Learning to play the piano in nine easy years

Joel
Joel van der Veen
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Recently, I found a special invitation in my mailbox. I don’t normally pay much attention to direct mail advertising, but this item merited further investigation.

The black-and-white flier promised that adults of any age could learn to play hundreds of songs by attending a two-hour workshop.

Unlike the traditional method — that is, taking lessons and laboriously studying sheet music — this method works through teaching chords, allowing novices to quickly learn popular songs.

The advertising states that fledgling musicians will soon be able to play the piano with both hands, achieving great results just by practising for a few minutes every day.

Perhaps these claims are accurate. Maybe an afternoon workshop, followed by short daily practices, can turn a complete newbie into Elton John.

But my skepticism prompts me to conclude otherwise — that and my own memories of childhood piano lessons, which I’d characterize as nine years of blood, toil, tears and sweat.

Perhaps I’m embellishing somewhat, but two out of four ain’t bad.

I was almost five when our family acquired its first musical instrument, a Casio keyboard, given as a gift for Christmas 1993.

Many of our relatives enjoyed and appreciated music, but none had distinguished themselves as players. I suspect my parents already knew I wasn’t going to excel at sports or visual art, and were determined to make sure I was at least competent at something extracurricular.

That spring, I began piano lessons with the cheerful Mrs. Micks as my teacher. I was initially nervous, but quickly warmed up to music.

One of my first pieces was Mary Had a Little Lamb, in an arrangement that could be played solely on the black keys and was, inexplicably, divided into two parts. By June, I was deemed ready to play the song at a recital, my first public performance.

As I sat down at the piano that night before a room filled with people, my mother stood nearby, a giant VHS camcorder perched on her shoulder.

Dutifully, I played the first half of the song, then stopped, turned to my mother and raised my hands in a gesture of futility, as if to say, “What now?”

“Play the second part,” she whispered. I did so, and thus began my career as a pianist.

That fall, my teacher’s studio closed, and I switched to a new instructor, the affable Mr. Harbridge, under whom I would study for eight years.

As I continued lessons and my brother and sister followed suit, my parents decided to invest in a real piano. My father set up a schedule so that we could each fit in our morning practices before school.

I began playing in church when I was 11, performing preludes and offertory music and later accompanying the singing of hymns and newer songs. I continued this habit after leaving home and moving to Saskatchewan.

I continued taking lessons into high school, reaching Grade 6 in Conservatory Canada. But whenever someone asks about my musical training, I am quick to credit my parents, for it was they who paid for the lessons, reminded me to practise, and dealt with the tantrums that occasionally ensued.

In fact, I’d say it was more their determination than mine that led to my success in music. And while I may have resented it then, I’m tremendously grateful for it now.

A two-hour piano workshop may be helpful, but I’m not convinced that it could replace years of lessons, practice and hard work — for which, as Thomas Edison once observed, there is no substitute. 

Or to quote my mother, “If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.”

Joel van der Veen can be reached at 691-1256.

Geographic location: Saskatchewan, Conservatory Canada

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