton/Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

On one of the first days of 2023, I met my friend Dayna at the train station in Center City, and we took a long walk. It was cold outside, so we stopped for coffee to make our insides warm. There is very little I like more than to walk and gab, gab and walk. We strolled through neighborhoods and down streets I had never ventured down before. There is a point in every long walk where I feel like my brain unclasps from the edges of my skull and floats happily along. No other form of exercise has ever achieved this effect, but a long walk on a bright day with my dog and my friend will do it every time. One moment, it feels dark, damp, and tense inside my skull, and the next, it feels open, brilliant, possible.

That day, it took about five miles for my brain to unclasp, and when it finally did, we were seated on a bench by the Delaware River, the sun reflecting in beams off the water back at us, my dog lapping water from Dayna’s bottle out of my hands because I forgot her bowl. We were laughing, chatting, but imbued with the kind of self-seriousness that arrives with the dawn of the New Year and dissipates fully by February.

Dayna posed a question to me that felt rude in the moment. Her friend had asked her the same thing, and though rattling in a way, it had proved clarifying. I don't remember the exact phrasing of the question, because it isn’t important. It was something along the lines of: How will you make room for yourself to be more creative this year? Being asked this felt like taking a blow to the solar plexus.

I made a joke, but the question felt serious. How do I make room for myself to be more creative? How do you be creative at all? What does creativity even look like when your whole job is already to tell stories and make jokes and be silly? How do you do anything with a goal entirely separate from the life you’ve chosen to live?

After I dropped Dayna back off at the train, I walked the remaining mile or so to my house in silence. The sun was setting. It was cold. When I got home, I was sweaty and exhausted. Then I sat down, opened my computer and bought a piano.

It would be a lie to pretend that all of this wasn’t somewhat related to the movie Tár, which I saw in late 2022, and immediately became obsessed with. Cate Blanchett plays Lydia Tár, who is, within the fiction of the movie, one of the greatest conductors to ever live and also an absolute menace. She consistently hurts everyone who loves her, makes weird and bad decisions, and destroys her own career in one fell swoop. She also plays the piano.

One of Lydia Tár's major faults in her wife’s eyes is that she refuses to get rid of the apartment she had before they got married. Their shared apartment is a giant sweeping slab of concrete and steel and glass. It is modernist. It is cold. It has a $16,000 couch and a haunted metronome. It is always night there. The apartment where she lived alone, on the other hand, is smaller. It is cozy. It is a space where work is king and comfort is of no importance. There is a small kitchen, futon, and baby grand piano.

Most of Lydia Tár’s life in the movie seems awful. She jets back and forth to be interviewed. She rehearses for hours on end. When she has a break, she has to write a book. I only do that last thing, and I’m tired all the time! But there is one scene in Tár where she seems, for a moment at least, to have an inkling of happiness, and it is when she is sitting in her tiny old apartment plunking away at the piano. I do not care much about a fictional character named Lydia Tár, but I did immediately wonder if Blanchett actually played piano. It seemed easy enough to sub in a stunt double to play.

But the movie hadn’t. Blanchett had taken lessons as a child but abandoned it. She started over again for the film and learned enough to pass as proficient in a fairly short amount of time. To play this character, Blanchett also had to learn how to conduct an orchestra and to speak German. Imagine, I thought, how good I could become at playing the piano, since I wouldn’t even be distracted by silly things like learning to speak German and conduct an orchestra and film an Academy Award-nominated movie.

All of these thoughts—about Tár, the piano, and whether I was too old to take up a musical instrument—came in early December 2022. I looked up pianos online, and then decided that I didn’t have time for a new hobby. I was too busy, I reasoned, to learn a musical instrument as an adult. I was already doing bits of work on the weekends and in the evenings to keep my head above water. Wouldn’t piano be a distraction without purpose? It’s not like I was going to play a pianist in a film! It wasn't work for me, so what was the point?

“I studied piano as a girl. With each pregnancy—I've got four kids—I thought, 'I’m gonna pick the piano up again,'” Blanchett told Jimmy Kimmel on his show. “And the sad thing about me is that I don’t actually do anything until a role insists I have to do it.”

