I was an avid piano player when I was young, learning from age 4 until college. I recently got back into it 1 year ago, but it’s been a bumpy ride in re-learning everything I thought I knew. Here are some things that I’ve learned.
The most important thing you need is patience
In my experience, the most painful and important lesson to learn is that you aren’t who you were when you last played. That piano piece that you nailed as an 18 year old? You’d be surprised at how rusty you might have become.
As an adult, especially one who practiced extensively as a kid, you’re in a dangerous situation. You know what you were capable of doing, but you might not be ready to do it just yet.
Ever had a friend that said “Oh, I used to be able to do this in high school (two decades ago)?” before attempting something and failing?
That’s the state you can find yourself in. As a result, before you learn anything else, you have to learn patience.
It can be hard, for several reasons. First, you don’t have as much possible time to devote to practice as you did when you were younger. You also probably need to do some grunt or boring work (such as practicing scales) to get yourself back into the shape you used to be in. And there are few things more frustrating than when you know exactly what you want to do in your mind but your body can’t keep up.
But having patience, and understanding that you’ll have to train a bit before getting to the good stuff is necessary.
Setting goals for yourself is important
When you were younger, your hobbies kind of had built-in goals to achieve. Maybe it was a concert or competition every 9 months. Maybe it was a certain rank (like a brown belt). Maybe it was even as simple as trying to impress your friends.
Well sadly, you don’t have those built-in goals any more. So you have to figure out why you’re going to pick this back up. Because there is always going to be some work involved that may not be that fun.
My goal was something that I discovered in my travels last year, in a country halfway around the world. It was my last day in Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia and I was killing some time at the State Department store before my flight that night.
While inside, I found a public piano with no one around. It was definitely out of tune and more of a showpiece, but no one tried to stop me as I approached. I began to play one of the pieces I remembered, but after a few minutes, my fingers faltered as I struggled to remember exactly how the piece went. No one was really paying attention, so it wasn’t like I was disappointing anybody, but I remember feeling frustrated at how rusty I was.
From that point on, my goal for piano was to have a repertoire.
This would be a collection of songs that I knew super well so that if I saw a piano and felt like it, I could always play it.
You shouldn’t try to learn the same way you did as a child (Or, have fun in practice)
These are called Hanon’s exercises. They’re the way I was taught as a kid to warm up my fingers and strengthen them.
They’re also incredibly boring.
Even if I have a goal and have reminded myself to have patience, if I had to practice these every time before actually playing, I would have quit.
When you were a kid, your teacher might have forced you to practice these exercises, and it might have been fine for you then. But trying to force yourself to do something boring as an adult is hard.
18th century musicians knew this: that’s why they invented the etude. It was a way to practice boring and repetitive skills in a musical fashion.
Nowadays, there are musicians that are taking that idea even further, as etudes have begun to seem boring. For piano, I like Nahre Sol, especially her video on making warm ups fun.
It may give you nostalgia
Every time I play a certain passage, I remember a distinct experience that I had when I was in high school.
At that time, I was too young to have a driver’s license, so every morning my dad would drop me off at school early before work and after school I would catch the public bus home. Because my dad dropped me off super early to make it to work (~6:45 AM), I became friendly with the janitor and he unlocked the choir room with the piano so I could always practice. As a result, I always brought my sheet music to school.
My dad had an arrangement with Mrs. B (my piano teacher) where she would come to our house once a week after school for my piano lesson. One day, in late January, I couldn’t find my sheet music after school, and my piano lesson was in an hour. I was frantically searching my locker and bag, to the point where a teacher approached me and asked what was wrong.
After explaining what the situation, he helped me search through the school and I found it in the auditorium 15 minutes later. But I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach as I made a mad dash to the bus stop. It was snowing lightly as I exited, but I was flush and sweaty from running when I finally reached it.
5 minutes passed, then 10. I knew then I had missed the bus, and would be late for the lesson. When the next bus finally arrived, 20 minutes had passed, and I was shivering a little. This was in the era before cell phones were common, so I had no way of contacting Mrs. B.
When I finally arrived home, 25 minutes late for the lesson, I expected to see nothing. But Mrs. B, the kind soul that she was, had the engine of her car running and was waiting. We made it to the piano with maybe 20 minutes left in the lesson. I had partially melted snow in my hair, cold fingers, and was partially shivering from the sweat on the back of my neck.
But I opened up my sheet music and nailed that passage, the one that I had been struggling with for weeks. That memory stays with me now, especially when I struggle with this that passage.