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How I taught myself to read music and play the piano (and what it taught me)

How to buy your first acoustic piano
(Image credit: Future)

The first time I sat down to try to play a piano, I was five months past my 40th birthday. It was a five-octave Yamaha beginner keyboard with a Bossa Nova setting and basically no dynamics, and I had no idea what I was doing.

I couldn’t read music, but from looking at the (low-ish) amount of notes on the page for Ramin Djawadi’s cover version of No Surprises, I thought it looked pretty manageable. It very much wasn’t. 

I was staying at my dad’s house, helping to look after him during a serious bout of illness. My dad loved music, and acquired instruments like a magpie - but couldn’t really play anything apart from the guitar, and definitely didn’t have any formal training.

By the time I moved back in, he’d somehow acquired an old accordion (half of the buttons stuck), and a beautiful full-sized double bass that he’d learned a few notes on by ear. He had a beginner violin, and eight guitars, all strung left-handed. And a very dusty keyboard. 

I’d always sort of wanted to learn piano. I messed around with guitar as a teenager, but I didn’t want to be a play-and-sing guy, and anyway, it sort of amazed me that there was one instrument that had such a versatile sound (the bit in Groundhog Day where Bill Murray plays a ferocious boogie-woogie and then slides seamlessly into Rachmaninoff variations was a big influence).

I’ve always been amazed when someone can sit down at the public pianos in St Pancras station and knock out some anime music, or a cover version of Dancing Queen, and entertain a crowd of people who are grumpy that the Eurostar’s late. Probably now or never, I decided. 

After a few weeks I realised that endlessly rewinding and rewatching a video isn’t nearly as efficient as looking at the sheets, assuming you can already read the notes.

I couldn’t get a teacher, obviously, because I had to grab practice time in the odd moments when my dad was resting and I didn’t have work to catch up on. Instead, I started with YouTube, picking my way through Andrew Furmancyzk’s beginner lessons on scales and trying to brute-force No Surprises by watching other people do it.

Early on, watching these play-along style videos seemed like the obvious way to get better quickly - I’m good at Guitar Hero! You just have to copy the keys! - but after a few weeks I realised that endlessly rewinding and rewatching a video isn’t nearly as efficient as looking at the sheets, assuming you can already read the notes. 

I couldn’t read music at all, but I jumped in headfirst, spending hours squinting at (then) complicated runs and chords before my wife, who played trumpet throughout her teens and 20s, took one look at what I was banging my head against, explained fairly gently that it was ridiculous, and bought me Albert’s Basic Piano Course Book 1, which turned out to be one of the books that every piano forum recommends.

I promised myself I’d do ten minutes of scales and chords and one lesson from Alfred’s every day, before I’d try the hard stuff. I wrote down the list of songs I really wanted to be able to play to stay focused: Maxence Cyrin’s cover of the Pixies’ Where Is My Mind, Für Elise and (it says in the Goals bit of my notebook) ‘A Britney Spears medley’ – but I mostly stuck to the practice. 

Piano is hard, and weird. Hand independence is definitely the hardest bit: at first, playing different rhythms with your two hands feels impossible, literally impossible, like everyone else you’ve seen doing it has some sort of special gift or trick that you are simply incapable of learning.

The answer, I found, was to slow it all the way down, pick it apart until it’s not even recognisable as music any more, do it every day, and then build it up again. Or, you play a bassline with your left hand so many times you can do it automatically, and then you only have to worry about the right (this is how I learned the first chunk of No Surprises). 

Quite often, the trick is just to practice consistently and then give your brain time to catch up: sometimes I’d take a day or a week off, and something I was working on just clunked into place so perfectly it seemed like the most natural thing in the world. Then I’d find another, harder thing, and go through the whole thing again.

It gets easier after a while, because even if the I-just-can’t-do-this feeling comes back occasionally, you know that it’s an illusion: you’ve learned an impossible-seeming thing before, and the process will definitely work again. 

My dad died in October, four months after we knew anything was wrong with him, three months after I started piano. I had a few days off, obviously. When things calmed down, I started again.

A nice thing about learning piano as an adult as opposed to a kid (I’m assuming) is that you don’t have to practice, you get to practice: it’s something you can cut out the noise to do for 10, 15, or 25 minutes at a time, instead of staring at a screen or worrying about everything else that’s going on in the world.

When I play now, I occasionally remember that I’m doing something my dad saw me start, something I think he’d have liked to do himself, and something he was really happy I decided to do. 

I’ve been playing for almost three years now. I can play everything on my old Goals List, at least well enough to bash out on the St Pancras piano when the crowd isn’t too intimidating, and I’ve moved onto harder stuff: Rondo Alla Turca and Maple Leaf Rag are right at the top of my notebook.

I should probably get some lessons from a professional at some point: I’m not sure my technique is efficient enough to let me move up to really fast pieces, and I definitely use the sustain pedal too much. But I’ve learned to love music in a completely different way from the appreciation I gave it in my teens: the arpeggios and four-note chords in, say, John Williams’ Jurassic Park Theme never stop being incredible. 

I’ll always remember, I hope, when I look at a sheet of music, that once I couldn’t read it, let alone hope to make my fingers play it, and that the only things that changed that were time and effort.

And to anyone reading this who, like dozens of people who’ve got in touch via my YouTube channel, thinks it’s too late to learn, I’d say: it’s never too late. Start today. 

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