We were the same in that way, me and Cate Blanchett. I wanted to play piano, but without any requirement that I try, I simply did not. If it isn’t a job, isn’t explicitly or possibly a way to make money, then why bother? It’s a mindset I hate in myself, even as I admire it in Blanchett. There are lots of reasons to continue or start a hobby even if you cannot become good enough to make it your full-time job. But even as I write that, I don’t really believe it deep down. I believe it for you. I think it’s a great idea for everyone else to do things that bring them joy and have no other benefits. But not for me.

I have always struggled to do activities for fun. Maybe it’s capitalism, a personality default, being a Virgo, or maybe it’s just who I am at my deep sticky core. But even as a child, I struggled to see the importance of anything that could not further my goals. Why take dance lessons if I wasn’t as good as my sister? I’d never be a professional ballerina. Why go to an art college if I knew by then that I had neither the family money nor the natural talent to ascend to the heights of the Zwirner galleries? Why continue to play softball if I was only good enough for a second-tier D-I college? Throughout my childhood, I quit all of these things, plus dozens of others I cannot remember, in pursuit of some fated hobby or career that I would naturally be the best at.

All of these decisions, I recognize as an adult, are evidence of brain worms. They’re the same brain worms that made me quit piano lessons in the first place. And even though I am 20 years older now, I realized when Dayna asked that question that I hadn’t bothered to treat the worms at all. The worms made me successful and productive. Those things, we are taught to believe, are more important than feeling happy, fulfilled, or interested in your own life.

Growing up, my parents were very amenable to me quitting things. They did not believe that I should do hobbies if I was not having fun. So I quit activities left and right my whole childhood. In every instance, they let me. In almost every instance, they supported me fully. Except for piano.

When I took piano lessons for a couple of years in elementary school, I was not especially talented at it, nor was I especially good. But I wasn’t bad at it either. Despite having only one functioning ear, the other is quite good. My pitch is not perfect, but it is close. I can pick a note out on the piano after hearing it. I can mimic a run of notes. Even if I cannot play something correctly, I know when it's played wrong. In retrospect, for how little I practiced, I was fairly good for my age. But I was not the best, so I decided in my small child brain that this was a waste of time. I quit piano to focus on softball. (I would later quit softball to focus on painting, quit painting to focus on sculpture, quit sculpture to focus on fiction, quit fiction to focus on literature, and on and on it went.)

When I told my mom that I wanted to quit piano, she accepted it, but for the first time, she was not happy about it. “You’re going to regret this forever,” she told me. And being a precocious smart-ass of a kid, I told her that I absolutely would not.

Of course I did. Playing piano is such a timeless skill. Everyone loves to listen to someone playing well! By the time I got to high school, I already regretted it. At the fine arts magnet school, my peers played for hours inside practice rooms, the sound of their songs lingering inside my head. When I arrived at college, my dorm had a baby grand piano in the lobby and I listened all year with envy as my new peers played Bach, Mahler, and Chopin.

I remembered all of these moments when I unwrapped my piano from its box in January and set it up in my office. I screwed its legs on and set it up by the window and immediately felt a flood of embarrassment. Who was I to try and play piano? I didn't know anything except how to practice scales. Mostly I felt embarrassed, because it feels embarrassing to want something, perhaps especially when you tell yourself you have no reason to want it. And I wanted it so much.

I started to realize that my initial hesitation at Dayna's question came from a sense of admonishment toward myself. I was allowed to be creative as long as it was productive, as long as it was for work in some way. But making room for yourself to be creative means setting aside time. It means giving yourself space to fail. It means stretching your brain into unfamiliar positions. On Jan. 17, I emailed the piano studio closest to my house to ask if any of their instructors would take me on as a student.

The problem with learning to play the piano as an adult is that piano is a skill most adults agree is good for children to learn, so all of the students are kids. The student with the lesson before me is a girl no more than 10 years old. The student after me is the same. Their parents bring them to the studio and sit in the chair reserved for parents and listen or look at their phones while their children learn. The parents are much closer to my age than the children. In the signup form to begin the lessons, they asked for my name and age. I wrote in "31."

