I taught myself piano


I spent most of my childhood creative time on music.  We moved my grandma’s old upright piano to our house around the time that we moved to Portland—I was about seven—and so not a day went by without at least one refrain of Chopsticks.  And Heart and Soul!  My older older sister would play the lower part, and I would play the upper part.  One day I stumbled unknowing into Baroque territory by playing an inversion of the normal melody.  My sister was impressed; I remember feeling pretty proud about that.

I started working more seriously at the piano over the next few years.  I never took lessons—my parents suggested it a couple times but didn’t push—and so it was very weird, sloppy, non-technical learning, but I improved steadily.  I have a very strong ear for music, it turns out.

Eventully, Chopsticks gave way to Fur Elise, and I was playing both hands of Heart and Soul—though with little precision, in either case.  I’d say “I refused to drill”, but there wasn’t even any compulsion to do so.  I simply did not do it.  There are times I regret that—twenty years later, I’m playing keyboard in a rock band and having a good time but feeling really limited in some of the more technical aspects.  I’m compensating for precision with scads and scads of enthusiasm, at this point.

I took school band grades 5 through 8; I had wanted to play the saxaphone, but our family owned a clarinet and so I played clarinet.  I never got that into it—I didn’t understand it at the time or have a way to express it, but I really get off on polyphony, on harmony and texture, and I couldn’t create that on a clarinet, one note at a time.  Being in band forced me to learn to read music a little, but my good ear was a crutch—I’d have read the music until I could play it by ear. 

By late in middle school, I had lost a lot of whatever enthusiasm I had for the band experience and started to experiment—I would, increasingly, ignore the music and play instead whichever part of the current piece I liked the sound of.  The sax part for these 12 bars, then over to the trombones, and then some trumpet, then back to a particularly interesting clarinet A part.  (I spent most of my time in B row because I wasn’t competitive enough to fight into A, and because my jackass band friends were in B section as well.)  No one ever complained—I got occasional impatient looks from the band instructor, but I’m not sure he knew how to complain about me playing someone else’s part in time and on key, when we had bigger problems.

It wasn’t until college that I took some theory classes and discovered that there was an elaborate established language for all the musical tools I’d built up in my head.  I remember in elementary school someone suggested that I play the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles theme on the piano, and I struggled to figure it out on the fly but couldn’t get it—now, with a much more developed sense of musical analysis, it’d probably be cake, but at the time I didn’t even know what it was that I didn’t know, just that it was hard to figure that TMNT theme out.

The stubborn, lazy, self-righteous way I learned music while refusing to take instruction runs parallel to my graphic art self-education.  I’ve learned my lesson with music—I’m much more attentive and interested in the things I can learn from others, these days—and I’m trying to be similarly keen on the drawing side.  I want to observe and understand and learn, dammit.  I just have to be willing to do it.

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