on teaching myself to play piano

When my cousins came home on furlough from Japan, I remember watching M sit down at my grandparents’ piano and play from nothing. No sheet music. No chords. The music just flowed through her while I danced around the living room, delighted.

I was a cellist at the time, but not a very good one. It surprises my friends when they learn that I used to play the cello. It’s a fact I pull out at parties for two truths and a lie: I played the cello for ten years. It pairs nicely with: I worked as a bartender one summer (also true).

These days, I rarely pick up my cello except over the holidays when I drag it up the stairs from my parents’ basement so my sister and I can cobble together some of the old duets we used to play at the nursing home on Christmas Day.

There was never any magic in playing the cello for me. Practicing was just another chore like loading the dishwasher—the sooner it was over, the sooner I’d be back to my books. And the kind folks at the nursing home didn’t seem to mind if I was occasionally out of tune.

All my siblings play an instrument, but R has a gift. “She has an ear for it,” my mom would say. Like M, she can sit at the piano and the music flows through her. We all love to listen when R sits down to play—it is magical.

I’ve always wanted to play like her, but I never believed I could do it. I don’t have an ear. I’ve never had lessons. I don’t own a piano. I’ve always been more of a rule follower—I wouldn’t be able to make something up from nothing. I’d probably have to learn some theory… At least, that’s what I told myself.

But friends. In 2020, the world stopped. The goals I was working towards, the activities that filled my calendar—everything—came crashing to a halt. And when January 2021 rolled around and the world was still quiet, I thought, “I have a key to the church and it is always empty. My friend Ben is teaching himself to juggle this year. Surely, I could teach myself to play a little piano.”

So…I started driving to church two or three nights a week. I’d let myself in with the key that I brought to Africa and back. I’d light the candle of the presence on the days when it had burned down to nothing, and I’d sit at the piano and stumble through the chord sheets that I printed off at work, googling the chords I didn’t know.

The music doesn’t flow out of me. I can’t make things up from nothing, but I’ve learned to improvise from my chord sheets (thanks for the pointers, Kate). I started the year with taize, then gradually moved through early 2000s CCM, before a long stint with Taylor. My younger self would probably (*definitely) judge me for playing so much Taylor, and all I’ve got to say to her is this: I experience my freedom in Christ when I play Taylor Swift 🙂

I’ve been keeping a video log to track my progress on insta, but I’ve pulled a few of the videos here—not because they’re anything spectacular (far from it), but because they give me joy. 

I don’t have a big takeaway or final thought. I just wanted to write about something that gives me joy instead of something that makes me angry or sad. Learning to play the piano gives me joy. In a year of intense pain and sadness, I’m grateful for this grace.

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