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What I’ve learned from taking piano lessons as an adult

by Andrea Swensson

November 19, 2014

It was about three years ago now that I decided with absolute certainty that my home would not be complete without the addition of a piano.

It had been years since I’d played regularly, and almost a decade had passed since a college music professor had treated me with such disdain that I swore I would never touch the instrument again (that’s a story for another time), but after warming up to the idea for a while I found myself in the back of a piano shop hovering over a beat-up old baby grand slathered with matte black paint. The shopkeeper seemed surprised that I was even interested in the old gal—someone had clearly traded it in for one of the shiny, brand-new $30,000 Yamahas at the front of his shop—but as soon as I pressed my fingers onto its dusty white keys and heard its rich, deep tones emanate out into the room, I knew immediately that it was mine.

I watched with a childlike wonder as two hulking men brought the piano through my front door, tilting it sideways to squeeze through the entrance, then attaching its legs and setting it upright like it was some kind of weightless little toy. The whole process took less than five minutes, which I was grateful for because I was eager to be alone with the new piano. It had instantly become the centerpiece of my home, and whether I was ready for it or not, piano was back at the center of my life.

When I pulled out my old sheet music and started to play, I noticed two things immediately: Not only was I incredibly rusty, tripping over scales and runs that I used to play perfectly, but just the process of sitting down at the piano bench and trying to play filled me with such an intense anxiety and dread that I could barely manage to get through a song. My classical training was constricting me and pressing up under my ribcage like a corset, reminding me of all of the ways that I had failed and would likely fail again.

I knew it was going to take something extreme to help me wrestle myself out from underneath all these old fears and look at the instrument in a fresh way. So I decided to put all the classical sheet music back in the closet and find a teacher who could show me how to study, appreciate, and play jazz.

For the past two and a half years I’ve spent every other Wednesday night with Bryan Nichols, one of the most gifted and well-versed jazz piano players in the Twin Cities. I’m still not sure how I convinced him to give me lessons. But just as I hoped, the whole experience has opened me up to a new way of listening to and playing music—with a few unexpected life lessons thrown in along the way.

1. It’s never too late to pick it up again

One of my biggest fears in returning to playing music was that I would have to start over from scratch—which, for me, would mean erasing a decade of lessons I'd absorbed throughout my childhood and adolescence and going back to the very beginning. Thankfully, a lot of what I’d learned came back to me quickly. There were a few times when Bryan would say words like “mixolydian scale” or “dominant chord” and I would stare at him like an infant who was just asked to point at their nose for the first time. But as soon as he would explain it, it would jog my memory and we’d be on our way.

Another thing that I didn’t expect was that studying jazz would require me to learn a whole new vocabulary and deepen my understanding of music theory, and there were moments where the learning curve felt steeper than I remembered. But, much like learning a new language or picking up any other new skill, it just required a little patience and repetition and practice for it to wedge itself into my brain.

2. When you feel like giving up, it probably means you’re on the verge of a breakthrough

This was one of the most surprising lessons for me, and one of the most rewarding. There have been numerous times over the past two years when the old feelings of anxiety and dread crept up and tried to smack me right off the piano bench. In the beginning, especially, it pained me to play songs so slowly and imperfectly—to be a novice at something that I once regarded as my strongest skill—and it felt foolish to put so much effort into something that sounded so terrible.

This is just a hobby, I would remind myself. I can quit at any time. In fact, no one would even care if you quit! Why don’t you quit now, you big quitter.

But then something would click. After weeks of practicing rootless voicings—a positively tedious task because I only seemed to be able to master the concept through rote repetition—all of a sudden I would make it through a song without second-guessing myself and it would actually sound pretty good. Or I would spend two weeks laboring over a chord progression only to have it suddenly lock in when I played it at my lesson. And those moments would feel so good. One time I was actually so delighted that I pulled off a new idea that I immediately stopped playing and applauded myself. It was embarrassing, but also amazing.

3. Use your voice

One of the biggest challenges I’ve come up against so far is learning how to let go and just improvise—which, in my lessons, entails playing made-up notes and melodies over a pre-determined chord progression. After so many years of relying on sheet music to guide me, this was a positively terrifying concept to grasp. You mean, I can just play… anything?

At first, the idea of improvising was so terrifying to me that I would black out while I was doing it and come back to reality when it was over. I would have no recollection of what I had played or how I could improve upon it. I only knew that I did it, I survived, and that it thankfully had come to an end.

In the earliest days of my jazz lessons my teacher would get up and move to the next room when I was improvising, which helped immensely, and then would come back to discuss what I’d done. After a while, I started not just surviving the improvising but actually enjoying it a little bit, and when my teacher would come back in the room he would point out specific things I’d played or melodies I’d tried to shape. Even the way he described the improvising—”You had an interesting idea there”—helped me to realize that the things I was playing were, in fact, mine, and that the things I was playing weren’t just notes but were actually a way for me to try to express myself.

I think about the concept of voice when I write words, too. At this point writing has become so second-nature that there isn’t even a pause between a thought as it enters my brain and the moment my keys bang it out on the computer—and when I’m really feeling inspired and the words are flowing, it does feel like I’m tapping into my “voice” on an almost subconscious level. In piano, I’ve had moments where this feels true as well—when I’ve mastered all the progressions and am able to think a few steps ahead of myself, I can play the ideas at the moment they are formed in my mind. In both cases, it’s almost like my fingers are merely operating as transcribers for ideas coming from deep within my brain. And in both cases, those moments of inspiration and connection with my subconscious feel precious, and fleeting.

4. You can’t move forward without tension, and all tension must eventually be resolved

As part of my lessons I’m currently in the process of composing my first original jazz piece, which has been so challenging and fun. Much like with writing words, it feels like a way to crack open all the things I’ve learned so far and examine the concept of a jazz standard from the inside-out. And one of the hardest parts about composing has been to set aside all the ideas that I know are technically “right,” with all those perfect chords corresponding with those perfect notes, in order to develop something truly unique and interesting.

As a human and specifically as a Minnesotan, I think I was born with a deep desire to avoid and deflect tension at all costs. And this has definitely seeped into the way I approach making music, along with wanting to be perfect, perfect, perfect all the time. But one of the fundamental components of jazz is that building tension—playing notes that sound wrong, playing chords that leave the listener in suspense and feel unresolved—can be a beautiful thing. In fact, you can’t really develop a melody without it.

And there’s nothing quite so beautiful as a melody ringing pure and true after a build up of a lot of dissonance and agony; my favorite part of my new song is the moment when a big fat major chord rings out after eight bars of rumbling and disarray. What a relief it is not just to survive playing music, but to take control of it and steer it somewhere. I’m already looking forward to writing my second song.


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This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.