What I’ve learned about life from six months learning piano

playingpianoSix months ago at age 46, I started piano lessons. My son had started lessons about a year ago at six years old and I was inspired by watching him learn. Since then, I have stuck with it through 22 one-hour in-person lessons on Saturday afternoons (skipping just a few when out of town). I’ve been doing this consistently amidst a full life otherwise: trying to be a good husband/father, coaching a full roster of CEOs and CTOs, taking a 12-week Korean class this fall (안녕하세요!), active service on three non-profit boards, and preparing for the next iteration of the class I’m teaching at Cornell Tech this spring.

So I don’t really “have time” for piano, but I’m glad I’m making the time and I’m excited about the progress I’ve been making. Six months in, I’m comfortable at the piano and what was a mysterious object with random black and white keys in the beginning is now very familiar. I can read basic music intuitively, keep rhythm most of the time (and when not, I know how to use a metronome to get me on track), and I play harmony and melody using both hands. I’m still by no means a great piano player. I’m very much just getting started. (In fact, here’s some audio of me playing this week where I deliberately did one take with no editing so you could hear what someone who has only had six months of lessons sounds like.)

But I am better than I was six months ago when I couldn’t play at all and I feel confident that I’ll keep improving. I’ve learned some good life lessons in the process. Here they are:

Lesson #1: You have to be very vulnerable to learn when you are a true beginner at something.

In business contexts, when a person has experience, they tend to spend a lot of time saying things like, “yes, I get what you’re saying, but let’s get to the point.” An experienced person can certainly be an accelerator in many situations: been there, done that, don’t waste your time on that, here’s how it works. As much as the word “vulnerability” gets thrown around in business circles these days, though, experienced people are generally expected to be decisive and focused. “I don’t know” is frowned-upon.

Knowing is simply not possible when you are a true beginner as I am with piano. I actually don’t know. I take piano lessons on Saturdays in a shop in my neighborhood in Brooklyn. I get there a few minutes early and wait outside the small studio for the prior lesson to end. The student before me is about seven years old and I can faintly hear her playing as I wait. She is better than me and progressing faster than me. My teacher is considerably younger than me. In my work, I’ve been so accustomed to being the one with experience. In that piano studio, I am the equivalent of a toddler. Things that seem simple when I see others do them can be excruciating for me. I stumble. I get frustrated. I didn’t really look forward to the early lessons that much. A lot of the instruction was “try that again. <pause while I play> Try that again. <pause while I play> Do that again.” And that’s what I did (and what I needed). I had to embrace the not-knowing in order to begin to know.

Lesson #2: Progress is all about sustained effort over long periods supported by consistent practice.

There was some divine intervention involved in the form of a book that helped me get my mental game right to take piano lessons. My son’s progress in his own lessons had inspired me and one day I decided to take him to the Juilliard Store on W 66th Street to look for new sheet music (one of those amazing “I ❤️ NYC” experiences all by itself – what a store!) While he looked around, I happened upon a slim book called The Practicing Mind: Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life (here’s a summary). It’s one of the most important books I’ve ever read. Learning piano is really just a framing device used by the author to lay out bigger life lessons. Here’s the basic summary using three sentences from the book (all emphasis is mine):

  • “Real peace and contentment in our lives come from realizing that life is a process to engage in, a journey down a path that we can choose to experience as magical.”
  • “When we subtly shift toward both focusing on and finding joy in the process of achieving instead of having the goal, we have gained a new skill. And once mastered, it is magical and incredibly empowering.”
  • “With deliberate and repeated effort, progress is inevitable.”

In this spirit, I made a deal with myself when I started lessons that I was going to do the lessons for a year and practice diligently regardless of how I thought I was doing. I told myself that learning piano was a lifelong process and I hoped to stick with it and slowly improve for the rest of my life. I didn’t set any artificial goals for myself other than sticking with it for a year and practicing consistently. I did better some weeks than others but I kept to my commitment to just keep doing it. I don’t know how quickly I’ll get better and I don’t pay attention to it on a week-to-week basis. I just keep going, knowing that doing the work will make me better (“With deliberate and repeated effort, progress is inevitable.”)