I was very stressed before my first lesson, stressed enough that I almost bailed. I didn’t want to look dumb. I didn’t want to be bad at something. I didn’t want to go to the school with all the children and know so much less than them. But I did want to play piano, so I went anyway. For months I felt this way, a kind of low-level embarrassment over my inability to play. I couldn't even read the music.

But my teacher was very patient and encouraging, and he seemed happy to have a student old enough to know who Judy Garland was when he referenced her. He plays the piano so beautifully, and sometimes he tells me stories about when he played a song on a cruise ship, or how he used to play when he worked at a Las Vegas hotel. He believes in a lot of things that seem important if small, like using the economy of motion, making movement as subtle and efficient as possible. “You’re not Liberace,” he told me recently. “Do you know who Liberace is?” When I said yes, he said, “You’re not him!” and he laughed and laughed.

He plays with a vibrancy I envy and adore. Recently, I asked him why he didn’t retire. He’s 81, after all. He’s had a full, exciting career. He accompanied Elvis, for Christ’s sake! Why spend evenings teaching children and a 32-year-old blogger how to play the piano? “As people who make art, we will always work because the act of creation is within us,” he told me.

But when creating is your job, when it becomes a form of profit and livelihood and no longer a form of curiosity, it is easy to forget how it feels to stretch your brain. In the first few months, just learning to read the notes was more difficult than I could have imagined. One year in, I still struggle to remember which bass clef note is G and which is A, a mistake that makes many songs sound just slightly off in a way that I never can place, despite the problem always being the same. I still lift my hands too much when moving them around. My instinct is not to be dramatic, but I am facing the age-old problem all creative people face when approaching a new medium: My ambition and taste is higher than my actual capabilities. I want to play like the girl in A Room with a View in her hotel in Italy: with sweeping motions and endless runs all from memory. I want to play the way Lydia Tár plays: with economy, focus, and potential. Instead I play the way everyone with one year of experience plays: haltingly, with missed notes, and moments of frustration. But I am better each week. I can do scales with contrary motion. I can read music now by sight (except for that damn G/A problem). I have moved onto the second book for piano beginners, and I'm absolutely blowing through it.

“If you get stressed, take a break,” my teacher told me recently, and I noticed that my shoulders had been sneaking up toward my ears. “Your body will remember, and you’ll play tense every time. It will seep into the music." I made a joke about how the body keeps the score. He did not laugh at this. But he's right. This is the problem: this need to be perfect, the desire to turn every part of you into something that defines you as a person. We learn this as children very early in America, where any spark of nascent talent is identified by adults as not just a possible passion, but a career. It feels almost impossible to balance that innate need to create, the same one my teacher promised exists inside us, with the stress that comes from any activity that provides a paycheck. In my eyes, one will always be in direct opposition to the other.

I have been thinking about this a lot as the year comes to a close and I play “early-intermediate” Christmas songs on the piano in my room. Part of doing a creative job is living with the dissonance between that view of work and art. The art is your work, a product of you, whether it makes you money or not. But more often, it's hard to make something that could pay actual money and not lose control of it entirely.

The other part is knowing it's possible that you will always be able to work and likely will always need to work. The good news is there is some drive within you that is nearly impossible to turn off. I know that I will write until the minute I am forced to stop. But to create, you must have some kind of reserves to keep going. Novelty, I’ve learned, is one of the fastest ways to refill that tank, to give yourself energy to make things, to fill yourself up a little bit. And nothing feels more novel than learning something new.

All year, I've sat down at my piano and played my silly little songs just for me. There’s no recital. There’s no endgame. I'm far too embarrassed to play for anyone else. I’ve learned to give myself grace, allow myself to be bad at things, and play a nocturne. I’ve discovered there’s value in something like the process of plunking some keys in your room, just for you. In the most recent song I'm learning, there's a sweeping run that requires my hands to move around a lot. Every time my hands move, my teacher says happily, “Now you’re playing piano!” I am, or at least I’m trying to.

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