Music lessons

Since moving to San Francisco, I’ve gotten back into playing piano.  Partly it’s because I have more time, but it’s also a good break from writing.

I took lessons from the second grade through the end of high school.  I could play fairly well but hit a wall with Chopin, Gershwin, and Joplin.  Plus I never felt like I had a natural talent.  My sense of rhythm was never great, and I couldn’t carry a tune with my voice, that’s for sure.

When I first started playing again here in SF, I mostly played easy classical songs from the book MB had gotten himself.  They sounded nice but didn’t take too much effort.  Some were pieces I had played before, or which I learned quickly because they’re so easy.

Then around November, I decided to tackle Joplin again.  As a kid, I had played an easy version of “Maple Leaf Rag.”  Wholly unsatisfying.  When I started playing the original, I understood why my teacher had given that to me.

The original was HARD. For the longest time, I tried to learn it by sight reading it, over and over.  That was okay for the first two pages, but the third page was a bitch.  Finally, I tried MB’s technique: break the pages into measures, and learn the song one measure at a time.

Each day I’d tackle one small section.  I’d play a measure over and over, working my way backwards, so that I wasn’t playing the beginning again and again.  It took forever.  I’d be working out maybe four or five measures, and look up to see that 30 minutes had passed.  But it worked.  All that repetition helped me learn the notes and gave me the muscle memory.

Now that I had the notes down, I needed to learn the rhythm.  With classical, what you see is what you get.  But if you don’t play jazz correctly, it sounds stiff.  I was following the notes but couldn’t hear the song.

It took listening to a recording, as well as MB listening as I played.  He could hear the melody, then would hum it back to me.  Now I can play “Maple Leaf Rag” much better than I did back in the fall.  It’s still not perfect, especially that damned third page, but it’s much improved.

MB got me a swing practice book.  I learned “Rosetta” using MB’s method, and could hear the song somewhat but knew that I didn’t quite have it.  Yesterday, I finally listened to the accompanying CD.

Whoa, was I way off!  The way I played sounded almost nothing like the real song.  The real song is fast and fun and well, jazzy.  The way I play is slow and plodding, like a funeral march.  So I listened to the recording a couple of times, and played along with it.  Now it sounds like a damned song, even if a lot of the notes are wrong.

In a way, it’s like with writing.  I can stare at pages of words over and over, but still “hear” the same thing.  I need to throw the piece into a different editor, or read it aloud.  Then suddenly I hear whatever song there is trying to some out.  Sometimes, at least.


  1. Writing is jazz. If you go classical, it’s all fubar.

  2. Oh, and I know since I played both classical and jazz trumpet for almost 10 years.

  3. i’ve been thinking of taking up music again…i too, played the piano (from 3rd grade until the 11th). liam’s been encouraging me to learn guitar, which i’m curious about, i admit… but i often feel like i should return to the ivories…