The sometimes repetitive work of learning also has a meditative aspect to it. I’ve probably played a C Major scale a couple thousand times by now. Sitting down, gathering myself, and warming up by playing that simple scale a few times has the same effect on me that taking deep breaths does. When my teacher tells me to “try it again” in our lessons, I do just that without self-judgment. I just do it again and again until I get it right. When I remove the self-judgment, these repetitions become almost soothing and relaxing.

(Note: Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Musician Within by Kenny Werner is very much in the same spirit as The Practicing Mind and is also supported by the Effortless Mastery Institute. Definitely check it out.)

Lesson #3: Learning something difficult feels like (and is) real work.

The default response from adults I tell about this is, “Oh, that sounds fun!” Ahem. I would say it’s rewarding but I wouldn’t always call it “fun” at this stage. I’ve observed that learning an instrument can be a fantasy for many people, in the same vein as “one day I’ll write a book.” It certainly was for me. When you hear “piano lessons,” it is tempting to fast-forward to some glamorous point in your future where you’re at a holiday party and people gather around to sing songs at the piano as you take requests, all of which you know how to play, of course. The problem with this fantasy is that getting to such a point takes years and hundreds of hours of practice (if not thousands). The only thing that will get you there is doing the real work day after day.

Lesson #4: Focus on fundamentals and really learn them.

I’ve been hacking around on guitar for almost thirty years and I have never progressed beyond playing chords. I would describe my skill level as “campfire guitarist” —  there have been times where people were drunk around a campfire and I could play a song just well enough to be recognizable and the chorus of voices was just loud enough to cover my mistakes. But I’ve never been a good guitarist.

Looking back, I have been stuck at this level because I never really focused on playing guitar as a practice. You know, I just wanted to rock. I was impatient, unfocused, and undisciplined. I would listen to a Led Zeppelin song, download the tablature from the Internet, then try to contort my fingers into holding the right notes. I always failed and put the guitar away for a while after that. (Aside: part of the magic of Led Zeppelin is the crazy rhythms they used — check out “What Makes John Bonham Such a Good Drummer.” No wonder I struggled!)

What I didn’t understand when I was downloading Led Zeppelin tabs and failing to play them is that music isn’t just a paint-by-number put-your-fingers-on-the-right-strings exercise. You have to understand core concepts like rhythm, harmony, and melody. Putting all of those things together at the same time makes great music, not just hitting the right notes in order. Some people pick these concepts up more easily than others or through trial and error. I accidentally learned some of this along the way with guitar but it wasn’t purposeful. But whether or not you play “by ear” or you know how to read music, you have to learn all of this somehow, and that requires discipline and lots of hours. There is no shortcut.

With piano, this means getting your basic fingering right and that means doing “boring” things like practicing scales. It’s not just hitting the right notes, it’s about hitting the right notes with the right fingers. It’s about how your hand moves up and down the keyboard so you can hit the next right note as the scale progresses. It’s about doing rhythm drills to make sure you can play at accelerating tempos and keep consistent rhythm. In the past six months, I’ve spent 20x the time on this type of work on piano that I spent on guitar in the past 30 years. By the end of my first year really focusing on piano, I’m pretty sure I will be objectively better on piano than I ever was at guitar (and when I go back to guitar, I already feel like I’m better from the work with piano).

All systems revolve around interrelated concepts and the more you study and integrate all of those concepts into your practice, the higher quality the output will be. In my time as an operating executive, I often heard people starting their careers tell me they wanted to go straight to doing “strategic” work with the implication that they wanted to skip over the boring “tactical” stuff. In music as in business (and life), knowing how the tactical stuff works (rhythm, harmony, melody) is the base that gets you to strategic work (playing great songs). Otherwise, you’re just me skipping straight to trying (and failing) to play “Kashmir” without knowing that the drums are in 4/4 time and the guitar is 3/4 and they only meet up every 12th beat (see this video explanation). Take the time to learn the fundamentals. Skipping ahead leads to falling behind.

