From the Braver Institute
Long ago I made it a personal policy to learn something new every day. I have often said that the day I don’t learn something new will be the day I die. Upon learning something new I frequently say something to the effect of having pushed death off at least one more day.
Aside from school, there are few things that have been taught to me in my life. Most things I have learned from experience.
I always wished that I could read and play music, but it was something I never learned. I did take guitar lessons when I was a kid and I did teach myself to play the drums well enough to hold the rhythm together for a couple of garage bands (and one country band but we won’t talk about that). I own a couple of guitars and even though I would frequently noodle away on them, I didn’t really know what I was doing since I had no clue about music and the way it all worked. Music was a language as foreign to me as Greek.
I decided that it was time to change all of that.
I had long heard that the best instrument to learn is the piano. The piano is like the gateway drug in the world of music—once you learn to play it you’re on the path to other musical instruments. Why I didn’t take piano lessons as a kid I will never know. Maybe it’s because the piano player is never as cool as the guitar player and the drummer.
I’m beyond needing to be cool now. For the past few months I have been taking piano lessons. It’s not an online course and no, I didn’t buy a keyboard that has light up keys to teach me which ones to push to make a nice sound like some kind of high-tech Magnus Organ (if you are old enough to remember them). I am taking real, live-and-in-person piano lessons from an actual human being.
At my first lesson I was surprised that the first thing I learned was how to play a song. The notes of Amazing Grace transferred from the pages of the piano book to my eyes, then my fingers, then to the piano and finally into the air for all of the world to hear. Sure, it was just the chorus of the song, and it was music in its simplest form, but it was the most music I had ever created by actually reading and playing it. With that first lesson my world grew larger.
At work I mentioned that I was taking piano lessons. One of my co-workers jokingly asked if I was playing Beethoven. I replied yes, in fact I am playing Beethoven. I had just started playing Ode to Joy and was very pleased that when I sat down at the piano and started to play the music on the sheet in front of me, it actually sounded like Ode to Joy.
As my lessons have progressed, so has the complexity of the music I am reading. That’s not to say that what I am playing is complex by any musical measure, but it is very complex relative to my original performance of Amazing Grace. With this ever-expanding complexity, I have begun to realize how playing the piano can help with learning other instruments.
I was at my niece’s home recently, while visiting Marquette. We were in her basement, which is more like a music lab than anything else. There are instruments all over the place—drums, keyboards, guitars, assorted brass instruments, the list goes on and on. The basement is also home to her daughter’s marimba. If you don’t know, a marimba is much like a xylophone except it is the size of a semitrailer. Calling it huge would be a serious insult to the instrument.
While looking the marimba over, my niece made an off-thecuff comment that the marimba is just a piano. She said it like everyone knew that. I didn’t know that, and when I looked back at the marimba, it magically transformed from a table with a bunch of haphazardly arranged blocks of wood to what I could clearly see was a piano keyboard constructed in a different way.
Looking at the marimba in this light I realized that I could play the marimba. I picked up the mallets and proceeded to play the piece I had been working on most recently in my piano lessons. I was no Red Norvo, to be sure, but I was playing a song on the marimba— an instrument that only moments before I had really known nothing at all about.
It would appear that this dog has some trick learning left in him. I must not be too old yet.
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