My best friend in elementary school was a wizard on the piano. At the tender age of 8 years old, she could execute complex classical pieces with the precision of a musically inclined robot. Everyone was deeply impressed by her talent, so eventually I became jealous. I told my mom that I needed to learn piano, and she agreed to sign me up for lessons.
She hired Mr. Norris, an aging classical pianist who spoke with an impassioned, booming voice and drove the same Toyota Sienna that my family did. He would come to our house once a week and sit with me for an hour. I was excited to immediately start playing the scores of my favorite movies, memorize the melodies of songs I heard on the radio and bust out Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 5” at a moment’s notice.
Imagine my surprise when I was told I had to learn scales first.
Because I wasn’t immediately learning what I wanted to play, I wasn’t interested. I didn’t pay attention at all for the first two months of lessons. Apparently, during that period he taught me how to read music, and I missed all of it.
I never learned how the black dots on the pages in front of me related to the white keys at my fingertips. I knew forte meant loud and that piano meant soft, but that was about it. Unfortunately, Mr. Norris assumed I had been listening and proceeded to advance me.
The music got harder and harder. I was too shy and embarrassed to admit to Mr. Norris that I had no idea whether that note was an A or a G or a W or what in the world a crescendo was. I was so shy, in fact, that I had a very unique way of avoiding his questions.
I pretended to be completely mute.
I never spoke once during our lessons. Every time he asked me about the piece I was learning, I responded with five seconds of absolute silence until he would just give me the answer. I learned pieces by watching him play them for me; I would memorize exactly where his fingers went, and then I would replicate it.
Using this method, I learned to play piano. I could perform Bach’s “Toccata in D minor,” Mozart’s “Fur Elise,” and Evanescence’s “My Immortal.” Not a single person had any idea that the notes meant absolutely nothing to me. I even memorized when in the song I was supposed to turn the page, so it would look like I was actually reading the sheet music.
Memorizing-by-watching is actually sort of impressive if you think about it, but at the time, it was just really, really boring. When my best friend the piano wizard quit piano to focus on tennis lessons, I began to lose sight of why I was expending so much energy on faking talent when I could be lazing around playing “Zoo Tycoon” on my desktop. So I told mom that I wanted to quit, and she begrudgingly allowed it.
But my journey with music lessons wasn’t over. In middle school, I took beginning band. I chose the clarinet, because Squidward played it. This time around, I actually paid attention, and my teacher showed me how to read sheet music. I performed in dozens of recitals, worked my way into the jazz band and learned the song Penelope Cruz dances to with Johnny Depp in “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.”
When I went back to the piano, everything finally made sense. I could now work my way through melodies by looking at the notes. It was a thrilling development, but it also occurred to me how I had squandered all those years of training.
I imagine what might’ve been had I properly learned how to play. One reason I regret it is that playing an instrument is a classic turn-on, and I might’ve seduced a partner with my sexy talent had I learned to play Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles.” Nobody who can play “Clocks” by Coldplay on the piano has ever been single, not even for a moment. Maybe I can blame the state of my sex life on me not paying attention to Mr. Norris’s explanation of staccato.
But I also realized that had I been willing to put in the foundational work, I could’ve been a piano superstar. Not only had I allowed the window of learning to pass me by, I also hadn’t even bothered to tell Mr. Norris to slow down or go back. Faking my way through it was easier than admitting I had made a mistake.
Still, my piano experience wasn’t a total bust; I can still play “My Immortal” when I’m trying to show off. That’s definitely worth four years of lessons.
Shannon O’Hara writes the Thursday arts & entertainment column on growing up through entertainment. Contact her at [email protected].