Lesson #5: Pure intrinsic motivation and the absence of external validation are liberating.

To keep going you need a ton of intrinsic motivation to make it through learning the very basics in the beginning. When you’ve done a few lessons and all you can do is tap out a simple version of “Yankee Doodle,” you’re nowhere close to wowing the mythical people gathered around the piano at the mythical holiday party you were dreaming of when you started. No one really cares that you’re learning piano as an adult. Kids learning piano are cute but an adult man just isn’t. In fact, a 47-year-old man asking you to listen to him play a rough version of “Yankee Doodle” can only be described in one word: annoying. You are going to suck for a while and the songs you learn to play will be so simple that they may seem boring.

Just keep going. When I made that commitment to try lessons for a year, it took me about three months of learning basic stuff to come anywhere close to what I would call “fun.” I have no idea how long it will take for other people to actually want to hear me play, if ever, and that’s ok because I enjoy it in the absence of that. In life, seeking external validation leads to all kinds of inner and outer dysfunction. Learning piano at my age has gotten me to focus on something in a pure way that is independent of external affirmation.

Lesson #6: You have time.

I’ve heard many people say: “I want to learn piano but I don’t have time!” If your experience is anything like mine, you could make consistent progress with piano by taking a one-hour lesson each week and practicing 30 minutes 5x/week**. This probably sounds like a major commitment but take a look at how much time you spend on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Think about all the time you spend watching TV shows. I’ve noticed that I spend significantly less time on social media and watching TV since I started learning piano. There’s something about practicing that gives me a sense of focus that makes those activities less appealing. Social media platforms thrive on conflict, envy, making you want things you don’t need, and constant “breaking news” that is often a re-hash of what you heard an hour ago. Focusing on piano is about focusing on the mastery of an exercise or a piece of music. It feels liberating to focus intently on one thing you’ve chosen (like a piece of music) instead of a barrage of algorithmic garbage intended to manipulate you in some way. I know this not because I’m too pure to participate in social media — I certainly do — but I’ve become increasingly mindful of how cluttered my mind feels when I’m reading Twitter versus practicing piano. The more I shift my attention from the addled social media mind to the practicing mind, the happier I am.

(**Of course, if you practice more you’ll move faster. Practice less than that and you’ll probably stay in place. You can skip a lesson now and then and be fine. Just keep going, don’t quit, and you’ll make progress.)

Lesson #7: Learning something with someone creates the ultimate sense of presence.  

I mentioned that my son has been learning, too. He has been playing for a year and I have been playing for six months. He is at least 10x better than me, and I’m not exaggerating at all. I had already embraced the vulnerability of learning so instead of feeling inferior, I ask him if he’ll help me practice by playing the accompanying teacher parts in my book while I play the student parts. On any given night, I’ll say, “hey, want to play some duets?” and a few minutes later we’re both on the piano bench — he on the bass end of the keyboard and me on the higher end.

This first happened in my early weeks of lessons way back in April when I was trying to play “Yankee Doodle” and asked him to accompany me. I recorded us that night. You can hear him count me in (“1-2-3-4”) and hear me mess up repeatedly while he gives me encouragement. It takes a few tries but eventually I get it right.

In that moment, there’s the joy of personal accomplishment but there’s the sense that we are fusing our individual practices together, that the sense of focus we have both been developing as we’ve learned music at our vastly different paces has given us a powerful new way to focus our attention intently on each other. It’s a joyous and magical thing. I’m not practicing so that I can play for the mythical people at the mythical holiday party in the uncertain future. I’m practicing to enjoy the right now with my son — and that’s the most important lesson of all.