How to Rock and Roll

I used to watch people play piano and think “I wish I could do that.” I used to classify playing piano as a renowned “visible talent” unlike any that I possessed myself. All of my talents — computers, writing, whatever — were invisible. Nobody could see what I was good at the way that everyone saw musicians.

I lived with these thoughts for a long time. Still, I had a strange attraction to the piano. I can’t quite explain it, but I’m not the only person who has this fascination: If you place a piano somewhere and leave it unattended, people can’t help but go to it and press its keys.

Time would pass and I’d keep being reminded of this attraction. “I wish I could play piano, I wish I could play piano,” I’d think. And then I’d watch someone play something awesome and be disappointed how I never got the opportunity to play when I was a child. I’d start feeling envious about the opportunities that the musician must have had in order to know how to do what they do, and feel irritated how I’d never get to have those same opportunities.

Eventually I stopped wishing, and started doing.

In 2005 I got my first keyboard: A “Miracle Piano System” that interfaced with a computer. It would connect to my PC through the parallel port, and sync up the notes I was playing with the Miracle Piano Learning Software. It taught you music by indicating which piano keys were the correct notes to play. I learned a few Christmas songs this way, all of them extremely simple.

In 2007 I took my first real, in-person lesson. I met a woman who called herself “Piano Jane” after seeing her ad on Craigslist. She sat me down at her dust-covered piano in her smoky home. She tried to have me play the notes corresponding to the sheet music she picked out for me, but since I never learned to read sheet music before I was all thumbs. She kept trying to cram musical theory into my head as I sat there, anxious to play but failing at it. She’d constantly be asking “Is that clear?” I’d nod and she’d laugh, saying “Clear as mud?” I felt like I was throwing my money away so I quit.

In 2009 I felt the urge to try again. I traded up my instrument, replacing my 59-key Miracle Piano System keyboard with crackling speakers for a lightly-used 88-key Yamaha DGX-500 Portable Grand. I found a local instructor who taught piano using the “Simply Music” method. I’d describe it as a method for learning songs quickly, by skipping the theory and focusing instead on key fingering and memorization. The analogy for Simply Music is that you learn to speak before you learn to read — so the same can apply to music: learn to play before you learn to read sheet music. I learned many different songs this way, all of them about 30 seconds long.

In 2011 I had moved away from my Simply Music instructor, and needed to find a different local instructor. It had been many years in pursuit of this piano-playing goal, and I finally accepted the fact that I would never be able to learn everything that I wanted to play without learning to read music. The idea of having to memorize everything individually, instead of investing the effort to learn the language seemed like a shortcut. Maybe I was skipping ahead so I could play songs faster, but really I was only hurting my progress.

I found a new instructor through a website called I’m not sure if all of their instructors are as helpful as mine is, but in six months I’ve gone from barely being able to read music at all, to practically sight-reading pieces the first time I’m seeing them. When I first signed up, the website asked me to name three songs that I wanted to learn. I chose “Moonlight Sonata,” “Come Sail Away,” and “Lady Madonna.” I remember thinking that all of those songs seemed impossible to me at the time.

It’s been only half a year and I’ve already mastered all three songs. Lady Madonna was the last of the three, and I love its Jazzy feel:

For me, long-term goals like this have always been the most challenging. You want to start off running, but you need to learn how to crawl, and then how to walk, before you can build up to a run. Although I’m not a master pianist, I’m really proud of what I’ve accomplished. I like looking back on my older videos so that I can really witness my progress.

We all start as beginners when we try learning something new. Sometimes we give up too easily. Sometimes we give up, but the passion inside of us makes us try again after the fact. It’s never too late to do something you’re interested in doing. So long as you’re interested, and have the drive and determination, you can succeed at everything.

Eventually, I’d like to build a repertoire of songs that add up to about 30-45 minutes. Then I’d like to go play them in public. My motivation for doing this is actually repayment for the generosity of another piano player. When Cassie was diagnosed with cancer in 2009, I spent a lot of time in the hospital with her. She’d frequently fall asleep, and instead of just watching her I’d wander the halls of Beaumont, worrying.

I’d buy a cup of coffee, sit down on a chair in the lobby, and watch people come and go. I’d wonder how long it’d be before she’d wake up and call me to ask where I was. I’d wonder what day it was, and how many hours I’d spent there at her side never knowing what tomorrow would bring. I’d drive 30 minutes home around midnight, turn the TV on, and fall asleep on the sofa — always afraid of getting sad if I dared to sleep in the bed without her. I’d wake up basically restless, go to work, go to the hospital once I got off and repeat it all over again.

My entire time there was a big blur, 9 months of sleeplessness and worrying. What helped me get through it, was how every Monday evening a man would come play the piano in the lobby. I was so grateful for that, if and only if he was distracting me for a short while, allowing me to think about something other than cancer. Thanks a lot for that, it really helped.

I never talked to him. I should have. Instead I’d just watch him lock up the piano, return the key to the women at the lobby desk and say “See you next week.” The sign on the piano said “Played by volunteers,” and eventually I’ll be back there, ask for the key myself, and return the favor. I’ve already got three songs, totaling over 15 minutes. In another six months, I should be ready.

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4 Responses to “How to Rock and Roll”

#1 Cassie on 16, Sep, 2011 at 9:56 pm

Thanks for the sweet words. I know you don’t like thinking about that time when I was in the hospital and how worried you felt. But we made it through and I love you. I think this is definitely the best video of your piano playing skills yet!

#2 Ryan on 16, Sep, 2011 at 11:09 pm

Shaun, glad to see you’re posting on a regular basis. I’ve followed your blog for a while now and hope you continue to post regularly. You always manage to write something I can relate to. Keep up w/ playing the piano – it pretty good from what I’ve heard. Thought I’d share 2 piano songs I quite like both by Ludovico Einaudi – one is called Nightbook and the other is Giorni Dispari.

#3 Shaun Boyd on 17, Sep, 2011 at 1:10 am

Thanks babe. You’re right, I don’t think about that time very much cause it hurts to remember — but that anonymous piano man needed to be mentioned. He’s part of my motivation for learning more songs.

I’ve never heard of the artist, but the pieces you linked were just beautiful. Thanks!

#4 Jerry Lopper on 18, Sep, 2011 at 8:37 am

The great lesson is: It’s never too late. Way to go!

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