One year of piano lessons: what I’ve learned

Six months ago, I wrote a long post about my first six months of piano lessons (“What I’ve learned about life from six months learning piano.”) It was a bit on the philosophical side and focused on embracing vulnerability, the importance of practice, learning as hard work, focusing on fundamentals, and why intrinsic motivation has been necessary to make progress. I’ve run into people who read the post and we’ve had some fun discussions. I’ve continued to take lessons and practice and it has become without a doubt one of the most fulfilling projects of my life.

This post is an update to that post but more focused on what I’ve been learning and how the process has unfolded over the next six months leading into my one-year anniversary of starting lessons, which I hit just last week. My main goal in writing this is to encourage people who might think they are too old to start lessons (I’m 47 now) to cast aside that thinking and give it a shot.

The one year mark was a key milestone for me from the beginning. As I wrote six months ago:

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.

That said, when I started last year I still wondered where I would be performance-wise after a year. I recorded what I was playing at six months and posted my best playing at the time to Soundcloud (see “500 Year Old Melody“) as a marker for where I was then (last October) and I just posted a playlist of three selections that I recorded this week (April 2020): “Aria (Figaro),” “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” and “Sleeping Beauty Waltz.” (Note that I’ve been using the Adult Piano Adventures series and am reaching the end of book #1 right now. I’m supplementing it with this book on scales, chords, arpeggios, and cadences).

What you hear in the recordings is what I’ve been able to learn in a year taking one 45 minute lesson as week and practicing maybe 3-4 hours a week. I’ve definitely gotten better. I’m not sure if it’s “good” or if it’s where I “should” be, but it’s where I am and I’m really happy with the progress. Most importantly, I feel like I’ve gained the momentum to stick with it and look forward to many more years of learning.

I mentioned in the prior post that I had been a hacky guitar player for many years and contemplated how my piano playing might compare to my guitar playing after a year:

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).

An unexpected thing happened relative to guitar since my last post: my 8-year-old son (who has continued to learn piano and has been progressing at lightning speed) has been learning some jazz and blues and has started to give me “lead sheets” so I can jam along with him on guitar while he plays piano. The focus on fundamentals in my piano lessons that I mentioned in my last post means that I have learned how to read music. Since my last post, I’ve learned how to read key signatures and know many more scales (I only knew C major before). In simple terms, this means that if my son says, “I’m going to play a blues progression in C,” I know what chords work and what notes make sense so I can play along without thinking too hard.

I had mostly ignored music theory when I learned the limited guitar I knew. I memorized chord shapes and chord progressions, but I didn’t think of them within the larger underlying framework of music theory. I’m still not spending too much time on guitar but when I pick it up now, the instrument has come alive in an entirely new way from the music theory studies that come for “free” when you’re taking piano lessons. I now know music as a language and vocabulary unto itself and it’s made it possible to use that common vocabulary to collaborate with my son. It’s making guitar a lot more fun, too.

Understanding music more generally delivers other unexpected collaborative dividends, too. I’ve recently been trading tracks with friends using Logic X on the Mac. One of us will lay down a guitar or piano track and the other will add something and send it back. My friend Tarikh recently sent me some really nice finger-picking tracks he recorded of the song “Sea of Love” (listen to the raw track here). He told me the chords he was playing and that told me what key he was playing in. I’ve got my digital piano hooked into an audio interface with MIDI so I decided to try to record some supporting piano tracks. Note that I have jammed (often sloppily) with friends but had never attempted to collaborate in this way. I had recorded some simple one-take in-your-bedroom guitar-and-vocals stuff (like this cover of Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart” that I did long ago) but I had never tried to really record stuff. I was going into this new collaboration thinking it would be a good way to test some of what I had been learning.

I started by accenting Tarikh’s beautiful guitar-playing by putting down some piano chords to add some depth. Nice. After I got that down, I recorded an additional piano track with more melodic improvisation (again, using the music theory I had learned). I tried a few different things and played it back but didn’t quite like it. The melody was fine but a piano melody with piano accents in the background was just too much piano. But I liked the overall feel of what I had played. I started thinking that a horn might sound nice and after some experimenting in Logic and leveraging the magic of MIDI, I settled on a trombone line using the melody I composed on piano.

You can hear the result with the added piano and trombone here (again, this is the original track that I added to). I really like how it sounds and couldn’t be happier that my exploration of piano over the last year led me to coming up with a trombone piece that seems to actually work. This simple collaboration with a friend has given me a lot of motivation to do (and learn) more. It’s simple stuff, but I wouldn’t have even been able to collaborate in this way six months ago.

If I could describe the difference between where I was six months ago and now it would be this: I’m starting to move from thinking simply about the mechanics of piano to thinking more about music itself, and that’s pretty thrilling. I’m excited to see what I’ll learn over the next year now that I’m fully hooked.

(And I hope anyone out there who thinks they’re too old to learn to play reads this and is inspired to learn, too.)


Note: I didn’t want to make this post too focused on COVID-19 or being in quarantine, but two quick notes that are relevant:

  • being able to focus attention on music-making has been an extraordinary source of comfort and a nice break from spending evenings watching TV
  • I recently started taking my lessons via FaceTime after having in-person lessons for 11 months. I was initially very skeptical but it really works! I feel like my playing is actually progressing more quickly due to more practice time.